Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director’s Cut
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 110 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen Frame (2.35:1)
Subtitles: French and Spanish
Audio: English, French, and Spanish – Dolby Digital 5.1
October 26th, 2004
George A. Romero’s revered zombie trilogy, which began with the legendary Night of the Living Dead, has aged much better than most horror flicks from the late 1960s – late 1970s (yeah, I know that Day of the Dead was released in 1985, but I hope you get my point ) . In large part, this is due to Romero’s skill as a director, his ability to assemble a talented and passionate crew, and the inimitable way he equated living human beings, particularly those subscribing to the consumer culture, to mindless zombies.
The qualities that Mr. Romero has instilled in his films have inspired the makers of countless horror pictures in ensuing years, and even led to an ill-fated attempt to remake his seminal picture in 1990. Let’s face it; remaking films, especially bona-fide classics, can be an extremely risky proposition. Fortunately, however, the poor reception that the remade Night of the Living Dead received did not turn first-time director Zack Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn (Romeo & Juliet) off to the idea of putting their own spin on the second of Romero’s three zombie films, Dawn of the Dead.
Indeed, about the only thing Snyder’s take on Dawn of the Dead has in common with its predecessor is the shopping mall set in which most of the action takes place. For instance, whereas Romero utilized the shopping mall to take a not-so-subtle swipe at consumerism, it is merely the locale in which Zack Snyder’s take on the story occurs, not a location used to make a statement.
The filmmakers also employed different scare tactics than those favored by George A. Romero. Specifically, while Romero never tacked on any clichéd, and now obligatory fright scenes (like a cat jumping out at a character from off-screen) to his films, and used his slow, staggering zombies to instill a building sense of fear in his audience, Snyder seems to rely more on speed, shock, and lightning quick editing for effect. In simpler terms, Snyder’s “modern” undead creatures move much more swiftly, a la Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later, which makes the plight of the survivors that much more hopeless.
Actually, now that I think about it, calling this version of Dawn of the Dead a remake would probably be something of a mistake. In my opinion, the film Snyder and Gunn have put together is more of a re-imagination than a remake. What I mean is that while the premise is similar to that of the in the original, the story’s details are vastly different, so even those who are familiar with Romero’s version may find this version an exciting twist on a classic tale.
In terms of the particulars, the events in Dawn of the Dead take place in the city of Everett, Wisconsin, where a mysterious ailment is decimating the population. We never know precisely how the epidemic begins, but we very quickly learn that anyone bitten by an infected “zombie” rapidly deteriorates and passes away, and is almost immediately reanimated as a ghoulish killing machine. Initially, the survivors find out such information by watching news broadcasts that outline the spread of the epidemic around the globe. Before long, however, the networks sign off, and the survivors begin to realize that they cannot rely on the authorities for help, and that their only hope of staying alive is to hunker down in places the zombies cannot reach.
In this dreary, apocalyptic setting, a group of five – a nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley), a tough cop named Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a TV salesman named Michael (Jake Weber), and expectant parents Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and Luda (Inna Korobkina) – meet on the street, and resolve to seek refuge and supplies in the Crossroads Mall. There they encounter a trio of security guards, C.J. (Michael Kelly), and his cohorts, Terry (Kevin Zegers) and Bart (Michael Barry), who are extremely resistant to the idea of others sharing their space and scarce resources. Fortunately, after a protracted standoff, these folks reach the logical conclusion that they will have an easier time of surviving against the hordes of undead ghouls if they join forces.
Shortly thereafter, the group expands yet again, when the occupants of the mall rescue a truck full of people from a loading dock connected to the mall. The additions to the group include Steve (Ty Burrell), Monica (Kim Poirier), a father and daughter named Frank (Matt Frewer) and Nicole (Lindy Booth), an older woman named Norma (Jayne Eastwood), and Tucker (Boyd Banks).
As they band together, these very dissimilar people try to keep from turning on each other, and beat the odds by staying alive, despite the fact that the number of undead creatures wanting to consume their flesh continues to grow. After a time, these survivors (some of them reluctantly) formulate a plan to escape to an island, hoping that they might find a place free of zombies. But as time passes, and supplies and hopes dwindle, it is uncertain that any of the survivors will reach a safe haven (if there even is one)…
One of the things that impressed me about this version of Dawn of the Dead is how much less stupid the characters seem than in most “blockbuster” horror films. To be sure, there are still a few times when the characters seem to lack common sense, but with the exception of a woman who rushes into the jaws of death (er, zombies) to save a dog, there are very few instances of blatant stupidity –like in Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, when that annoying redneck Jake runs into a forest filled with demons in search of his girlfriend Bobbie Joe, right after heaving the pages that could save his life into a dank cellar.
I don’t know, I suppose that the sole purpose of some characters in these types of films is to die, and with so many characters on hand in Dawn, it is inevitable (and expected) that a handful will be underdeveloped and somewhat “stupid”, existing merely to contribute to the picture’s death toll. What I was not expecting, however, was the much stronger than usual development of characters like Ana, Kenneth, Michael, and Andre, who are fleshed out enough that one cares about their plight, and whether or not they survive.
Indeed, a few subplots, like Andre’s concern for his unborn child and regret over some of the actions he has taken in life, and Kenneth’s friendship-from-a-distance with a man stranded on the roof of a nearby gun store, are atypical of those found in most horror films, as they are truly touching. Granted, most horror fans don’t look to their favorite genre for solid character development and emotionally resonant moments, so I am happy to report that there are more than a few moments of effective fright, and plenty of wonderfully gooey gore and violence, thanks to the top-notch makeup effects by David Leroy Anderson and his crew.
As far as performances are concerned, the cast of Dawn of the Dead proves to be a solid ensemble, with Sarah Polley going far beyond the boundaries of the helpless leading ladies found in many horror films of the past (like the blonde nitwit in the original Night of the Living Dead), and Ving Rhames whose turn as the leader of the small group of survivors is very smooth. The remainder of the cast was fine, particularly Jake Weber, Mekhi Pfifer, and Ty Burrell, who I also thought did some really good work in the film.
Fans of George A. Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead will likely be happy to know that this Dawn of the Dead also pays quite a bit of homage to the film it is based upon. In particular, be sure to look out for cameo appearances by Tom Savini, Scott Reiniger, and Ken Foree (who again get to speak the line: “When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”), which are obvious nods to Romero’s classic film.
Technically, the film is also top notch, as the three-stage zombie makeup, designed by David Anderson, is on the same level as the ground-breaking work that Tom Savini put into Romero’s Dawn of the Dead way back in 1978. These effects make a great pairing with the outstanding cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti, which effectively places viewers into the nightmarish environment that the films protagonists are attempting to survive.
For all of these reasons, while Dawn of the Dead certainly cannot lay claim to being the most original film, it is a taut, suspenseful, and gory fright-fest that should please most fans of George A. Romero’s zombie trilogy, for the way its captures the originals spirit. By the way, be sure to keep watching after the end credits begin to roll, as they are commingled with brief video clips that further flesh out the story!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
As you might expect from a zombie thriller like Dawn of the Dead, there is blood, gore, and dismemberment aplenty, and the anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer ensures that it is recreated in all of its gooey glory, down to the last chunk of dislodged brain matter! Getting serious though, colors are bold, well saturated, and beautifully drawn, which highlights the superb “special makeup effects” by David Leroy Anderson and company!
In addition to the print being free from defects or damage, small object detail is also extremely sharp and impressive throughout the film. Blacks are both very deep and as smooth as velvet, giving the image excellent shadow detail and a fluid, three-dimensional appearance. The consistency of Dawn’s black level goes a long way to making this a commendable home video presentation as well, since many scenes in the film take place in darkened rooms/areas within the shopping mall.
Yet another plus is that although the film is sandwiched onto DVD with 3 separate 5.1 channel audio tracks, a commentary track, and several lengthy featurettes, compression artifacts never intrude on the viewing experience. Unfortunately, edge enhancement is noticeable during a few sequences, although ringing is never present in a quantity that is more than a very slight distraction, and it always comes and goes very quickly.
All in all, this transfer brings a wonderfully horrific visual experience home, bringing the very best out of the Matthew F. Leonetti’s hard work! Hats off to the folks at Universal home video for a good job…a bloody good job, that is!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
The soundtrack for Dawn of the Dead, offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 (in English, French, and Spanish), is pretty much on par with the disc’s excellent visuals, being that it is clean, powerful, and extremely engaging. First off, the huge soundstage, precise imaging, and wonderfully smooth frequency response throughout the audible spectrum left me greatly impressed.
Dialogue (and screams), in particular, ring through loud and clear, even when they are competing against other sounds/music for space in the mix. Ambient noises and quieter sounds, like those of spent shell casings clinking against the floor, are also rendered with stunning clarity and realism.
Further, as the zombies stalk the living, the ever-present surround channels either put viewers right in the middle of the chaos or establish an appropriately chilling atmosphere – whatever is called for by any particular sequence. Honestly, there are a great many noteworthy moments created by the rear speakers, such as helicopters whooshing about the sound field, outstanding atmospheric effects while characters explore dark areas, and of course, how they bring the feeling of being pursued by bloodthirsty zombies to life. As if that was not enough, the rears also handle more mundane tasks, such as bleeding (no pun intended) the film’s score and sourced music into the listening space, delightfully.
Last, but not least, low bass is thunderous (if a tad “boomy”) throughout the feature, so listeners can almost “feel” every crunch of bone, sickening tear of flesh, or gunshot. Bottom line, the audio elements of Dawn of the Dead are boisterous and exciting, and this Dolby Digital transfer of that source keeps those feelings intact!!! If you like a dynamic, aggressive sonic experience, you are in for a real treat!
Put together on the eve before the film hit theaters, director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman offer their unique insight into the process of re-engineering one of George A. Romero’s classic zombie flicks, Dawn of the Dead, for a new generation of filmgoers. This is a very good commentary track, as not only were both gentlemen easy to listen to, but they were informative and funny as well.
Some of the things I found most interesting were:
--- Zack Snyder’s self-effacing comments on his first time directing a feature film, especially as it pertains to his initial desire to shoot the film chronologically.
--- An interesting discussion about the purpose of the montage of video clips used during the opening credit sequence.
--- The duo pointing out some of the cameos in the film, as well as more subtle homages to the original Dawn of the Dead.
--- Several discussions about how the locations in the film, and how the production designers created the nightmarish reality the characters inhabit.
If you liked the movie, I think that you will definitely find this commentary worth a listen, as Zack Snyder and Eric Newman serve up a wealth of anecdotes from the set, discuss ideas dropped from the film, and additional background on some of the characters/scenes in the film.
The Lost Tape
Shot exclusively for the DVD release of Dawn of the Dead, this extra consists of approximately 15 minutes of unseen footage shot by Andy (Bruce Bohne), one of the survivors who battles the throngs of zombies trying to get into his gun shop and chats with the pet fish that keeps him company. As the days drag on, and the number of zombies increases, he also has to battle to keep his sanity as his supplies dwindle and he comes to the realization that he may never get out.
Special Bulletin: Zombie Invasion!
This bonus feature consists of 20 minutes worth of increasingly grisly and depressing news reports, including briefings from both the White House and Center for Disease Control, who discuss the spread of whatever it is turning people into flesh eating ghouls. I actually enjoyed most of these “reports”, but at 20 minutes it does begin to drag after a bit. Look for a funny cameo by Tom Savini as Sheriff Cahill, part of which appears in the finished film!
A total of 11 scenes excised from the film, which run for nearly 11 1/2 minutes, are included, along with optional commentary by director Zack Snyder. These sequences were mostly cut for time, as the information covered therein is either unnecessary, covered elsewhere in the final film, or should be evident. For example, the characters are shown getting ready to board up the mall doors, and observing the growing number of undead from the roof. They are still worth checking out, however, if only for a couple of good “cheap” scares that were cut from the theatrical version of the film.
Splitting Headache: Anatomy of Exploding Heads
This interesting 5 ½ minute featurette will thrill fans of excessive gore, as David Leroy Anderson (responsible for the makeup effects) provides plenty of detail on how the head-kills in the film were made to look realistic. More specifically, he comments on the varying methods used, from quick-and-dirty “mortar packs” to more elaborate exit wounds and exploding heads, such as that used for “Burt Reynolds”.
Attack of the Living Dead
This nifty extra also spotlights the gorier sequences in the film, as it breaks down some of the more memorable zombie kills. Again, David Leroy Anderson offers interesting explanations on the creation of the following five death scenes:
--- The Flying Zombie
--- The Jogging Zombie
--- The Bloated Woman
Raising the Dead
In this brief featurette, Zack Snyder, David Leroy Anderson, and a couple of the film’s producers offer viewers a look at how actors/extras were transformed into savage undead monsters. In particular, Anderson talks about how excited he was to work on this project, his morbid inspiration for the makeup effects, and how the zombies were designed to appear as if they were decomposing as the film progressed.
On an aside, the featurette contains some righteous guitar riffing from “The F***ing Champs”. Now if only I had used that band name when I was actually in bands, maybe I would have made it big…
The disc kicks off with previews/trailers for Van Helsing, a variety of Universal’s catalog horror titles, Seed of Chucky, and Shaun of the Dead.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
While not nearly as original (or satirical) as George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s re-imagination of the film has about all you can ask for in a modern horror film – it has plenty of excitement, a few good frights, great effects, and buckets of gore!!! Some of the characters are also developed to a surprising degree, and the acting is generally good throughout as well. Technically, the film is superior as well, featuring some fantastic makeup from David Leroy Anderson and excellent cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti.
As for its DVD presentation, Universal has done a very good job on this disc, cramming the film, three 5.1 tracks, a commentary, and several featurettes onto the disc, without degrading image quality. The soundtrack is also both aggressive and realistic, plunging viewers right into the middle of the living survivors’ fight to stay alive! And of course, there are those extras – an informative commentary and several interesting featurettes on the effects work, plus two longer extras that flesh out the film. Good things!
Being a devotee of George A. Romero’s films, I was skeptical of this Dawn of the Dead before I saw it in the theater. Now that I have seen it several times, I still have the same feeling I had when I left the cinema – it is not the equal of the film that inspired it, but it is a fun, darn good action/horror flick that goes for the jugular right away and never relents! For these reasons, and because it is a perfect movie to enjoy with some friends on or around Halloween, Dawn of the Dead comes highly recommended!!!