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28 Zombie Movies Later

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While Will Smith traipses around a strangely silent Manhattan, presumably as the last uninfected human on a disease-ravaged Earth, a heretical thought that the filmmakers of "I Am Legend" never intended scratches at the corners of their movie like a pestering zombie. New York never looked so good. Transformed by disuse, overgrown with weeds and infested with zoo animals (how lions and deer got there will offer much post-movie debate), it mostly reminds us how nice it would be to eradicate cars and the idiots who honk them incessantly.

Yet the movie strains to upset us with the catastrophe: Humanity has been wiped out in a botched attempt to cure cancer. The survivors are vampiric mutations, except for one man, Robert Neville, who is inexplicably immune. This latest in a long line of adaptations, credited and not, of Richard Matheson's 1954 novella is by far the technically superior version. Despite excellent production values and a fine turn by Smith, however, we are still waiting for one to get the story right.

Robert is a former colonel/scientist (equally adept with automatic rifles and syringes) who was frantically working on a cure when the roof caved in. Three years later he forages by day with his German shepherd, Sam, and rides out the evenings behind thick steel. Thousands of "dark seekers" run amok outside in the uninviting night. In movie terms they are standard-issue ghouls on crank, perhaps the offspring of those in "28 Days Later" and "The Descent." Yet they are deployed effectively enough at their true prey. Most audiences, attending to have their nerves flayed, will exit feeling they got their money's worth of extremely tense moments. This is the first time a significant movie version has actually taken the name of Matheson's book, however. So you wonder why, like all the rest, it dumbs down and deviates so dramatically from the original plot.

Major Hollywood filmmakers today are extremely attuned to realism in action, yet are devolving in their ability to make an audience believe in their characters' emotions and motivations. In the movie, Robert hunts a cure. But in the book he hunts the vampires, who fear and loathe him as the legend of Matheson's title. The movie ignores this characterization in favor of a completely conventional plot, making Smith's military scientist as run-of-the-mill as the creatures he avoids. The movie itself is a zombie too, dying shy of a final act, right when it was looking like something worth talking about. (PG-13) 100 min. S



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