- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

Director George A. Romero smuggled some poignant social commentary into his “Dead” horror trilogy, riffing on race relations, violence and consumerism betwixt the bloodletting.

Now, first-time director Zack Snyder is taking his hack at the franchise with “Dawn of the Dead,” a remake of the second film in the trilogy.

In the tradition of his predecessor, Mr. Snyder’s “Dead” trafficks in second-rate spirituality, positioning the undead revolution as an apocalyptic marker. Pretty pretentious, given the film’s B-movie packaging.

Shot in a washed-out color stock, the new “Dead” works best whenever it stops taking itself seriously and lets the black humor run amok.

Sarah Polley (last year’s “My Life Without Me”) stars as Ana, an overworked Wisconsin nurse who wakes up on the “Dawn” in question to find her neighborhood transformed into a living mausoleum. Mr. Snyder engages us with some nifty wide shots and pans to describe the escalating carnage.

Ana soon meets up with a local sheriff (Ving Rhames), as well as other well-armed humans fleeing the undead army. They instinctively high-tail it to the local mall for refuge.

The authorities, seen through hackneyed news reports, are dumbstruck as to why the dead suddenly won’t stay horizontal. The film never offers a lick of science to rationalize any of it, but dead films rarely sweat such details.

The mall setting turns out to be a creative dead end. The survivors can’t escape, leaving them for the bulk of the film flitting about the empty stores or arguing with each other over who should be in charge.

It takes some stupefying plot twists to finally extricate them, wrecking any chance the film had of competing with last year’s superior “28 Days Later.”

“Dead’s” characters represent typical horror movie archetypes, from the pregnant woman representing humanity’s future to Ana’s motherly presence in the face of destruction.

They quickly establish new roles in this world, and when a wiseacre survivor — Ty Burrell, doing his best Chris Eigeman (“Metropolitan”) impersonation — enters the mall, the horror is supplanted by snarky repartee.

“Dead’s” black humor occupies huge chunks of the film. When the survivors first breach the local mall, a Muzac version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” greets them like a chipper restaurant hostess.

Yet other elements of “Dead” should have been lopped off long before the final print, like Mekhi Phifer’s scene in a makeshift delivery room.

Mr. Snyder’s remake does sneak in a few original statements beyond its fire and brimstone rhetoric.

A couple tapes their lovemaking using an abandoned video camera, while another survivor watches his fellow refugees via the mall’s security monitors.

Even at society’s end our voyeurism knows no bounds.

The director also takes pains to build upon Mr. Romero’s suburban swipes, including an aerial shot above Ana’s cookie-cutter housing plan.

“Dead” fans should also watch for a cameo by Tom Savini, Mr. Romero’s trusted makeup guru and the director of the 1990 “Night of the Living Dead” remake.

We’d be remiss to encourage talking during a movie, but “Dawn of the Dead” serves up some choice moments for audience participation. What it rarely provokes are jump-out-of-your-seat frights, and for a horror film that’s a scary condemnation.

**1/2

WHAT: “Dawn of the Dead”

RATING: R (Horror-style violence and gore, coarse language, sexual situations)

CREDITS: Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by James Gunn, based on the 1978 screenplay by George A. Romero. Cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti. Makeup effects by David Anderson

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.dawnofthedeadmovie.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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