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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Dawn of the Dead (2004; Unrated) (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Dawn of the Dead (2004; Unrated) (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Universal // Unrated // August 28, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 1, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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There are very few movies I admire as much as George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. It's not only responsible for sparking my interest in horror, but that first wide-eyed viewing a lifetime ago is to blame for my longstanding fascination with movies as a whole. Bolstered by its underlying satire of consumer culture, engaging characters, and a cacklingly dark sense of humor, the original Dawn of the Dead has rarely been bested since its cameras first rolled in Pittsburgh's Monroeville Mall thirty years ago.

When a remake was first announced -- to be helmed by a first-time director and penned by a writer whose only film credits up to that point were over-the-top comedies -- I cringed. This was hallowed ground, but part of the reason that Zack Snyder and James Gunn's remake of Dawn of the Dead is so successful is that it's really not much of a remake at all. This re-envisioning of Romero's film lifts the core premise -- a handful of survivors escaping from a world overrun by the ravenous undead by barricading themselves in a mall -- but the two movies otherwise really don't have much in common at all. It's similar to the transition between Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's sequel, infusing the horror of the original with the propulsive energy of an action movie.

Dawn of the Dead opens innocuously enough, following Ana (Sarah Polley), a harried nurse eager to rush home after a particularly exhausting shift at the hospital. It's a busier evening than usual, and she hears murmurs of toxic reactions to bites, of all things, but she shrugs it off on her way back to suburbia. Ana's awoken the next morning to the sight of a young neighbor standing just outside her bedroom door, her nightgown spattered with blood and the flesh of her lips torn away. Ana's concerned husband rushes to the girl only to have his throat ripped out, and despite Ana trying her damndest to stop the bleeding and save her husband, Luis dies.

He doesn't stay that way for long, though, reanimated in a matter of seconds and savagely attacking Ana. She manages to escape only to find herself immersed in an almost unrecognizable world overrun by the living dead. After careening off the freeway, she stumbles onto a small handful of other survivors: police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a gun-toting thug (Mekhi Pfifer) and his pregnant Russian wife (Inna Korobkina), and Michael (Jake Weber), the erstwhile leader of the group. Flanked by the undead on all sides, the five of them decide to hole up in a nearby shopping mall. It seems like as good a place as any to wait for help: the contagion spread while the mall was closed, so all of the doors are locked, the windows are shatterproof, and there aren't all that many of the cannibalistic creatures scattered around inside.

A few security guards, led by an arrogant, gun-toting prick named C.J. (Michael Kelly), aren't all that eager to let a few potentially infected nobodies invade their stronghold. While kept under lock and key, Ana and the other survivors learn from a final few television broadcasts just how ravaged the world has become at the hands of this plague. Unable to head outside the confines of a mall that's becoming more and more swarmed by the living dead with each passing day, they have to find some way to signal for help, to deal with a band of other refugees that make their way to the mall, and to send help to Andy, the half-starved sharp-shooter trapped in a gun store across the way.

This isn't a retread of the original Dawn of the Dead. The undead don't shamble about lifelessly but run towards their prey, leaning more towards the rage of the infected in 28 Days Later than the classic Romero zombie. The original Dawn of the Dead and the more recent Land of the Dead indulged Romero's sense of humor, cramming in a slew of gimmicky zombies -- a Hari Krishna, a nun, and a clown, to rattle off a few -- but the remake is just a wall of rotting limbs and bobbing heads. By the end of the movie, this sleepy Wisconsin town is so overrun by the undead that even though their decomposing bodies are physiologically capable of running, they can't; there are tens of thousands of them shoulder to shoulder, packed so densely that they can barely move.

The mall was a character in its own right in the original Dawn of the Dead, but the remake prefers to use it as just a setting. Romero's social satire has been stripped away, and there's much less exploration of the mall this time around. The handful of survivors in the original saw it as a sanctuary with the resources necessary to establish a new life, and it was up to them to clean out the sprawling complex teeming with zombies and to prevent any more from lurching their way inside. They were willing to defend their retail fortress to the death, culminating in a climactic siege that was almost like something out of a Howard Hawks western. The remake treats the Crossroads Shopping Mall as a stopgap measure. Already locked down and with merely a handful of the undead inside, the mall is just a place for its straggling survivors to hole up while waiting for heavily-armed feds to swoop in and rescue them.

Snyder handles the balance of horror and breakneck action much more deftly than Romero would shortly afterwards with Land of the Dead. Romero's similarly action-oriented zombie movie was littered with flat, lifeless characters, suffered from an eye-rollingly ridiculous overreliance on a homebrew tank with a stupid name, and was wholly unable to generate any real tension. This remake of Dawn of the Dead is permeated by an inescapable sense of dread that Land of the Dead lacks, and the hordes of the undead are an ever-present threat rather than a swarm of rotting supporting characters who aren't really given much of anything to do until the climax rolls around.

This remake of Dawn of the Dead boasts one of the most effective openings of any of the dozens of zombie movies -- or countless hundreds of other horror films, really -- that I've devoured over the years. The early morning assault and the chaos that follows is one of the most unnerving, unsettling sequences I've ever seen, and even my fourth or fifth time through, I still find myself squirming in my seat. Dawn of the Dead succeeds effortlessly at everything it attempts, really. Its taut pacing blazes forward at a steady clip but doesn't ever feel rushed. Goblin's swirling keyboards may not have made it into the remake, but Dawn of the Dead has a remarkably keen ear for licensed music, from the smirking Muzak buzzing in the background to the Johnny Cash number roaring over the opening credits. Most memorable is a montage of the survivors settling into their new life, bonding with Andy as he snipes zombified celebrity lookalikes, that's set to a swanky lounge cover of Disturbed's mall-core smash "The Sickness". The black comedy works astonishingly well; its stabs at humor are consistently funny but never trample over the bleak, grim tone of the movie.

Admittedly, characterization isn't as strong in the remake of Dawn of the Dead as it was in the more intimate original, but that's somewhat expected considering the much larger ensemble this time around. The key characters do still have distinct personalities, and for the most part, the movie is well cast, making use of seasoned actors instead of whichever WB starlet is vaguely bankable at the moment. The remake doesn't shy away from the splatter, and particularly in this unrated cut of the movie, there's plenty of the red stuff slathered around. Its zombies tend to bite rather than devour, leaving Dawn of the Dead somewhat less graphic than Romero's past few undead epics. This matches the film's nimble pace as well as the fact that most of the movie unfolds through the survivors' eyes; none of them are going to stop and linger long enough to watch a horde of the undead feast on one of their friends. This incarnation of Dawn of the Dead may not attempt to recreate a single scene from the original movie, but the filmmakers clearly have enough affection for Romero's film to sneak in quite a few nods to the original as well as brief cameos from a couple of its actors.

This remake of Dawn of the Dead is hardly perfect, though, with its most glaring flaw being that the movie desperately wants to get the characters out of the mall but isn't entirely sure how to do it. The last act isn't nearly as sure-footed as the rest of the movie, hinging on stupid people doing unfathomably stupid things. Also, there are quite a few more survivors in the remake, and much of the supporting cast gets lost in the shuffle.

This HD DVD of Dawn of the Dead is unrated, containing nine minutes' worth of gore and character development that were trimmed out of the theatrical release. The movie may be unrated, but it's not fully uncut; digital blood is still used to obscure some nudity very early on. Perhaps like the DVDs released overseas, international releases will keep that footage intact. Don't let a couple seconds of smeared CG blood on a shattered windshield steer you away, though. This remake of Dawn of the Dead strongly complements Romero's original, standing out as its own movie rather than just another unimaginative knockoff. Easily among the best horror films to come down the pipeline in years as well as instantly cementing itself as one of my all-time favorite zombie movies, this re-envisioning of Dawn of the Dead is essential viewing for fans of the genre. Highly Recommended.

Video: Much like 300, director Zack Snyder's follow-up to this film, Dawn of the Dead boasts a heavily stylized set of visuals. Many of the interiors in the mall are cast in a pale green, and hues are often exaggerated in the bleached and blown-out sunny exteriors. Some shots are startlingly detailed, particularly close-ups of the cast; every pore, bead of sweat, and pockmark on Ving Rhames' weathered face are clearly discernable when the camera closes in, for instance. Generally, though, crispness and clarity stand out as merely alright throughout much of the 2.39:1 high definition presentation, almost as if the processing of its visuals filtered away some of the fine detail. This disc is a definite improvement over the DVD release and the widescreen upconvert that's made the rounds on Starz-HD, but I don't think all that many fans of Dawn of the Dead will find the difference this HD DVD offers dramatic enough for it to be an essential upgrade.

The thin veneer of film grain visible throughout much of the movie generally doesn't present much of a problem for the VC-1 encoding, but there's at least one shot early on -- the camera creeping near Ana's bedroom door seconds before the first attack -- where the shadows noticeably suffer from some nasty digital artifacting. This isn't a persistent problem, but considering how rare that sort of thing has proven to be on HD DVD, it did catch me by surprise. A handful of tiny specks are also scattered throughout the movie; not enough to distract but still a few more than expected.

Dawn of the Dead certainly looks good in high definition, and I don't want to give the impression that this HD DVD is any sort of a disappointment. Still, this is a film with a very deliberate visual style, and viewers should go in knowing that as slick as the stylized photography may look, high-definition eye candy it's not.

Audio: Universal's promised much more extensive support of lossless audio on their HD DVDs, and Dawn of the Dead is among the first of these new catalog titles to offer a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. The mix sounds incredible, summoning a hellish amount of bass, and the sound design is teeming with directionality, smooth pans from channel to channel, the inescapable chorus of undead moans, and...yup, even some Muzak for some cheery ambiance. This is an aggressive track with an expansive dynamic range, grossly outclassing the already impressive DVD and easily ranking up there with the best soundtracks I've heard on HD DVD to date.

Subtitles in English and French are also offered alongside Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtracks in both languages. As is the norm for Universal these days, the Spanish dub and subtitle stream from the DVD have been left off of this high-def release.

Extras: Dawn of the Dead features the same set of extras as the 2004 DVD release, all of which are presented in standard definition and either 4x3 or letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen. None of the additional features from the Best Buy bonus disc -- a set of storyboard comparisons, the 'Undead and Loving It!' mockumentary, and the "Drawing the Dead" featurette -- made it onto the HD DVD, unfortunately.

Director Zack Snyder opens the movie with a very short and kinda pointless optional introduction, briefly detailing why he opted to have an unrated cut of the movie released on DVD. My favorite of the disc's extras is Snyder's commentary with producer Eric Newman, which was recorded the day before the film's theatrical release in 2004. Admittedly, the two of them don't linger on technical details or offer any real insight into...y'know, story, themes...that sorta thing. They just lean back and have a hell of a good time, mostly just quipping about some of the highlights during the shoot: Sarah Polley mistaking a piece of direction and sewing a plastic prosthetic to Ving Rhames' skin, building their own mall inside of an existing mall, laughing at some of the conveniences and inconsistencies in the script, picking up a close-up of a lighter while shooting a commercial for another company afterwards, instituting a 'fuck' quota, and shooting part of the end credit montage within arm's reach of the Universal Studios tour. The two of them also note how the movie transformed from early drafts of the screenplay, such as a different opening that bypassed the setup in the hospital and some of the changes in the rules of the undead. It's also noted that one of my least favorite plot points won Christina Aguilera's endorsement, so take that for what it's worth.

Snyder and Newman also offer optional commentary for eleven and a half minutes of deleted scenes. This footage is mostly anchored around characterization and the gradual acceptance of life in a shopping mall, with just a few quick glimpses of any zombies. Usually commentary over deleted scenes is kind of a drag, but Snyder and Newman do more than just mutter "this was cut for pacing", instead touching on how one bit was reshot and then ditched in favor of the original, trimming down a scene that felt too much like a buddy picture, the smirking juxtaposition of a meandering, mundane conversation in the midst of the apocalypse, and why they ultimately chose not to show more of one character who was slowly turning.

A pair of extras feature footage recorded especially for the home video release, further fleshing out the spread of the contagion. "The Lost Tape" (15 min.) is a video diary of Andy documenting his last days in his gun shop, and the twenty minute "Special Report" compiles excerpts from marathon news coverage as the infestation creeps across the globe. I appreciate the idea, but the acting in both of these is pretty abysmal. The news coverage is the more interesting of the two, tackling the plague from its earliest outbreaks to a declaration of a state of emergency, and fans of the original movie might smirk at seeing some additional material with Tom Savini's sheriff in Monroeville.

A few make-up effects featurettes round out the extras. "Raising the Dead" (8 min.) offers a quick overview into the look of the different stages of zombification and how the effects crew tackled churning out several hundred of the walking undead a day at the peak of the shoot. "Attack of the Living Dead" (7 min.) is focused squarely on how the effects and stunt crew pulled off the more elaborate kills, including the use of a few limbless stuntmen, shoving a broken mallet handle through a silicone head, casting a male stuntman in the part of a bloated female zombie, and coming up with a clever way to repeatedly carve a dummy with a chainsaw. "Splitting Headaches: Anatomy of Exploding Heads" spends five and a half minutes on...well, exactly what the title says...delving in great detail into the elaborate rigs and make-up effects necessary to convincingly pull off head shots. "Splitting Headaches" gets bonus points for punctuating part of its lean runtime with a ridiculously catchy bit of Moog-pop.

Conclusion: I wouldn't want to even take a blind stab at how many zombie flicks and horror remakes have been churned out over the past few years, but Dawn of the Dead is easily the best of the ones I've seen. Instead of just a lifeless retread of George Romero's seminal zombie epic, Zack Snyder and James Gunn took the skeleton of his story -- a handful of survivors barricading themselves inside a mall from a world overrun by zombies -- and from there made an entirely different movie. Its unnerving first ten minutes outclass virtually every horror movie to come out of Hollywood over the past decade, and the rest of Dawn of the Dead is tense and gory enough to still keep me cringing even my fourth or fifth time through. The lossless audio on its HD DVD release is phenomenal, and the scope photography certainly looks good enough, even if the heavily processed visuals don't consistently offer the level of detail typically expected from the format. Highly Recommended.
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