(movie review written in 2004)
Not so much a remake as a "re-thinking" of George Romero's beloved horror film, Zach Snyder's new edition of "Dawn of the Dead" certainly kicks in with a fierce pre-credits sequence. Ana (Sarah Polley) has just gotten off her shift at the hospital - where a man was taken to the ICU after a mere bite - and arrives home. When she wakes up the next morning, the little girl from next door is taking a bite out of her husband's neck and both soon try to attack her.
She runs outside to find utter chaos. It's essentially impossible to get a hold of 911, fires rage outside, ambulances careen down city streets and the news does not look good. People are being chased down by the living dead, being bitten and then chasing others. Ana manages to get into her car and drive, but a crash in the woods later, she's in trouble. She meets up with a police officer (Ving Rhames), then a guy (Jake Weber) who's walking around with a couple about to have a baby (Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They end up at the local shopping mall, where the first level doesn't seem entirely safe.
When they reach the second floor, they're confronted with a trio of overzealous security guards who allow them to stay, but take their weapons. They all wait out potential rescue, but with the chaos outside seemingly spreading further, hope of being saved seems to grow dimmer with every passing hour. Eventually more join them at the mall (there's also the matter of fun store owner Andy, marooned across the street and communicating with the main group via markets on boards., but there's also the matter of the crowd of undead gathering outside the mall, eager to do some shopping.
The film is simply a very fast, very slickly filmed horror picture at the core. However, a lot of things elevate it beyond mere big B-movie. The casting is uniformly excellent, as are the performances. Polley was an interesting choice, but the plays the character with the appropriate grit. Rhames offers an angry determination, while Weber plays is straight very well. Ty Burrell, as a survivor who joins the party later, also gets some great lines.
Like the recent "28 Days Later", the zombies move along with real speed, not just lurching forward. Director Snyder actually also makes the nearly 2-hour running time move by with rapid speed, largely due to some creative and well-staged set-pieces that are either genuinely creepy, suspenseful, scary or all three. Snyder's tone for the film is bleak and serious, but "Dawn" still works in a few clever bits of dark humor. The film's decision to go for "real" also works - we never learn why it all happens in the film, it just does.
Some things don't work as well, however. The screenplay (by James Gunn, writer of the "Scooby Doo" live-action movie) throws together a few too many characters into the mix. While the actors and screenplay (moreso in this director's cut, according to the director) manage to develop characters enough that I cared about them, but maybe losing two or three would have allowed some more focus. The characters also occasionally make some questionable decisions, but I suppose that's a staple of the genre.
Overall, this is a fun remake that manages some sleek thrills and suspense. The character development is a little shaky at times, but it's good enough and the performances are solid enough that I didn't want the characters to become zombie chow. The Blu-Ray includes the 110-minute director's cut.
VIDEO: "Dawn of the Dead" is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 (1080p/VC-1) and the results are just satisfactory. This is a picture that has an intentionally gritty style and a desaturated color palette (although some bolder colors are occasionally seen.) However, the Blu-Ray edition really improved only moderately on the DVD. Some improvements are seen - such as the fact that the picture does boast improved definition and clarity (the film's intentional "look" seems to shift between stretches of fine detail and solid clarity and stretches that appear noticeably softer, but the overall impression is a crisper picture) - but there are still some issues that get in the way.
Edge enhancement is an issue here, especially in some of the brighter outdoor sequences. The film does show some grain at times, although grain can look a little overly harsh. Some instances of noise were also noticed, as well as some minor-to-mild print flaws (in the form of some noticeable specks and marks, as well as other small debris) in a handful of scenes.
The film's subdued color palette appeared accurately presented and instances of bolder, richer colors looked appropriately deep and well-saturated. Overall, this is difficult material to get right when it comes to transferring to a home entertainment format, and while this presentation does boast improved clarity over the DVD edition, I still expected more from the video quality on this high-def presentation.
SOUND: More impressive than the video quality is the audio, as the film gets an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation for its Blu-Ray debut. The sound mix works well for the film, although understandably, there are patches throughout the movie where it's simply characters talking in the middle of the mall. The film's few major explosions certainly are heard throughout the listening space and the bigger zombie sequences have the surrounds offering some zombie ambience (zombiance?) and other touches. Overall, the audio opens out quite well during the most intense sequences, and these moments do a very nice job placing the viewer in the middle of the action.
Dialogue remains clear and easily understood throughout, while effects and music sounded well-recorded. The DTS-HD presentation boasts noticeably deeper, punchier low-end bass during the more intense moments. Effects also sound a bit clearer and more precise. Overall, I found the DTS-HD presentation to be an enjoyable upgrade.
EXTRAS: director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman offer an audio commentary for the film. The commentary provides some laughs and a solid amount of information, as the two chat about the making of the film. We learn more about developing the characters, casting, working with the actors, budget, make-up effects, extras and the look of the film. This being the director's cut, we also hear more about what has been put back into the film. Overall, it's a pretty good commentary, although it does fall back on narrating and just praising the film on some occasions.
We also get another of Universal's "U-Control" picture-in-picture features that puts together a presentation made up of footage from "behind-the-scenes" featurettes and viewers have the option to have playing along with the film. Personally, I just want access to the featurettes - I guess I'm one of the few who doesn't want to have to watch them in this format, and would rather just watch them on their own/separately after watching the movie.
Final Thoughts: "Dawn of the Dead" was a surprise, offering a lot of tension and suspense, as well as a few good scares. The performances are also very good, which helps involvement in the characters. The Blu-Ray edition of the film offers video quality that, while improved over the DVD, shows some problems that I would have liked to have seen smoothed out for the film's Blu-Ray debut. However, the DTS-HD audio option is quite enjoyable. Recommended.