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Between the living and the dead



One of the strange coincidences in the distribution and marketing of contemporary cinema reveals an irony too bizarre to be invented. The first movie to displace The Passion of the Christ from the top spot in the box office grosses, though somewhat bloodier than Mel Gibson's work and determinedly secular, also confronts the subject of death and resurrection.

            The picture, of course, is The Dawn of the Dead, the remake of the earlier George Romero classic, itself a sequel to his immortal Night of the Living Dead. Its release and its apparent success, virtually side-by-side with The Passion, suggest both the versatility of Hollywood and, shall we say, the catholicity of public taste. The numbers indicate that many of the same people who saw the earlier film, like it or not, must also have attended the opening weekend of Dawn of the Dead.

            Anyone assuming that the success of both movies implies some sort of spiritual awakening in American audiences must also rethink that fond and hopeful notion. Unlike many horror films, the new version of Dawn of the Dead adamantly refuses to engage any of the questions --- including those it shares with The Passion --- its basic premise inspires.

            Dawn belongs in that rather sparsely populated horror subgenre, the zombie flick, a form that deals with the reanimation of the dead. The movie, however, never probes the methods or the meanings of that reanimation, let alone the subject of death itself. Despite its acknowledged connections to George Romero's pioneering work, one of the major differences between this version of Dawn and its predecessors involves its odd distance from any cultural or philosophical context.

            The movie presents its central problem without considering much in the way of cause or effect. The horrible and utterly preposterous concept is that some unknown disease kills people, then allows them to reawaken, energized by some force that drives them to kill and apparently devour the living.

            Nobody knows why the dead awake and pursue the living. Nobody knows quite what to do about the menace, beyond shooting the zombies in the head and burning the corpses.

            Aside from his groundbreaking introduction of cannibalism into the horror film, Romero suggested a contemporary cultural context, which included the Cold War, Vietnam, and racism. He provided some structure of meaning for what could have been simply a steady stream of fright, shock, and disgust. The new movie avoids virtually anything outside of its central subject, the increasingly desperate attempts of a small group of survivors holed up in a Milwaukee shopping mall to escape the burgeoning hordes of ravenous cadavers who besiege their hideout.

            In the first Dawn of the Dead, Romero employed that situation to satirize the consumerism of American society. The dead approached the mall as a way of following the patterns of their previous life, though what they might shop for remains a mystery.

            A few shots in the new film show thousands of zombies massing outside the mall like eager shoppers on Presidents' Day. Except for those, however, the new picture scarcely touches on the subject, choosing instead a predictable and cursory examination of the dynamics of small group functioning among the survivors.

            The massive Ving Rhames, who plays a policeman, for example, takes on the leadership of the group, despite the resistance of a trio of redneck security guards, who later redeem themselves. The gentle negotiator of the group (Jake Weber) discovers reserves of necessary violence within himself. The female protagonist (Sarah Polley) learns to cope with the horror of her husband's death and macabre resurrection, and so forth.

            The movie mostly amounts to the reiterated attempts of the survivors to defend themselves against the increasing menace of the dead and, ultimately, to escape the mall and make their way to some haven in the middle of the lake. That escape, complete with the gory and lovingly detailed destruction of hundreds of zombies through a variety of means, supplies the climactic confrontation of the picture. The film ends with a grainy videotape montage vaguely reminiscent of the ambiguous still photographs that conclude the grand original.

            Just as the cause of the problem remains a mystery, its resolution hints at the despair that Romero also introduced into the contemporary horror flick, a new emotion for a form that traditionally ends with the defeat of the menace.

            The obvious expense of the new film, in contrast to the low-budget brilliance of Night of the Living Dead, should allow its writer and director the opportunity to hint at some larger meanings. Dawn of the Dead, however, steadfastly avoids considering the relationship between the living and the dead, why the living should fear the dead, why the dead should threaten the living in the first place, and maybe even what the dead will do once they've killed everyone and nobody's left to eat. Perhaps that question will motivate the next movie.

Dawn of the Dead (R), starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer; screenplay by James Gunn; based on a screenplay by George Romero; directed by Zack Snyder. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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