I was born, raised and still live in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. If you know anything about Minnesota, besides that it's incredibly cold 6 months out of the year and some of the people talk like everyone in Fargo, you know that Minnesotans don't really like Wisconsinites. So you can imagine how happy I was when I saw that the zombie remake of Dawn of the Dead was set in Milwaukee Wisconsin. For me, it's like the cinematic equivalent to the Minnesota Vikings beating the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay. I thought it was a nice touch. Oh yeah, the movie. It’s a damn good one, folks.
Dawn of the Dead starts out in a hospital, with an overworked nurse (Polley) finally finishing out her shift. She goes home to her boyfriend where they decide to take a shower together. Nice, eh? But while they're doing that, they miss out on an important news bulletin and they wake up in the morning to a neighborhood girl standing in their doorway, with a funny look in her eyes. The girl attacks the boyfriend, who then attacks the nurse who proceeds to get away in her car, which provides for a very funny part where the boyfriend is running after the car, (See: Robert Patrick in Terminator 2) and cuts his chase short when he finds a new human to eat. Anyway, she escapes, driving through zombie-possessed Milwaukee (God I love how that sounds...sorry) where she runs into a cop (Rhames) and another group of non-zombies who take shelter in an abandoned mall, where they all have to figure out a way to survive.
There are only a few minor things that bugged me about this movie. The main thing that bugged me is that, like almost any other zombie movie out there, they never explain how the zombiefication of humans comes to be. But this movie actually goes a little farther than most, though. In the beginning of the movie they have government officials on television trying to explain the zombie phenomena. Of course, they can't explain it, but at least they made an effort in the movie, to show how widespread the zombies were. But still...how did this happen? Undercooked steak? A bad batch of Budweiser? Some bad cheese? (O.K. Last Wisconsin joke, I swear...). They could've set this movie apart by just giving us a very minor explanation of how this all happened.
The only other thing that bothered me goes along with the first part, and that is this movie is really no different, as a whole, from any other zombie movie out there. The same kinds of things happen to the same kinds of characters in this movie that is no different then any other zombie flick. You can see a lot of the stuff coming here, but the good news is, you don't really notice this because of the slick direction and amazing action.
The acting here won't win any awards (well, maybe some Saturn Awards), but there are some pretty solid performances from this diverse cast. Sarah Polley turns in a nice performance as the "leader" of the group, Ana, Ving Rhames gives yet another stellar performance as the cop Kenneth, Jake Weber gives a very nice performance as another "leader" figure, Michael and Mekhi Phifer gives a nice performance as the militant Andre. But the best performance comes from Michael Kelly as C.J., the mall security guard with an attitude. Kelly has barely any screen credits to his name, his most noteworthy role being Andy Kaufman's brother in Man on the Moon, but he turns in a great performance here. He has some nice range, and he has just the perfect look for this part.
What is probably the most surprising thing about this movie is that this is a damn good movie and yet it was written by the same guy who wrote Scooby-Doo (and the sequel) and it was directed by a first-time helmer. While the script doesn't exactly set itself apart from other zombie movies, it is nicely written with some great bits of humor, including some great bits with Rhames and Bruce Bohne, who plays Andy, a man trapped on a roof across the street from the mall. There are some very inventive bits here, with how they pass their time, including chess and some creative sharp-shooting. I recognized the writer's name, James Gunn, on the opening credits and I was a tad worried when I remembered that he wrote Scooby-Doo. But Gunn can write for the big kids too, with some nice dialogue, humor and a nice touch on the ending as well. Make sure you stay for the end credits, by the way.
Director Zack Snyder makes a great film debut here. There is some great action, including one of the coolest single shot I've seen, where the camera follows Ana's car overhead and, out of nowhere, this van just slams into a car and explodes. It looked like one of those Worlds Wildest Police Chase shows, and it was super-cool. His work doesn't look like it's the work of a first-time director. It is just a wonderful job, overall, by Snyder.
Dawn of the Dead is a movie about...umm, zombies, and stuff. Don't look for a deep message or any examination of society here. The filmmakers here know this is just entertainment and they don't try to mask it as anything else. This is a popcorn movie at it's best, folks, and one that you shouldn't miss...even if you are from Wisconsin.
Dawn Of The Dead is out March 19, 2004.