"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth," intoned the posters for George A Romero's 1978 Dawn Of The Dead. To which one is tempted to add "And when there are no more original ideas in Hollywood, lazy filmmakers will remake anything for a quick buck." Fortunately, that's not the case with this glossy update of Romero's landmark zombie apocalypse movie, since it's a reverential, souped-up splatterfest that will have the living (and the living dead) howling for more.
Cautiously described by its producers as "a re-envisioning, not a remake," debut director Zack Snyder pares down the original's languorous plot in favour of a rapid action movie aimed at the thrill-seeking MTV generation.
The opening 20 minutes are a model of how to set up a horror movie, as hospital nurse Ana (Polley, excellent) returns home from the nightshift. Oblivious to news reports of civil unrest throughout the city, she goes to bed only to awake to a dawn of the dead. The city is infected with a mysterious plague that turns the newly dead into homicidal maniacs. Banding together with a group of fellow survivors, Ana takes refuge in a suburban mall with ex-marine cop Kenneth (Rhames), street-thug turned family man Andre (Phifer), practical, proactive Michael (Weber) and a handful of other lost souls.
At its best when dealing with the claustrophobic reality of being surrounded by cannibal ghouls, Snyder's film delivers plenty of tense action set-pieces while upgrading the lumbering blue-skinned zombies of the original into living dead, Olympic-standard sprinters who'll stop at nothing to get their hands on human flesh (28 Days Later was clearly an influence).
Refusing to skimp on the gross-out, this Dawn delivers a series of memorable scenes that may have audiences retching, the yuckiest of which is a sequence involving a zombie baby. Definitely not for the squeamish, it's proof that screenwriter James Gunn has yet to throw off the influence of his apprenticeship with schlock merchants Troma Studios - where he penned Tromeo And Juliet before going Hollywood and scripting the two Scooby-Doo movies.
While a string of comedy moments provide some welcome light relief amidst the horror - for instance, the sniper who picks out living dead targets according to their resemblance to celebrities like Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds - one longs for the carefully balanced mix of splatter humour and grim political allegory that Romero perfected. Uninterested in making its zombies into metaphors for American materialism or the mall setting into a comment on consumer culture, this re-envisioning is disappointingly lightweight. "America always sorts its shit out," one character provocatively remarks as the TV shows scenes of army grunts indiscriminately shooting civilians. It's a tantalisingly throwaway line that's never developed by this exciting but ultimately equally throwaway movie.