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Friday, Aug. 22, 2008

'Day of the Dead'

Meat is murder


You often hear critics talk about "heartwarming" films. Sometimes, you'll hear them mention "heart-wrenching" flicks. With "Day Of The Dead," we're breaking new ground: This is a "heart-stopping" movie.

Day of the Dead Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
It's behind you!: Mena Suvari in "Day of the Dead" © 2007 DOD PRODUCTIONS INC.

Director: Steve Miner
Running time: 85 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Aug. 22, 2008)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

I'm a pretty jaded movie-goer; I've seen it all, they don't make 'em like they used to, and blah blah blah. The zombie movie, as far as I'm concerned, is owned by director George A. Romero. His black and white "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) pretty much set the rules of the genre (and considerably upped the level of gore), while "Dawn Of The Dead" (1978) remains the absolute classic, mixing dark satire with sheer terror.

Films this perfect don't need remakes, and film snob that I am, I haven't bothered to watch the recent re-dos of either film. I had no intention of seeing the new "Day of the Dead" either, which is a re-make of 1985's last (and arguably weakest) chapter in Romero's "Dead" trilogy. In fact, I only saw the new "Day" by mistake; I thought I was going to see Romero's new film "Diary of the Dead," and was kicking myself when the credits rolled. Since when have remakes been any good?

When, indeed. I love it when a film can prove me wrong, and journeyman director Steve Miner ("Friday the 13th" parts 2 and 3) sure did. Any filmmaker that can make you want to jump out of your seat and yell "behind you!" is definitely doing his job.

Miner mostly jettisons the premise of the original "Day," except for the secret army lab where zombie experiments take place, in favor of updating the film's setting and premise. Just as the original "Night of the Living Dead" cannily played on fears of social chaos (the racially tinged urban riots of the late '60s) and the wartime gore of Vietnam pumped into suburban TVs via newscasts, Miner plays on the very real fears of today, things like killer viruses and biological terrorism.

A National Guard unit is called up to seal off a sleepy Colorado town that's been put under quarantine. The soldiers don't know why, but the viewer will have a pretty good idea. Typical of Bush-era America, the unit seems woefully insufficient to deal with the problem. Capt. Rhodes (Ving Rhames) sets up roadblocks and says nobody gets in or out, but one of his soldiers, Sarah Cross (Mena Suvari, the Lolita character from "American Beauty") is from the town and goes to check on her mother and brother.

Finding her mother deathly ill with a mystery virus, she takes her to the local emergency room. The waiting room is jam-packed full of people coughing, breaking out in sores, and turning greenish; at this point, anyone who's ever seen a zombie film will be absolutely squirming in their seats, imagining how bad it's going to get. It's a similar scenario to Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," but "Day" makes that movie seem like "Dora the Explorer."

The mayhem that erupts, as hundreds of people all go zombie at the same time, is unbelievably fast and ferocious. Romero's zombies were slow and staggering back in the day — fair enough, if you've slept in the earth for a few weeks you can expect a little rigor mortis — but Miner's run full-speed after the warmblooded living like heat-seeking missiles.

It's a trick Danny Boyle pioneered in "28 Days Later," but Miner makes it his own here. Scene after scene, you'll see some shadowy figures in the distance milling about, then they'll start running toward the camera, and you'll be counting the seconds, unable to believe that the survivors will beat the odds and get that locked door open in time.

Miner may not be breaking any new ground, but every element is executed perfectly. People trapped in small spaces, plotting their escapes, while someone among them starts to look sick; survivors trying to start their car engine as the slavering undead claw at the windows; and a genre favorite, the lost loved one who miraculously returns safely, except . . . oh no! Mama just took a bite out of my arm!

Horror, like dance music, relies on finding the groove — get that groove going, and people will squirm every time someone just opens a door. Miner has definitely got his groove going here.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart or weak of bladder. If you've been thinking of becoming a vegetarian, however, "Day" might just seal that decision for you: seeing humans used as meat — gnawed upon, eviscerated, skinned, and dismembered — is not an experience one soon forgets.

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of gore; it's often used gratuitously these days, and "Day" is no exception. Miner, however, never uses it as a substitute for suspense ("Hostel"), but rather to up it considerably, which makes "Day" a terrifying film, not just a nauseating one.


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