DAWN OF THE DEAD - DVD review

...after watching this remarkable Director's Cut of the film, I slept on the couch with the lights on and left my television tuned to the Comedy Central channel.

TimRaynor's picture
Tim
Raynor
John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

The Film According to Tim:
Back when I was a very young lad, I remembered hearing radio advertisements for George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead" playing at a local theater in downtown Portland. The theater would play these films as a double feature all through the month of October. I can never forget the tagline in the advertisement: "Just remind yourself, it's only a movie...it's only a movie." They had always been advertised as some of the most frightening films known to mankind. And probably for good reason because, after all, what could be more frightening than the dead walking the earth and eating the living?

It wouldn't be until the time I was in high school that I finally had the chance to see Romero's 1978 version of "Dawn of the Dead." Back then, I had a friend whose father bought a laser-disc player, and a bunch of us kids got together on a Saturday night to watch Romero's classic. I remember the film scared the living crap out of me, and I ended up sleeping with the lights on for weeks. Of course, as a youngster, it was easy to be frightened over a simple horror movie. However, as I've grown older I find very few films in this genre actually scare me. I'm pleased to report that Zack Snyder's remake of "Dawn of the Dead" frightened me almost as much as the original classic of 1978. In fact, after watching this remarkable Director's Cut of the film, I slept on the couch with the lights on and left my television tuned to the Comedy Central channel.

I'm honestly ecstatic and very pleased to finally see a film that actually scared me. It's been so many years since I've seen a film of this genre that was that effective. My hat is off to Zack Snyder for actually getting in touch with what a real horror film should be. The atmosphere, pacing, gore, and tension were everything that I would ever want or demand in a decent zombie movie. The thrills were relentless in every degree, and that alone makes this film worth the price of admission. I honestly can't think of a horror film that has been this effective in years. Gore Verbinski's "The Ring" from 2003 came close, but nothing like this movie delivered.

As in Danny Boyle's 2002 film, "28 Days Later," our zombies are faster, stronger, more aggressive and far more wicked than we've seen in any zombie movie of its kind. What's even more remarkable is the outstanding makeup job done on the walking dead. At the start of the film, they appear more as people with horrific flesh wounds. By mid section of the film, they begin to pale and look as though something you might see in the city morgue. And by the end, our zombies have finally begun to decay with a substantial amount of grotesque flesh falling from their bones. However, compared to Danny Boyle's version of the walking dead, we are able to get much closer to the zombies of "Dawn of the Dead." Granted, I liked "28 Days Later," but I never found Boyle's camera work or his distance from the cosmetics of the terrorizing creatures to be that effective. Zack Snyder's version of a zombie is everything that I would expect, and he does it with precision.

In the original "Dawn of the Dead," we follow a cast of living characters who find refuge in a local shopping mall. Not much has changed from the original as we find a new cast of survivors in an updated, more elaborate mall than in the original film. They are lead by a cast that includes Ana (Sarah Polley), a hospital nurse left widowed by her husband who was freakishly bitten by a zombie in the beginning of the film. Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a police officer who is bold, yet strangely distant from the events going on around him. Michael (Jake Webber), a young adult who seems to be in charge of his surroundings but is not as accepted as a leader due to his lowly station as a television salesman at Best Buy. Then there's Andre (Mekhi Phifer), who is a soon-to-be father of his first child.

There are several other characters who join the cast, and what's interesting is how each of them becomes so important to the film. Within each character, we are able to find a unique connection that easily relates to us all as an audience. Unlike Romero's version, we have a lot more people to care about and who are far more diverse in nature. Each person brings an honest sense of reality to the film and is able to make such a keen sense of connection that you can't help rooting for them, even if you don't like them. Now, as with any film with a multiple number of characters, I would usually complain that there are far too many people to keep track of. However, we need to remember this is a zombie movie, and some people have to die.

As with any zombie movie, there are common rules. You can only kill zombies by shooting them in the head, or at least crushing their skull with whatever object you can find. What's fun about this film is our characters have no clue about this rule, at least in the beginning, and it is as if they are learning it for their first time. As for myself, I was sitting there screaming, "Shoot 'em in the head!" Fortunately, Zack Snyder directed this film as if it were the first time we have ever experienced zombies. And, of course, there's always the question of what caused the dead to walk upon the earth. The answer is simply unknown. I generally like a film that at least gives me an answer to why things are happening. Not that I need to be spoon-fed; I just demand a sense of logic in films. However, with "Dawn of the Dead" it is actually far more effective that you know very little about why the dead are all-of-a-sudden cannibalistic man-eaters. To me, it makes the film feel much more realistic, and it makes it that much more frightening. I mean, after all, if the dead actually did start walking the earth, how would it be explained? In this film, the answers are left up to the supernatural, the spiritual, or the simply unexplainable. In some ways, I found it absolutely creepy that the entire premise had no answers, and it made the film that much more effective.

Overall, "Dawn of the Dead" is a film that grabs you by the seat of your pants and never lets go. It is a relentless ride of thrills and chills and is likely to be one of the best remakes of its genre ever. Zack Snyder obviously did his homework on Romero's classic, and it shows. Snyder did an outstanding job adding a few updated touches of his own, which added to the film and gave it a far more realistic feel than we've found in most zombie movies of the past thirty years. It is certainly a must-see movie for those who have enjoyed the zombie culture since the time of its birth.

Video:
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen, 2.35:1 ratio. The picture does have a saturated contrast of color, and the dark areas appear very black, yet not murky or heavily grained. It appears that the film could have been shot digitally to give it the creepy, atmospheric feel it had, but it was done in 35mm. It isn't that the image is flawed in any way; it just that it's obvious the picture was shot in a way to give in an artistic touch. For whatever reason, it works remarkably well the way it is. For the most part, it is sharp and has acceptable clarity.

Audio:
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, French and Spanish. The overall sound is very acceptable, and I found it to be slightly better than the video. The dynamics were very well balanced, and there are plenty of sound-effect moments to enjoy in the film. All tones from high-to-low range were superb from one speaker to the next. From explosions to dialogue, the film's audio does an exceptionally fine job in delivering what any consumer would expect from ear candy.

Extras:
The Unrated Director's Cut of the film gives us nine more minutes of the film compared to the original theatrical release. Beyond that, there are a few more extras on the disc as well. As for the regular extras found on the theatrical release DVD, you will find "The Lost Tape," which is an addition to make the film seem more realistic. In the film, we are introduced to a character named Andy (Bruce Bohne). Andy owns a gun shop across from the mall and is able to communicate with our main characters on a rooftop by writing on a dry-erase board. What we don't know is that Andy has been making a home video of his events during this time, and his tape is what this extra feature is all about.

There is also a similar extra called "Special Report: Zombie Invasion" where we are shown video clips of the news media reporting the zombie outbreak. This is also a feature that adds to the overall realism of the film, and it isn't too bad, if a little overacted. There are also the usual deleted scenes and a commentary by director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman.

As for the Director's Cut of the film, there are three more features, which are short documentaries on the making of the film. First, there's "Splitting Heads: Anatomy of Exploding Heads." In this feature, we learn about how special effects were used to make the zombies' heads explode from gunshots. It's fairly interesting, if not gross. Second, there's a feature called "Attack of the Living Dead," which is about the most memorable zombie kills of the movie. It's kind of fun to watch, but if you've seen it once, there's no need to see it again. Last on the list is a feature called "Raising the Dead." This is one of the most-interesting features because we get to see the endless cast of extras put through the daily grind of putting on their makeup effects. There is some really good insight in this feature on how they made these zombies look different from Romero's zombies of 1978.

As a note to readers, there are the usual previews at the beginning of the DVD. However, Universal has been nice enough to allow us to get to the main menu by simply clicking on the "Menu" button on our remote control. Nevertheless, if you do want to see the previews, you can access them through the Special Features menu.

Parting Thoughts from Tim:
Finally, after all the years I've waited to see a film that would scare me again as it did when I was young, I have to admit I'm surprised to have found it in an old remake. In some ways, it's almost ironic that the original from 1978 scared me to death as a kid, and now the new 2004 version came close to doing the same. Call me a wimp, but, hey, isn't that what a movie like this is supposed to do? As for those who enjoy horror films, forget your "Scream," forget your "I Know What You Did Last Summer," forget your "Jeepers Creepers." When you want to see a horror film done right, then you absolutely cannot fail with "Dawn of the Dead."

Miscellaneous Musings from John:
I had occasion to see this 2004 version of "Dawn of the Dead" just a few days after I watched the older and much inferior zombie spoof "Night of the Living Dead Part II," which may or may not have influenced my appreciation for the newer film. From the first few minutes onward, I found "Dawn" as hella scary as any zombie movie ever made, and its intensity never lets up for a second.

The movie is, of course, based on the George Romero classic from 1978, yet it's a whole new ball game. We've still got the main characters in the shopping mall, but we have less emphasis now on the satiric allegory of consumerism that permeated the original and more stress on pure thrills. Equally important are the story's characterizations, and I came to know and understand the people trapped and in peril in this new account better than ever; thus, I felt for them more and worried about them more. So, not only is "Dawn" thrilling, it's suspenseful, too.

Add in director Zack Snyder's superb pacing, which has things moving at a nonstop clip, plus extraordinarily good acting and a larger budget than Romero had the first time around, and we get a different film from Romero's, maybe not better but surely fresh and innovative. For instance, we get a bigger cast, better special effects, many of them realistically computer generated, more convincing costumes and makeup, more elaborate sets, stronger production values, and improved cinematography and sound. We also get creatures that are no longer the lumbering pushovers of the old days but fierce, fast, frightening beings who are genuinely threatening.

The result of all this attention to detail is a continuous, bloody Armageddon, which, nevertheless, takes time out to let us know about its participants. In fact, the new "Dawn" reminded me in the best possible way of "Aliens," right down to the female lead, played by Sarah Polley. Expect things to jump out at you from everywhere and anywhere, and consider it a good thing to have Ving Rhames on your side when it happens. Expect also, as I said, to feel for the characters and their situation, and expect to find a good number of moral decisions being made along the way, in sum taking this monster picture well out of the range of the commonplace.

Expect, too, a healthy quotient of blood and gore, most of it looking startlingly convincing. This DVD edition of the film is unrated for having never been submitted to the ratings board, but if it had been submitted, I wouldn't doubt it might have scored an NC-17 for some of its violence. Yet it is not the violence that makes it exciting so much as the constant tension. Its hour-and-fifty-minutes running time go by in a flash.

I found only one incident toward the end of the film somewhat implausible, given its context in an otherwise believable, if fantastical, world. However, to be distracted only once in an entire horror film seems to me a pretty good sign. Oh, and be sure to stay all the way through the closing credits. Like any good monster, this monster movie just never lets up.

Interestingly, the new "Dawn of the Dead" appeared in theaters worldwide at about the same time as the well-received parody-tribute to zombie movies, "Shaun of the Dead." I'm not sure that audiences weren't a little confused about the similarity of the titles, but I can assure you the two films are very different in tone and both are entirely worthwhile as good, fun views, solid 8/10's at the very least.

"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth," says a television evangelist in "Dawn of the Dead." No kidding. This one is a nail-biter from beginning to end.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
9
Extras
7
Film Value
9