Viewers encountering What Alice Found might be forgiven for sniffing at its first few minutes as we see ungainly digital video images of an unknown actress driving on the interstate in a montage sequence that could be someone’s home movie footage of making that first trip to college. But this second feature from writer/director Dean Bell has two powerful assets: a committed cast led by the indomitable stage star Judith Ivey, and a truly exceptional story that unfolds with the ripening revelations of its sympathetic, salt-of-the-earth characters.

Emily Grace is the actress we see at the beginning, playing Alice, an 18-year-old who’s almost completely devoid of interest. Not particularly attractive, poised or street-smart, she’s just a girl from New Hampshire with a broad nasal accent driving south on I-95. Although the early details are sketchy, we’re given to understand that she’s fleeing a dismal working-class existence and that she’s pinned her hopes on joining a friend in Miami, where she’ll study marine biology.

Alice’s journey, already an obviously desperate enterprise, begins to go very badly. Louts menace her on the highway and someone tampers with her car at a rest area. Fortunately, a genial middle-aged woman is there to help out, along with her laconically goofy husband. This helpful lady is Sandra, a woman who wears her Kentucky white-trash origins on her sleeves–and on her face, and in her hair, and in her voice. But she’s awfully friendly and, as sensationally played by Ivey (best known for her Tony award-winning work on Broadway) she proceeds to take over the movie. A blowzy woman in the bloom of middle age, Sandra has big blond hair, favors loud print tops and stretch pants and talks in a nonstop stream of charmingly cornpone chatter. She seems like nothing so much as a good-hearted mom in search of a new daughter.

Soon after Alice meets these Good Samaritans, who seem to be early retirees and professional snowbirds, she’s forced to abandon her car and hitch a ride in their RV. In perhaps the first sign that this couple is one to be reckoned with, we learn that Bill packs a pistol in a shoulder holster, which he uses to good effect to scare off a stranger who has stopped to help Alice by the roadside. Grateful for the help of Sandra and Bill, Alice initially finds their simple, folksy and very friendly manner amusing, telling her Miami friend over a rest stop pay phone, “I think they’re born-agains or something.”

Now, it simply won’t do to reveal Sandra and Bill’s motivations, but suffice it to say that proselytizing is not one of them. What makes What Alice Found so ultimately miraculous –in a secular sense, of course–is the way that the film unpacks the vulnerability of its characters, even as it begins to slide toward sinister and uncharted directions. In staying true to its characters, the story never ceases to surprise, and it finally locates its perfect notes of resolution.

What Alice Found may well be the humblest movie we’ll encounter this year; production values just don’t get any more rudimentary than in this very low-budget feature that is almost entirely shot in and around the RV. With its unglamorous digital video format, underdog characters and anonymous locations at highway rest stops and strip malls, What Alice Found is a bold effort at telling a story about the aesthetically drab, economically punishing America that so many people really live in without resorting to cheap shots, sarcasm or gloom. And this film shows that such a feat can–and perhaps should–be accomplished without a multimillion dollar budget and major stars. All that’s necessary are powerful actors, distinctive characters and a strong, original and unforgettable story.

Intentionally or not, the times are right for a new chapter in George Romero’s Living Dead franchise. Faced with a world-ending plague, embattled citizens react with terror, bewilderment and a willingness to deep-six any and all suspected carriers of the deadly pathogen, with minimal apologies. In straits as dire as these, the biggest asshole may have the keys to the best idea and the others have no choice but to swallow their pride and go along. It’s hard to resist the obvious political resonance of a populace driven to self-devouring hysterics over an unseen enemy. Indeed, other political eras have been effectively allegorized by pulp movies good and bad: the red menace of the 1950s with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for one, and resurgent Reaganism with Rambo: First Blood, for another.

Dawn of the Dead, which opened last Friday in multiplexes around the Triangle, is a cheerful, rudely funny apocalyptic B-movie. With this remake of George Romero’s 1978 sequel to the franchise he began in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, first-time helmsman Zach Snyder deftly mines the humor inherent in the zombie genre. The nimble and efficient script is credited to James Gunn, a 33-year-old veteran of the Troma factory (the Z-movie gang responsible for straight-to-video laffers like Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman), as well as the two Scooby Doo flicks. Accordingly, Gunn’s wiseass sensibility is unsentimental and unsanctimonious–he knows what he likes to see and he knows what audiences like, as well.

Sarah Polley, making her bid for a mainstream crossover from her art house roots, plays Ana, a Wisconsin nurse who witnesses an early victim of zombie-itis wheeled into her hospital, right before the end of her shift. The story gets right down to business the next morning, as all hell breaks loose around the city. In a few deft strokes–and with CGI assistance–Snyder gets this movie machine roaring with boisterous car crashes, explosions and zombie-splatterings. Before long, a ragtag group of survivors–in addition to Polley, there’s Ving Rhames’ muscular cop, Mekhi Phifer’s delinquent-going-straight and Jake Weber’s nice guy underachiever–have made their way to the refuge of the local mall.

Soon enough, the mall begins to resemble a medieval fortress under siege from pitchfork-wielding plague carriers. The ensuing end time comedy includes palace intrigue involving boneheaded security guards and a pregnancy plot lifted from Rosemary’s Baby before the healthy holdouts hatch a counterattack. Crude and unpretentious, Dawn of the Dead is less artful than the biological apocalypse of 28 Days Later, but it’s a lot more fun. EndBlock