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Operation Condor

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Those not turned off by horror movies know that George A. Romero’s “Living Dead” trilogy are some great movies. In addition to the thrills and the scares, there’s some sharp social commentary. A film professor at CU, Bruce Kawin, deconstructed them nicely for one of my classes, explaining how each film defined the decade in which it was created.

He anticipated a Twilight of the Dead to tackle the 90s, but it never came. Now, a new generation of filmmakers has discovered the fertile ground of Romero’s zombie world, and we have Zack Snyder’s freshman film, a remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, giving us an eye into the aughts.

No Room in Hell

Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames have charisma to spare
Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames have charisma to spare

By the time Ana (Sarah Polley) realizes something is wrong, it’s already too late. She left the hospital (she’s a nurse) before it got swamped, and she was too tired to watch the news broadcasts the night before. Her first inkling comes when the neighbor girl shows up inside her house, covered in blood. The poor thing bites her husband in the neck and even with her skills she can’t seem to save him.

But like everyone else bitten by these zombies, he’s not really dead. He rises to feed on the flesh of the living. Ana flees and finds four others who are still alive, and they head for the mall. There, they band together with a few more tenacious survivors and try to figure out what’s going on and what to do next.

Fertile Ground

Romero’s zombie movies are great stories because it doesn’t really matter why there are zombies. The point is to ask what people might do when civilization has collapsed. Without all the amenities — power, water, laws, armies — how might people react.

The story can be re-told every decade because each generation has its own ideas about the nature of humanity. In fact, these movies should be remade every decade, as a sort of zeitgeist meter for future film and culture historians.

With only two days to write about this year’s version, I’m not sure I’ve picked up on everything that went into Dawn of the Dead, but here are some insights into 2004 to get future film professors started:

  • Like many video games, Dawn of the Dead allows characters to shoot people without remorse; it’s an outlet for vicarious violence.
  • When the characters first band together, they get their news sitting on couches watching TV.
  • In the mall, the characters gravitate toward the gourmet coffee stand, called “Common Grounds.”
  • The authority figures at the mall imprison unaccused civilians, citing the national emergency.
  • The definition of “family” is broad enough to include the occasional zombie.
  • And here’s a quote that may shed some light someday: “TV said you gotta shoot em in the head.”

Fun and Funny

Academics aside, Dawn of the Dead is one hell of a fun movie for horror fans. The two lead actors, Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, have charisma to spare. The special effects (some gory, some explosive, some a little bit of both) were impressive enough to draw applause from my audience. We squirmed, jumped, and even laughed in all the right places.

As with the original film, there are some very funny moments. Romero had zombies emulating mallgoers of the 70s, trying out blood pressure machines and trying to look cool on the escalators. Snyder’s version has a more sadistic sense of humor that works best when our heroes communicate via whiteboards and binoculars with another survivor, trapped on the roof of his gun store a block away from the mall

Save the Dog!

Snyder’s version is not without its flaws. There’s an awkwardly “touching” scene in which one of the survivors confesses he was a bad husband but a good father. Another pair of characters are a mother- and father-to-be, and they share some dialogue that is too sincere to work in this context.

The movie also resorts to some cheap tricks. A montage of the heroes “fortifying” the shuttle buses plays like a bad A-Team episode. One sweaty figure welds while another lifts some razor wire into place. A third measures the propane tank and gives it a manly underline with a grease pencil.

Also, a series of events toward the end of the movie feels badly contrived. A dog is involved. Somebody insists on saving the dog, and then somebody else insists on saving the dog-lover. The heroes happen to find an underground tunnel that conveniently leads exactly where they wanted to go.

These nits keep Dawn of the Dead from being as pleasant a surprise as Pitch Black was in 2000. But its energy and ruthlessness make up enough ground to earn the film a recommendation. Let’s hope we see another version this good in another ten years.