The mall is still prime real estate for zombies in the smashing new version of Dawn of the Dead. Just as in George A. Romero’s deathless 1978 horror classic from which this bloody beaut is ”re-envisioned,” the living decide that the best place to escape the walking, flesh-hungry deceased is in a glittering suburban shopping center — a temple to insatiable consumerism that has only grown in gilt symbolism since Romero first pitted defenders in polyester against invaders in rudimentary blood-and-pallor makeup. Romero’s ”Dawn” was a cardboard-and-staples cheapo production, suitable for an era of eight-track tapes. Commercial director Zack Snyder, making a killer feature debut, trades homemade cheesiness for knowing style, revels in the sophistication of modern special effects, and stomps off with the best remake — er, ”re-envisioning” — of a horror classic in memory.
This ”Dawn” breaks, scary, even before the opening credits. We’re in and around Milwaukee now, not Romero’s Pittsburgh, and in the swift exposition of ”Tromeo & Juliet” screenwriter James Gunn’s sharp script, the whole battle plan is drawn: how the infected dead rise up to feed; how one nurse (Sarah Polley), having watched her husband turn rabidly undead, escapes; and how she joins a gaggle of fellow survivors — among them a cop (Ving Rhames), a salesman (Jake Weber), and a street tough (Mekhi Phifer) — amid the useless luxuries of a mall biosphere. You know you’ve entered a 21st-century hell when zombies scratch at the doors while a piped-in Muzak version of ”Don’t Worry, Be Happy” continues to perk up nonexistent customers. (The musical choices are a demonic playlist pleasure.)
”Dawn of the Dead” is filled with tingles of humor — at one point a couple of the guys, using the mall roof as a recreation deck, pick off zombies (who must, as you know, be shot in the head) based on their resemblance to celebrities, with Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds among the favored targets. But fronted by Polley and her lovely art-house gravity — she’s a perfect against-type heroine — and modulated by Snyder’s serious excitement, the movie never sloshes over into irony or snarky self-reference. As the visual style shifts from orangy 1970s saturation and simple edits to an anxious, parched blue blur of moves, the dread of ”Dawn” deepens. Don’t leave before the final frame — if you’re still breathing.