On the heels of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, the newfangled Dawn Of The Dead streamlines another scrappy horror classic by discarding everything special about it in favor of pure visceral effect. Swarming with zombies on both sides of the camera, the film is unrelentingly relentless, leaving no room for original director George Romero's wry satire on consumerism or his slow-paced, creeping undead. As in 28 Days Later, which at least makes gestures toward social commentary, the zombies are fast and focused, barely pausing to savor "Brains! Brains!" before dashing off to the next fresh kill. Responding only to hot lead, they give first-time director Zack Snyder a chance to test how many subhuman heads can get blown to smithereens before the MPAA issues an NC-17 rating. (Answer: Several dozen and counting.)
Looking lost in the grindhouse, an overqualified Sarah Polley stars as a suburban Milwaukee nurse who wakes to a virus that turns her boyfriend and a neighbor child into flesh-eating savages and converts her cul-de-sac into a zombie apocalypse. Banding together with a few survivors, including tough cop Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer and his pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina), and down-to-earth hunk Jake Weber, Polley and friends hole up at a local mall run by overzealous security guards. During the long standoff with the zombies outside, they devise an escape plan right out of the Clint Eastwood vehicle The Gauntlet while contending with infighting and new infections.
Tasteless and gratuitous enough on its own terms, this Dawn Of The Dead would still be much more palatable had the original never existed. As it stands, the remake is akin to an Animal House knockoff staged at a country retreat and called The Rules Of The Game. Gone are Romero's wickedly funny riffs on malls as consumer utopias; they're replaced by a pack of bickering ninnies, smugly ironic Muzak versions of songs like "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and "All By Myself," and, worst of all, product placements at every turn. With his background in commercials, Snyder was either inured to Romero's point or too concerned with nailing the important technical details, such as overhead shots of propane-tank explosions or the gooey sound of an unborn mutant sloshing around in amniotic fluid. Confusing body count with intensity, the new Dawn Of The Dead could be a metaphor for how little Hollywood values human life, if only it had a brain ripe enough to feast on.