Strange as it may now seem, the ghoulishly pithy sequel to George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" was released just as the shopping mall was becoming a cornerstone of American life. Most communities still didn't have one, and that awed distance lent just the right paranoiac atmosphere to Romero's story, in which a quartet of human plague survivors fended off the attacks of zombiefied "consumers" compelled to congregate at a shrine of commercialism. There was something profoundly disturbing about seeing the unkempt undead shuffle up escalators as Muzak droned endlessly in the background; the image supported the idea of the shopping center as a cold, indomitable megalith that could go right on living after the rest of us were gone.
Now, of course, the mall is as familiar a leisure environment as our own living room. It's just another place to go, and thus this slick remake is just another movie to see. Instead of blood-soaked social commentary, it settles for a mischievous mélange of popcorn-flick set pieces -- a few of them admittedly brilliant. There's a memorably twisted maternity scenario, an apocalyptic vehicular breakout and a spirited round of shoot-the-zombie target practice played with a friendly fellow stationed on the roof of a neighboring gun shop. (Next-door neighbors? So much for panicked desolation.)
As conceived by first time-director Zack Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn (a Troma vet who penned the Scooby Doo movies -- ruh-roh!), the remake ups the stakes a bit, starting off with a larger number of trigger-happy refugees and bringing in even more as the world outside goes to hell in a handcart. There are so many new faces to greet, in fact, that their individual personality arcs tend to get crammed right out of the story. At the screening we attended, one in-the-know fellow assured his friends that the DVD version would include several more minutes of "character stuff." Frankly, we pine for the days when such "extras" were included in the actual movie, but at least we have a future shopping experience to look forward to -- at the mall, naturally.