Dawn of the Dead

While George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) still holds up today as a stark, frightening monster-movie masterpiece, his 1978 follow-up “Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t earn much love from me. It has a number of wonderfully shocking moments, but they flounder in a 127-minute sea of ham-fisted social commentary.

The new remake, though: Now HERE’S a zombie movie! Fresh, witty, scary and thrilling, it gives hard-core horror fans ample opportunity to see the flesh-eating and mayhem they love so much, without forcing the more casual viewer to wallow in non-stop gore. Movies like this sometimes get so oppressively murderous that they turn loathsome; this one is just plain fun.

It employs the same basic situation as the original — suburbanites barricade themselves in a shopping mall to defend against the undead — but forgoes the social commentary and aims instead for a straight-ahead Us vs. Them plot, with some genuinely horrific material leading up to the mall standoff. The film’s pre-titles prologues, in which a nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley) barely escapes from her tract-home neighborhood as all around her is chaos, is utterly terrifying in its apocalyptic madness. Houses are on fire; people run through the streets, chased by the animal-like zombies; ambulances and police cars speed around frantically and uselessly. It is anarchy at its most chilling.

She eventually connects with Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a police officer whose brother is stranded somewhere out in the madness; Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his very pregnant girlfriend Luda (Inna Korobkina); and Michael (Jake Weber), a decent family man who provides the film’s moral center. He stands in particular contrast to the mall security guards who have already claimed the site as their haven. They go from good Terry (Kevin Zegers) to bad Bart (Michael Barry) to worst CJ (Michael Kelly), and it’s soon obvious which ones are most worthy of zombie-induced death.

Thanks to quick thinking on the part of a truck driver, more refugees soon arrive, several of whose fates are ill. This may be the film’s most useful improvement on its predecessor: More characters means more possibilities. With a dozen people holed up in the mall, and with ravenous zombies crowding the exterior and occasionally gaining access, there is a greater chance for victims (who of course become zombies themselves as soon as they die) than when there are only four people.

The original got away with being part of a relatively small genre; nowadays, audiences have seen it all before and expect something new. Gone are the slow, cow-like zombies of yesteryear, who were fearsome indeed if they caught you, but who were easy to evade. The 2004 models move as swiftly as their living counterparts, snarl and growl rather than moan, and behave with startling viciousness. They pose an imminent threat to the living, not just a theoretical one.

First-time director Zack Snyder (trained, as are so many new directors, doing music videos and TV commercials) and writer James Gunn (who must accept blame for the “Scooby-Doo” movies’ scripts) tell the story with dark humor and a keen perception of what makes a movie like this fun. They indulge in some sloppy character development — Kenneth is ready to go out looking for his brother then precipitously changes his mind; world-class jerk CJ behaves selflessly without provocation — but those stand out more as mild niggles than as full-blown faults.

There is a point where the characters have safely protected themselves from the zombies for the time being but have not yet formulated a long-term plan, and boredom sets in. That is when they hold up signs asking the gun-store owner stranded on his roof across the parking lot to shoot particular members of the zombie congregation who are milling around below — the one who looks like Jay Leno, for example, or the one who looks like Burt Reynolds.

There is also a morbidly funny montage of down-time activities set to the hellish heavy-metal song “Down with the Sickness” — only the song has been re-recorded as a lounge act, the singer blithely crooning about imminent destruction by way of mental disease (“open up your hate and let it flow into me … madness is the gift that has been given to me”).

I like the subtext there. Not only is the song funny when juxtaposed with cheesy jazz music, but it’s the very epitome of insouciance in the face of peril — fiddling while Rome burns, as they say. “Dawn of the Dead” takes its characters’ plight very seriously, and gives us scene after scene of near-misses, direct hits and incredibly tense confrontations with the undead, all conceived and executed with pulse-pounding efficiency. But it also remembers that hey, it’s just a movie. Why not make it fun as well as terrifying?

A- (1 hr., 40 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, brief partial nudity and sexuality, plenty of blood, violence and mayhem.)