Horror is a dead genre. It’s got too many bodies in the back yard, too many skeletons in the closet. Originality, fright and anarchy have given way to soulless corporate greed. It’s a zombified school of film, lurching around cineplexes with a cavernous head and an empty chest. It’s as irrelevant as Panaflexes, the ratings system and Robert DeNiro combined. Nobody has truly scared anybody in a horror movie for years now.
That’s not to say nobody is making good horror films, but they’re hybrids: an action movie (28 Days Later) or a paranoia thriller (Cabin Fever) cloaked in the guise of horror just to attract the mouth-breathing teenagers who still think blood flumes are bitchin’.
Bigger budgets are part of the problem, turning horror movies into mostly potential money-makers, but horror also has lost its subtext. Some of the best were devious social commentaries. Night of the Living Dead was an examination of the Red Scare, playing on the nation’s paranoia with slick satire. George A. Romero’s trilogy of zombie films were overflowing bags of metaphors, poking fun at countless cultural trends while telling stories with all the linear construction of a small intestine. Cabin Fever and 28 Days Later haven’t passed the test of age yet, but both are escapist fun for the age of bioterrorism, exploiting the timeless fear of the unknown.
If you’re following this daisy chain, the next step would be a horror film addressing 9/11 and global terrorism. That seems to be the idea behind the new remake of Dawn of the Dead—the middle film in Romero’s aforementioned trio—because there are just enough ham-handed stabs at a satirical agenda to reveal the profound incompetence of the guys trying to go where much better filmmakers have gone before.
This movie is a bloody mess: It’s confused, profoundly disjointed and unbearably dull for the longest stretches, with embarrassing production values and an overall aimlessness. That same lack of a story worked for Romero, who clearly had something on his mind other than the escape from Zombietown. Director Zack Snyder has no such thoughts in his empty little head.
The nominal protagonist is a nurse played by Sarah Polley, the incredibly arrogant young actor who has disparaged her peers for selling out their craft and their process by taking paycheck roles in Hollywood schlock. I’m sure her personal dramaturg is thrilled to see her running around in blood-covered pajamas and shouting her lines.
She and her husband wake up one morning to find a neighborhood kid at their bedroom door, oozing blood from her mouth and looking kinda pale. The kid bites the husband, who turns on Sarah. She escapes through an increasingly zombified suburb of Milwaukee in a prologue that’s supposed to arrest you with its abrupt realism and nihilistic immediacy. It turns out to be the first lurch in a film that shares Romero’s jerky pacing, but none of his weight or inspiration.
Sarah soon meets up with a cop (Ving Rhames) and three other survivors who find a deserted shopping mall, just as in the original. Three security guards are hiding there, and one of the film’s few successful gags is the unquenchable self-importance of mall cops, particularly the head man (Michael Kelly). The zombies still come to the mall to shop, just as in the original, but a mall no longer qualifies as a target for satirical humor, and the film makes no observations on conspicuous consumption, even by zombies.
And even the zombies are incredibly disappointing. Snyder’s crew does nothing we haven’t seen before, throwing a layer of latex and false teeth on the thousands of extras who crowd the mall parking lot. The living get no more insight into the plight of the undead; they march on, doing almost nothing interesting.
Romero had no time to explain the past or chart the future, and while that made for unsatisfying viewing, it was part of his bigger agenda. The new Dawn of the Dead has all the drawbacks of the original and none of the good stuff. The horror, indeed.
DAWN OF THE DEAD, **, Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Rated R