Dawn of the Living DeadOver the years Zombie fans expect a few duds (House of the Dead, Resident Evil) along with the hits (The Serpent and the Rainbow, 28 Days Later). And since the Evil Dead trilogy, they’ve come to expect a little self-aware zombie mockery, best showcased recently in Shaun of the Dead. And finally, there are movies that confuse even the most devout fans. The kind that make audiences go, “What just happened?” Dawn of the Living Dead, an overly ambitious title created by brazenly combining the titles of two preeminent zombie movies (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) is clearly in the final group.

Originally titled Curse of the Maya, a much more fitting title, Dawn of the Living Dead ostensibly follows the story of a couple who purchase a house in the middle of the desert only to discover that it’s built atop an ancient Mayan burial ground. You know, their dream house turns into a nightmare and all that. As Jeffrey, low-budget champion Joe Esteves wanders from scene to scene like a slightly overweight version of his brother Martin Sheen while newcomer Amanda Baumann, as Jeffrey’s fiancee Renee, is the real protagonist of the film, recovering from a stint in a psychiatric ward due to “manic depressive issues.” Almost immediately after moving into the house Renee starts having visions of a little girl in her sleep and a few travelers get gorily destroyed by the undead.

By the time writer, director, producer David Heavener shows up as a macho-man windmill worker, audiences must resign themselves to accept the occasional laugh-out-loud moments unintentionally offered up, because the plot itself becomes too meandering and hole-filled to follow. Sometimes Dawn of the Living Dead feels almost like it might be poking fun at itself, but either Heavener never intended it to or he hasn’t managed to make it clear that he’s in on the joke. Regardless of the reasons, awkward moments and unexplained plot twists provide most of the entertainment here.

Cinematographer Joseph Rubinstein either can’t seem to master the art of shadows or, and this may be closer to the truth, he just doesn’t care. In each cut the angles change drastically and the shadows fall across the actor’s faces in the most haphazard ways. One person in a conversation could have daylight behind them while the other has dusk. In one memorable scene, the couple argues because Renee has woken Jeffrey up so early (five a.m.), but when they run outside, it’s broad daylight. Though director David Heavener has a dozen films under his belt, he still doesn’t understand a good scene change. Film footage is spliced together so scenes bleed into each other, leaving the plot dangling and audiences trying to gather as much as possible from their surroundings in order to understand what’s happening.

Everything else aside, though, the zombies are actually downright scary looking. If the majority of the budget was spent on makeup and special effects, as the case seems, then it was well spent. The Mayan zombie family that habituates the desert behind the house are actually frightening, even on grainy film and with little to no plot to support the fear factor. A scene with a zombie baby stands on its own as classic over-the-top, so-bad-it’s-good film-making. In the behind-the-scenes footage, Heavener, speaking like a classically unaware Fred Willard character, describes his impetus for the zombie baby fight scene. Again, unintentional hilarity ensues. Dawn of the Living Dead may not have much story to offer, but its zombies at least do their best to redeem themselves.

Zach’s Rating: D-
Zombie enthusiast’s rating: C
Typical horror fan’s rating: F

To purchase Dawn of the Living Dead, visit Amazon
To view the zombie baby clip, visit Youtube

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