I must confess that George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) doesn't really do much for me. I appreciate its importance as a seminal piece of horror cinema, and indeed its biting and quite excellently realized commentary on contemporary society, but I have never been as wild about it as its more ardent fans. As such, rest assured that my criticisms of this remake stem not from the automatic "defence mechanism" that I suspect was triggered in a number of the original film's most dedicated fans, but rather from issues that I have with this film in its own right. (Don't worry, I'm saving my venom for when Dimension Films desecrates my beloved Suspiria!) In any event, the fact that the remake is sufficiently different from the original for the only concrete connections to be the title, the undead and the fact that the main characters hole up in a shopping mall, suggests that it should be accepted on its own merits as a movie that is only loosely inspired by Romero's film.
Milwaukee A&E nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) awakens to find the world in the grip an unknown epidemic that turns the dead into crazed, blood-hungry zombies. After narrowly escaping from the jaws of her husband, who has fallen victim to the virus, Ana runs into fellow survivors Michael (Jake Weber), tough cop Kenneth (Ving Rhames) and a young couple, hot-headed Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant girlfriend Luda (Inna Korobkina). Together they make their way to the relative safety of a nearby shopping mall - a mall guarded by an arrogant security guard, CJ (Michael Kelly), and his two deputies, who seem to be just as eager to put bullets in the skulls of the living as they do the undead. As the world is overrun by the epidemic and the zombies close in, the small band must fight for their survival.
What immediately becomes apparent is that this rendition of the story has none of the scathing critique of consumer society that was present in the original. Indeed, Romero could have written his version with this remake in mind, since in this "re-imagining", explosions are cool and the slaughter of human beings is presented solely as a form of entertainment. The audience cheers and rushes to buy more overpriced popcorn. Initially, it seemed to me that director Zack Snyder had disposed of Dawn of the Dead's subtext entirely and at the same time played right into what Romero had been trying to say about society in the original. However, after watching it again, it strikes me that the social commentary is still present, but it is of a different nature and takes a back seat to the popcorn action. In Romero's film, the survivors were portrayed as being the human equivalent of a horde of insects: moving into an area and colonizing it, then moving on when its natural supplies were exhausted. Snyder's version shows its protagonists to be a lot more individual and indeed more selfish, each going in their own direction within the mall, with communication breaking down as they gloat over their own personal possessions and "territories". At the end of the day, it probably comes down to personal opinion as to which interpretation is more reflective of human nature.
It quickly becomes clear that the remake's screenwriter, James Gunn (who happens to be the same man responsible for that monstrosity known as Scooby Doo), is going through the motions rather than looking to innovate. Lacking Romero's subversive sense of humour, the jokes are a lot more brazen and in your face. Some of the dialogue and reactions are actually very amusing, but by and large it seems like easy humour - canned laughter of the sitcom variety. Gunn comes from the Troma stable, and this is very much Troma comedy - in other words, not so much laugh out loud funny as "Oooh, black comedy in unpleasant situations!" funny. The problems extend beyond the comedic aspects of the script, too, with an inconsistent pace and an overly large cast. Whereas the original film essentially boiled down to four main characters, the remake is cluttered with individuals whose personalities are either extremely stereotypical or so ill-defined that they blend together. Furthermore, there is never any real sense of character development, with everyone seeming to come out of the experience as they went in, barring asshole mall cop CJ (Michael Kelly), who is the only character to undergo any sort of change as the movie progresses. I am also somewhat disappointed that Snyder and Gunn failed to include what was perhaps the original's most important element: a pie fight.
What saves the film is, primarily, the strength of the actors. Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Kelly and Jake Weber all give strong performance, but the single biggest coup that lifts the whole film out of the pits of mediocrity is Sarah Polley, an actor about whom I have waxed lyrical on more than one occasion. Better known for her independent roles, she here takes on a role that could easily be accused of being beneath her and somehow manages to make it three-dimensional. One of Polley's greatest assets is her expressive face and, even when working with a script that is complete devoid of subtlety, she can distill the required emotions and use her vivid features to get the point across. She is, in my opinion, one of the strongest and most interesting actors in modern cinema, and if I were a complete snob I might say that she's too good for this movie. But I'm not, so I'll simply say that she gives a typically superb performance and that Snyder and co. should thank their lucky stars she agreed to this gig, as it would have been a vastly weaker movie without her.
Another of the remake's strengths is its fast pace. It hits the ground rolling, with a pre-credits prologue that borders on the ridiculous but is fun and involving. The laughs do indeed come thick and fast, mixed in with explosions, squealing zombies and plenty of karo syrup. At times you may not know whether you're laughing at something genuinely amusing just the whole stupidity of it all, but it does actually work. The pace is less consistent once the survivors reach the mall, since the tension lets off and we have to contend with the fact that the dialogue is clumsy, clichéd and overly expositional. At least partially making up for the poor script, however, is the film's look. While Matthew Leonetti's camerawork is fairly uninspired, rarely demonstrating anything more than passable use of the widescreen frame, the post processing that has been applied to the material is very interesting. Whereas the original version was shot in a very matter of fact manner, the colour timing of the remake has been tweaked quite heavily. The world of the undead seems to be a very colourful place, with rich blues, greens and yellows and an extremely high contrast. Snyder also throws in some different shutter speeds during a mad dash to escape the mall during the final act, which gives the footage a very staccato-like motion. This is nothing new - in fact, Ridley Scott does it all the time, most notably in Gladiator's battle sequences - but it is definitely put to good use here. Finally, one more age-old horror movie cliché is put to good use: as the movie progresses, the film stock becomes grainier.
The Dawn of the Dead remake is an entertaining action movie with a better cast than most films of its kind, although it has neither the intelligence nor the delightful cheese of the original. It is, however, significantly different from its predecessor for it to be judged on its own merits, so crank up the volume, sit back and enjoy the carnage, and everyone drink a nice tall glass of shut the fuck up.
The Director's Cut
The unrated director's cut presented on this disc includes some 9 minutes of material that was shorn from the R-rated theatrical cut - a combination of MPAA and studio interference, meaning that some of the gorier material was lost, but also a number of character moments. While the new footage doesn't really change the film in any significant manner - generally amounting to a handful of additional gore shots, a couple of extra dialogue scenes and an additional encounter with the undead when our intrepid band of survivors are making their way to the mall - its inclusion here is certainly appreciated, making the package feel slightly meatier overall.
Left: R1 version; Right: R3 version
(click to open larger image in new window)
By the way, it would appear that the Region 1 version of the director's cut has been censored. That's right, the unrated version that was, I quote, "too scary for theaters", has been cut. The scene in question is one that appears during the pre-credits prologue, and was not included in the theatrical version. It features a nude female zombie staggering about in front of Ana's car. In the Region 3 release of the film, her breasts are fully visible, but on in the R1 version, they have been obscured by some conveniently-placed blood on the car windscreen. Arguably illustrative of the idiotic nature of American censorship as a whole, this is quite possibly the first ever instance of censoring nudity by adding additional gore! For more information, see this thread at HorrorDVDs.com.
The film is presented, anamorphically enhanced, in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The first thing that stands out about this transfer is its extremely high contrast and saturation - more so, indeed, than that of its theatrical presentation. As a result, the whites tend to bloom and the dark scenes are very dark, but this does seem to be intentional and does create a certain sense of style. There is also a pleasing amount of grain and negative damage present on the source print, reminding you that you are indeed watching a film and not a digital video. The result is that Dawn of the Dead replicates the experience of the original cinema presentation better than just about any recent DVD I can think of. Less pleasing is the edge enhancement that has been applied to the transfer. Close-ups look very good, demonstrating a high level of detail, but long and medium shots are less impressive, often looking somewhat diffuse with fairly noticeable haloing. Overall this is an impressive transfer, just falling shy of full marks, which could easily have been reached had it not been filtered and edge enhanced to this degree.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is solid and very loud. A home theatre system exhibitionist's dream, the mix threatens to overwhelm at times but generally supports the film's overblown nature. The dialogue is, for the most part, crisp and easy to make out, and any lines that are unclear are generally due to the actors mumbling their lines. With a film like this, a DTS mix would have been a very nice addition, but instead the space that could have been used for such a track is taken up by French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs.
Subtitles are provided in English, French and Spanish, and they are the usual Universal kind where the text is positioned on the screen in the general area of the character that is speaking. In an impressive move, Universal have subtitled all of the bonus features, with the exception of the commentaries on the main feature itself and the deleted scenes. While not perfect, this state of affairs is a good deal better than that of most Universal DVDs, and is perhaps a sign that, in the future, they will be able to get their act together and fully subtitle entire packages.
Real American Heroes™.
The extras begin with a Director's introduction, which you are given a choice to play every time you start the film. It ends up being a fairly redundant feature, with Zack Snyder basically saying that the new cut contains more gore and character moments and is more personal to him overall.
The Lost Tape - This 16-minute video diary features Andy (Bruce Bohne), the gun shop owner from the movie, and essentially shows his story in a more up close and personal manner. It proves to be elatively entertaining without being particularly interesting or revealing.
Special Report - This 21-minute feature is essentially comprised of segments of mocked-up news broadcasts covering the outbreak of the zombie epidemic. While relatively entertaining, it does run for a bit too long and features some genuinely awful acting that I'd be hard-pressed to label as either intentional or accidental.
Undead Scenes - These deleted scenes are provided with optional commentary by Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman. Generally they are extended or alternative riffs on scenes that remain in the movie, but a couple are completely new and feature some entertaining ad libbed conversations between Sarah Polley and Jake Weber. Snyder, by the way, seems to be a little confused as to Polley's political affiliation - either that or someone needs to explain to him the difference between communism and socialism.
Raising the Dead - This 8-minute featurette goes behind the scenes to look at the process of creating zombie make-up.
Attack of the Living Dead - At slightly over 7 minutes, this featurette focuses on various specific zombies, discussing the creation of their personalities and make-up, and the execution of their stunts.
Splitting Headaches - This 6-minute feature focuses on various gore effects and how they were created.
Commentary - Featuring Snyder and Newman, this commentary track is entertaining but not particularly noteworthy - much like the film itself. All of the main bases are covered, including the actors, the make-up, the locations used and the process of adapting the script from Romero's original. However, a little too much time is spent praising all on sundry, emphasized especially by the end credits, where the duo do little more than read out various names and remark "he/she was great".
Previews are also included for various other Universal horror titles. They play automatically when the disc is inserted, but can be skipped by pressing the MENU button.
There are some disappointments with this line-up of extras. First of all, it's a shame that no overall documentary was provided for the film, as it would have been interesting to get an extended look at its production process. The various featurettes are mostly entertaining, but they only focus on specific aspects of the making of the movie and are therefore not particularly enlightening in the grand scheme of things. I would also have appreciated hearing from the various actors, who are all but absent from this disc. Finally, the theatrical trailer, which I remember being pretty good, is nowhere to be found.
Unsurprisingly, this big budget remake is not a patch on George A. Romero's original film, but it does manage to be an entertaining and well-acted, if unremarkable, piece of work in its own right. With a strong audio-visual presentation, the extras are a little disappointing, but this package is still worth picking up, especially if you enjoyed the movie at the cinema.