There's one joke in the newly remade ``Dawn of the Dead'' that gives the movie a touch of irony missing everywhere else. On the run from unexplained flesh -eating zombies, five folks take refuge in a suburban Milwaukee mall, which greets them with a hold-music version of ``Don't Worry, Be Happy.'' It's a fine choice, too: What a piece of Muzak this remake is. Like that lite 'n' flat retooling of Bobby McFerrin's Bush I-era novelty, George Romero's gruesome and acutely intelligent do-it-yourself freak-out is now a loud, glossy horror show for people who think the movies began with ``The Breakfast Club.''
In his `` Dead'' trilogy (``Night of,'' ``Dawn of,'' and ``Day of ''), Romero used the zombie to satirize America. ``Dawn'' was released in 1978, and it was both a pioneering work of suspense-schlock and scathing social commentary: The dead come back to life in order to keep consuming - and in a mall no less. In 2004, the zombies do the same, but the movie, which was written by James Gunn and directed by Zack Snyder, forgoes Romero's complicated but easy-to-follow feelings about 1970s America in favor of a brutalizing adventure flick.
The movie pulls together a rag-tag crew of believable Wisconsinites. There's a tough nurse (Sarah Polley), a tough cop (Ving Rhames), the whitest guy in town (Jake Weber), and the blackest one (Mekhi Phifer). The black guy has a very pregnant Russian wife (Inna Korobkina), and their inane spat over whether their baby gets a Slavic or an African name is about as political as things get here. These five find themselves in a power struggle with a trio of security officers.
To heighten the tension, the chief security guard (Michael Kelly) happens to be borderline racist and exceedingly asinine. But once the gang lets in a second tier of survivors, ``Dawn of the Dead'' doesn't lack for zombie bait. You might find yourself rooting for several of these people to be thrown from the mall roof to the throngs of undead who wail below like extras in a Limp Bizkit video. Ideas of consumption, meanwhile, hang over this movie like a piÄnata that's never thwacked.
Few of the original movie's political and philosophical preoccupations (abortion, capitalism, patriotism, individualism) remain. Instead, the remake feels like the product of the PlayStation era. At some point, the gang discovers that the only way to destroy their relentless assailants is to aim the gun above the neck. So a fresh shooter is always instructed to ``aim for the head!'' All that's missing are crosshairs.
But the movie is weak on attempts at survivalist philosophy (anyone bit by a zombie is likely to become one). Even the religious overtones feel tinny and unpronounced. But it is well-schooled in the dynamics of sitcoms and television dramas. Love stories and mea culpas abound.
Things get interesting in the closing minutes, though. Someone picks up a camcorder, and ``Dawn of the Dead'' comes down with an inspired, chilling but cheap case of ``The Blair Witch Project.'' The ultramodern gear change is risky but too much too late. How much harder to shake would this film have been had it switched formats at the halfway point?
Video might just be the final frontier for horror, which is too junked up with noise, formulas, and the witless bravado of mediocre directors to matter anymore. It's how thousands of amateur home-moviemakers capture immediate reality. Exploiting that ``amateur'' technology to spook us is a stroke of brilliance, conveying an end-of-the-world darkness in a format we associate with truth. This is an idea grasped by both the makers of the smarter, more rigorously structured ``28 Days'' and the boys behind ``Blair Witch.''
``Dawn of the Dead'' is afraid to commit to a similar mood of digital doom, however. In the end, it's no substitute for either of those movies or, even more so, Romero's own idea of rancid humanity.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.