Review Date: January 15, 2005
Released by: Universal
Release date: 10/26/2004
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
When there’s no more ideas in Hollywood, remakes will walk the earth. Times are rough for horror fans these days, as the genre seems to have regressed into a permanent state of revival. For the last three years, the highest grossing theatrical horror films have all been remakes or sequels: The Ring
in 2002, Freddy vs. Jason
in 2003, and The Grudge
in 2004. On top of that, the last few years have seen remakes of two of the most sacred horror films of the 1970’s: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
and Dawn of the Dead
. Although not a huge success, the new Dawn
pulled in some healthy profits, proving that there is still significant money to be made in exploiting horror remakes. Just in time for the Christmas season, Universal has seen fit to release four versions of its zombie moneymaker. Widescreen and Full Screen versions of both Rated and Unrated cuts of the film are available, but given that this is a horror site, there is only one possible version that we could review: The Widescreen Unrated Cut.
The film begins on a zoom out of a skull x-ray, which reveals our heroine, Ana (Sarah Polley
). She is finishing up a shift at the hospital and heading home to her husband. They live your typical suburban life, sharing Idol chitchat over the newest reality TV show. They get in the shower together as a broadcast announcing the rise of the zombies plays on, proving the horror cliché that whenever someone gets naked, bad things happen. Inexplicably, the zombies have risen, and Ana finds her neighborhood under attack and her husband killed. She escapes, meeting up with a motley crew of individuals all heading to their consumer safe haven, the mall.
The rest of the crew, a huge black police officer (Ving Rhames
), a technology salesman (Jake Weber
), a pregnant lady (Inna Korobkina
) and her husband (Mekhi Phifer
), join Ana in shacking up in the mall, but they are not alone. They quickly run in with a couple zombies still left in the various store outlets in the mall. The pregnant lady is bitten, although she conceals it from the rest of the group, setting up the requisite zombie baby scene later in the film. They finally kill the zombies, but they are still not alone, as the mall security team also tries to battle them for their place in the mall. Eventually, others join and they all band together in order to fight off the ward of incoming zombies.
Another significant character to join the camp is Andy (Bruce Bohne
), who is stranded across the street atop of another building. He is the source of comic relief, as he indulges with the group in a “celebrity zombie assassination” game, where the group names the celebrity look-alike, and Andy shoots him. Eventually they decide to leave the mall to save Andy and search for an island getaway. But the zombies lurk, and they are hungry.
of the Dead (2004) is similar to Romero’s film only in general theme. People unite in a mall to avoid zombies and eventually decide to leave in search of a better place. Both films also contain at the core two tough, typically subjugated members of society, blacks and women. The similarities end there, as director Zach Snyder tends to skimp on the social commentary and subtext in favor of gore and action. The theatrical version was especially light on subtext, lean with a balance of alternating scenes between story exposition and zombie sequences. It was a fun ride, but there wasn’t much left to chew on when it was over, like there was (and still is) in Romero’s masterpiece.
The cut on this DVD, running nine minutes longer, helps create a much more substantial version of the film. While the social commentary still remains minimal, there lengthened story actually holds much more weight. Most potent is Ken Foree’s cameo as an evangelist, spouting off reasons why the end of the world has occurred. Our modern generation has done much to spite religion, with abortion, sex out of wedlock and recently even same sex marriage, driving society further and further away from the teachings of the Bible. Foree’s monologue touches on all these issues, showing how even in times of chaos, the religious right always appear to have the answers. The irony of it all is that the outbreak of the zombies is never explained in the film (which was, as Snyder states in the commentary, intentional), which makes the religious philosophizing seem all the more ludicrous. If the director of a picture (the film’s God, if you will) does not offer a reason for the outbreak, why would a mortal like Foree? The scene itself adds much to the film, and proves that this unrated cut is worthy as more than just a venue for more boobs and blood.
One of the film’s biggest divergences from Romero’s original is the way it presents the zombies. Romero’s were much more satirical, colored in comic book brights and their consumer-like lumbering throughout the Monroeville Mall. Snyder’s zombies are fast, some say too fast, relentlessly attacking their pray. They are no longer pitiful and conformist like Romero’s, these ones very much have their own agenda. Snyder uses the faster zombies to really give face to the chaos that erupts in times of great struggle. In a time where war and terrorism are major social concerns, Snyder uses the fast zombies to make the threat seem all the more urgent and all the more personal. Where Romero’s original theme may well have been “consumerism”, Snyder’s is without a doubt “chaos”. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Snyder’s quicker zombies help reflect a faster and more fearful era.
Also showing somewhat of a progression over the original film is the way Ana’s character is treated. Although the treatment of African American’s in Romero’s films have always been ahead of their time, the treatment of women has always languished. In Night of the Living Dead
Barbara was a silent dope, while in the original Dawn of the Dead
Francine had to assert to the other males that she deserved equality. Women’s Lib was all the rage, but still Francine was forced to take a back seat to the male machismo of the three other leads. The new Dawn of the Dead
is progressive in that Ana never has to address her gender or ask for equal rights. Ana is brave, strong willed and a force to be reckoned with, and is very much stronger than all of the guys. Sarah Polley gives her character a toughness that in many ways was missing from Francine in the original film. The true sign of progress is when one no longer has to draw attention to prejudice, and in the characterization of women, the new Dawn
achieves that. Where Francine had to beg for respect, Ana always has it, and it is nice to see in comparing the films just how far our society has come.
As progressive as some of the societal aspects of the story are, the basic plot still has some notable regressions. The “zombie baby” sequence, as it has lamentably come to be known, is without a doubt the low point of the film. It stands out as nothing but a gimmick, and a poorly executed one too. It makes no sense that Mekhi Phifer’s character would be able to keep his wife in hiding for so long without the other mall members investigating. Even worse is Phifer’s incredible stupidity. He knows his wife is infected, and he knows that the kid will come out the same way, yet he decides to handle it all on his own. Considering the way the characters monitored another bite victim early on, you’d think Phifer would have taken a clue. The “zombie baby” sequence is also one of lost potential, because seeing him kill the baby and his wife would have proved much more dramatic. Not only that, but it would have also meshed incredibly well with Foree’s aforementioned monolog on abortion and the degradation of society. But alas, the sequence ends in only a lame “what if” effect of an infantile zombie.
Another groaner is the whole “rescue the dog” sequence. Not only is it incredibly P.C. and polite, but it also defies all logic. First off, the girl barely even knew the dog long enough to know its name, let alone get emotionally attached. Less believable though, is how she can suddenly operate a huge stick shift shuttle bus and drive it through a locked garage in a matter of minutes. I understand the point of rescuing the dog was a way to move the plot forward by finally getting them out of the mall, but they could have devised far better ways at achieving the same outcome.
As bad as the dog and baby sequences are, no part of the film is more insulting than the ending. The original film ended with a beautifully ambiguous ending, where the protagonists, low on gas, fly off into the sunset, unaware of where they are going to land. The new Dawn
ends in much the same way, and in many ways end up even more powerful than Romero’s ending. Then the credits kick in. What we are treated to is some Blair Witch
-like footage of the protagonists finally being overtaken by the zombies. There isn’t much room for imagination when the main characters die on screen. The beauty of 70’s film was the way it never tied the story up with a neat little bow. It was sloppy; there was room for interpretation. Halloween
, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead
all ended with questions still left to be answered. Is Michael still alive, does Leatherface continue the chase and again, does the chopper run out of gas? Today’s Dawn
is representative of a time where imagination is on the outs and objectivity is on the in. Hollywood leads its viewers through all the hoops like little autonomous robots. The new ending, in short, is an insult to all those who appreciate Romero’s original.
So while my preferred director’s cut would actually be nine minutes shorter, sans ending, dog or baby, there is still much to be liked about this remake. The gore, done almost entirely in old school prosthetic, is wild enough to make even Tom Savini (who also has a cameo) proud. Standout scenes are a wooden spear jabbed through the head, a chainsaw through the torso and the Savini-trademark shotgun to the face. Not only is the gore intense, but the film moves with an untamed energy throughout, as Zack Snyder incorporates a number of different styles and keeps a quick pace throughout. The acting, especially Canadian starlet Sarah Polley and tough guy Ving Rhames, is also a step above most genre films. The movie is, without a doubt, an entertaining ride from start to finish.
Not only does the film feel like a masterpiece, it has the substance to back that up. The ripe social commentary and progressive black and female roles still all stand up as qualities that few films have matched. Much is made about how the mall zombies are Romero’s ironic commentary on consumer culture, the metaphor really extends much further. Not only does Romero use zombies, but he also uses mannequins to illustrate the dehumanization of the capitalist world. When people base all their pleasures on products exterior to themselves, rather than enjoying the benefits of relationships or other interpersonal exchanges, they become less human and less emotional. They become as empty and lifeless as mannequins. When Francine realizes how the gang has been living a false illusion of happiness behind all the mall’s products, she makes her face up to mimic the mannequins that surround them. The allure of the marketplace is just as responsible for the gang’s unraveling as is the attack of the zombies.
The other notable depth to Romero’s screenplay is how he again challenges the conventions of the characterization of African Americans and females. As Ross is quick to point out throughout the supplements, Dawn
is a film that came out before the action feminist renaissance initiated by the Aliens films. Francine is always sure to hold her own against the guys in the film, never resorting to the standard female horror clichés. She decides the fate of her unborn baby, and she is very much the only person in control as the credits roll and the music swells.
It is inevitable that we will look back upon the films of the new millennium, assessing it like we have done the seventies and eighties. With the current need to remake every kitsch idea under the sun, we run at risk of leaving a void of creativity in our generation. Instead of having new works to be proud of, the new millennium will be a receptacle of rehashed ideas, with little new. Instead of looking at great films like Halloween
or The Hills Have Eyes
¸ the children of the new millennium will instead be raised on their remakes. They will have a generation of recycled culture rather than one of their own. But if all these remakes end up as good as Dawn of the Dead
and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, hell, we could do a lot worse.
Universal’s 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Dawn of the Dead
is actually somewhat of a letdown. For a film this new, the grain levels are a notch higher than they should be, and the color depth isn’t quite as detailed as one would expect. The reds look really red, without much room for different shades. Granted, this is due to Zack Snyder’s schizophrenic filter usage, but it still comes off unappealing. There is also a noticeable discrepancy between the unrated footage and the theatrical footage, with small bits of grain and dirt permeating the unrated material. The unrated footage also has more contrast and a flatter picture. Packing the film and supplements on one DVD also doesn’t help matters at all, either. For a newer film it could have been better, but held relative to most horror films on DVD it still looks much better than average.
Thankfully, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is much more rewarding than the picture. The audio is incredibly full, with a big workout on the LFE channel, and lots of hard bass rumblings. The numerous explosions in the film have real kick, and the squish and squash of zombie mutilation has rarely sounded crisper. The channel separation is effective and evident throughout, especially in some of the climactic scenes, where Ving Rhames’ booming voice echoes throughout the basement substructure. Given that there is a lot of action, all five speakers get a real workout, even the rears. There isn’t much to fault when it comes to audio.
Although this is only a single disc release, there is enough supplemental material here to easily warrant two. The major extra is a commentary with Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman, and it a great listen. The two are very hip and down to earth, and constantly laugh and joke along with the picture, using their own kind of lingo. They also reveal a lot about the production, like anecdotes about meeting Christina Aguilera on the set, throwing bodies off the roof while a church funeral was taking place below and how various effects shots were executed. There is never a gap of silence, it is, like the film, entertainment from start to finish.
The next supplement is “The Lost Tape”, which, like the end credit footage, is material taken from a video camera in the film. This 15-minute short documents Andy’s last few days as he encounters and wards off zombies, telling all in a confessionary format. Although this same kind of approach was detrimental during the end credits, it works much better here as a supplement. Another equally unique extra is a 20-minute mock news report on the zombie invasion. It serves as kind of a counterpoint to the start of the original Dawn of the Dead
, although it goes more for laughs. Notable scenes are zombie wrestling battles and white house press reports. While it can be a little tedious, the news report, like Andy’s confession, is a nice chance of pace from the usual EPK stuff found on most DVDs.
A number of short effects featurettes follow, with interviews with David Anderson (alas not Horrordvds’ own), Zack Snyder and various producers as they talk about how all the make-up and gore was conceived. The first title leaves little to the imagination, “Splitting Headaches: Anatomy of Exploding Heads”. On top of the obvious, there is fairly elaborate discussion by Anderson on how life casts were created for some of the big kills. “Attack of the Living Dead” gets even more in-depth with the kills, as it chronicles a number of the bigger deaths in the film. It is interesting to note that the “fat lady zombie” was actually played by a man. The last of the three featurettes, “Raising the Dead”, breaks down the three main stages of zombie make-up, and how all the extras were rounded up and done up. The three featurettes, which are all exclusive to the unrated disc, run 20 minutes in all.
There are a number of deleted scenes included with optional commentary by Snyder and Newman. There are some good standalone scenes, like one where Sarah Polley discusses Angelina Jolie and politics over a cup of coffee, and another where Jake Weber and Mekhi Phifer engage in some Pulp Fiction
-inspired banter. There is a bit more gore, but most of it is in the film itself. The film also has a small little optional video introduction by Zack Snyder, and it serves as a good refresher on what new scenes have been added. It also has a very subtle dig at the MPAA too, so that is always a plus.
All things considered, this really should have been a two-disc release, considering that there are three 6-channel audio tracks, a commentary and well over an hour of video based supplements. There are absolutely no promotional materials included on this disc, which is a shame, considering the first trailer won awards for its quality. Had Universal opted to exclude the skippable previews at the start of the film, they probably would have been able to cram it on. They didn’t, but this is still a great release.
Although not without flaw, Dawn of the Dead
is a respectable remake of one of the horror genre’s most esteemed classics. It is fast, fun and full of gore, and the unrated cut has more weight than one would expect. While the video is grainer and dirtier than usual new releases, the audio is spectacular. The supplements are full and diverse, and will leave everyone happy. Fans of horror, both new and old, should have no problem giving this Dead
film life in their collection.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B-
Sound - A
Supplements - A-
- Running time - 1 hour 50 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- French Dolby Digital 5.1
- Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
- English captions
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Commentary with director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman
- Deleted scenes with optional commentary
- "Splitting Headaches: Anatomy of Exploding Heads" featurette
- "Attack of the Living Dead" featurette
- "Raising the Dead" featurette
- Lost tape of Andy's final days
- Fake news broadcast
- Director introduction