Zombies are a rather paradoxical lot, seemingly stupid, yet possessing a remarkable knack for sensing and seeking out live flesh. Perhaps they personify that instinctive fear of all those unknown bodies that we pass on the streets each day, but if they do, they are unable to articulate it. Luckily, in director Zach Snyder’s new horror film “Dawn of the Dead,” these questions are bypassed in favor of a tart blend of humor that delivers streamlined adrenaline and undeath without any accompanying baggage.

While the film could be summed up as “28 Days Later”-lite, Snyder’s campy tone makes it much more fun to sit through. After about five minutes of exposition in which non-starlet, first time horror heroine Sarah Polley is introduced as hospital nurse Ana, her husband is killed, there are zombies everywhere, and she ends up lost in the woods. All of this occurs before the cool opening credit sequence, which utilizes a creepy dripping blood animation style. Things just pick up after that as Ana joins up with a conveniently-nearby group of survivors and heads to … the mall.

Horror is in the little details, and Snyder has these in spades. The clash of the user-friendly mall environment against the terrifying activities going on inside and around it is gleefully exploited by director and zombies alike. In one particularly smart sequence during a life or death argument that takes place between two groups, one inside an elevator, one outside, the oblivious doors keep trying to close with a sweet “ding,” only to be banged back open with an exaggerated gesture by Ving Rhames. The film is filled with these little disconnects, appropriate in scrutinizing a space so familiar to American culture.

“Dawn” is populated with characters that bring new, fresh blood to the horror genre. Snyder’s cast looks like a select group of reality TV show contestants, each one refreshingly ordinary. Only one of the characters has Barbie-doll looks, and she stands out freakishly next to her Earthly counterparts. Snyder seems to have a real Fellini-esque eye, or at least his casting director does. Each of the “expendables” adds something to the film, especially a nameless female truck driver who would have been easy to stereotype but is instead acted with gruff but tender perfection. Another good one to look for is Mekhi Phifer, who executes one of the most disturbing nursery sequences in film history flawlessly.

It is Sarah Polley, though, who really gives the film its spirit. From gossiping about American Idol with her husband to stopping four hundred pounds of rampaging white-trash zombie flesh with a carefully placed javelin thrust, she does it all with panache. Her acting is so natural that the self-aware feminism found in horror movies such as “Scream” is made a non-issue. She isn’t a symbol of how any member of the female race would react in a similar situation, she is simply a girl named Ana.

As with all good horror films, the cinematography is key, and the hand that turns it in “Dawn” belongs to veteran Matthew F. Leonetti. Keep an eye out for particularly adventurous shots, such as the body bag drop onto the camera. Leonetti really does a good job focusing on facial expressions, giving both zombies and humans alike ample screen time to emote. Ultimately, it is the delight evident in each cheesy shot that is contagious.

Snyder really excels over his peers in the makeup and ballistics departments. Small wonder, since he had two-time Academy Award-winning makeup artist David LeRoy Anderson at his side. Every gunshot leaves an utterly realistic imprint on its victim, while the angle of the resulting blood is always right on. If computer effects were used for any of these gruesome deaths, such as the brainpan decapitation, they were cleverly disguised to great effect.

In short, for anyone who walked out of the new remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” because it was mindless, disgusting and degrading but could do with a smart horror, “Dawn of the Dead” is your saving grace. If only Ana were so lucky.

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