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Dawn of the Dead comes back to haunt audiences nearly 26 years later

By AMANDA WALTZ Staff Writer

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“Dawn of the Dead”

Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jack Weber, Mekhi…

“Dawn of the Dead”

Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jack Weber, Mekhi Phifer

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Byham Theater, Downtown

Through March 28

The 1978 George Romero version of “Dawn of the Dead” holds a special place in the hearts of Western Pennsylvanians. Not only was its predecessor, the 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” filmed near Pittsburgh, but “Dawn” itself was filmed in Monroeville Mall. This may be why it’s so hard to judge the remake without referring to the original. It’s like seeing an interesting piece of the area’s history whored off to Hollywood.

Fortunately, the new “Dawn” stands on its own, with a variation on the plot and characters. Not saying that it is without flaws — in fact, the film is riddled with them — but it still offers some worthwhile entertainment.

The film opens in suburban Wisconsin, where Ana (Sarah Polley) comes home from a long day of work nursing bite wounds at the local hospital. The next morning, she wakes up to her family and neighborhood transformed into undead cannibals, intent on feeding on the living. She drives off, only to crash near a fiery, zombie-infested highway and quickly unite with a small batch of fellow survivors. After seeking refuge in a nearby shopping mall, the group waits for a rescue, only to realize that they must either save themselves or wait to die.

The plot outline is fairly similar to the original, but that’s where it ends. The screenplay, which was taken largely from Romero’s draft and reworked by James Gunn — better known for his work with the independent horror studio Troma and the 2002 live-action “Scooby-Doo” — adds a lot of details which would appeal to a new audience. The bumbling, disoriented zombies of the original “Dawn,” for example, are now faster and more animalistic, very much like the rageful menaces of “28 Days Later.” The cinematography and rough, grainy look of “28 Days Later” also appears in this new version, making you question if this isn’t just trying to be the American copy of the 2003 British import.

As in many horror films of this nature, there is a need for some comedy, which “Dawn” provides at a level of silliness. The comedy becomes overwhelming at times though, especially when much of the horror is ruined by misplaced bits of cheesy dialogue and unneeded comic relief. Ving Rhames, for one, appears in his usual badass role, delivering patented one-liners at every turn, while another character, a sarcastic womanizer, pulls the action down with his smarmy, unfunny comments.

Plot and dialogue aside, the new “Dawn” takes advantage of its big budget, with chillingly realistic make-up and special effects. The look of the zombies is revamped with bloody, infected wounds and decomposing flesh, along with the special effects that feature everything from exploding heads to an orgy of car crashes. This alone is enough to satisfy and horrify any viewer.

All around, the film is a worthy effort from first-time director Zack Snyder. Although he still can’t compete with the inventiveness of George Romero, hopefully he and the film’s writer, Gunn, can come up with something of their own, instead of leeching off the ideas of others.

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Dawn of the Dead comes back to haunt audiences nearly 26 years later