Dawn of the Dead (2004): Director's Cut Review
"Hell is overflowing and Satan is sending his dead to us! Why? Because you have sex out of wedlock. You kill unborn children. You have man-on-man relations. Same sex marriage. How do you think your God will judge you? Well, friends, now we know. When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth."
It’s rather fitting, that the best piece of dialogue in Zack Snyder’s remake, is spoken by the original’s Ken Foree. 2004’s version of Dawn of the Dead doesn’t distance itself from it’s immortal brethren, and for that, we should thank it. After all, how was a commercial director on his first feature, ever going to trounce the mighty George Romero? It wasn’t likely, but Universal had some faith in him, producing a film that satisfied the fan-boys and refused to ignore the 1978 classic. Anyone reading this page, will no doubt be aware of my love for the original - a nightmarish glimpse into a world beyond hope. Thankfully, Snyder keeps the apocalyptic vibe going, and with a Hollywood budget, manages to show chaos in a way that Romero couldn’t. It’s a pumped-up, slightly ridiculous juggernaut, that removes substance for thrills. Naturally, I enjoyed it quite a bit.
My colleague Michael Mackenzie has already delved into this house of horrors, so there isn’t much left to say. That said, I might as well discuss its best ingredients. Thankfully, Snyder isn’t a pretentious hack; successfully bypassing the social commentary that infused the first film. In most respects, this was probably a good call - it couldn’t have been handled more blatantly than in Romero’s opus. While James Gunn’s screenplay often treads the boards of satire, it never falls head-first into the deep meaning of his predecessor’s work. Dawn of the Dead couldn’t be more simplistic (and clichéd). The dead have risen from the grave, causing widespread panic and mayhem. Fighting for their lives, a motley group of survivors hold up in a shopping mall. Clearly, the similarities to Dawn #1 stop here. Apart from the title and location, Snyder’s horror film is a very different beast.
First of all, Snyder had the good sense to employ a game cast. It’s about ten times better than the usual round-up of big-breasted scream queens, and while many of them are stuck with stereotypes, they clearly have enthusiasm for the material. Sarah Polley makes a stronger female lead than most, bringing with her those indie credentials. It’s also good to see Ving Rhames in a role he’s born to play (and arguably, always has played). Still, his scenes with Mekhi Phifer allow him to show more than grunting machoism, and there’s clearly heart behind the shotgun. Still, it’s the cameos that spark the greatest reaction. Seeing Foree, Scott Reiniger and effects maestro Tom Savini on screen again, is enough to make the film worth watching. Even the absent Gaylen Ross gets her due, with a department store no less...
More importantly, the film doesn’t skimp on violence. A defining aspect of Romero’s picture, Snyder amps up the blood and guts to dizzying levels. Thankfully, most of the shots are achieved with classic techniques; the make-up and prosthetics have rarely been better in the genre. Still, it doesn’t have the cold, hard punch of Savini’s work, mostly since Snyder doesn’t dwell on the details, and refuses to get truly nasty (you won’t see anyone get disembowelled here). The director goes for the grand guignol fun-house approach, with fast-cut editing and swish pans that make the atmosphere fun and grisly, rather than shocking and perverse. Ultimately, his approach satisfies, since studios rarely take such relish in dismemberment these days. In fact, it’s heightened in the “Director’s Cut”, with more bang for you buck, and a spot of zombie nudity (shown uncensored in the UK, unlike the R1 version).
Which leaves us with the fiends of the title. Once again, Snyder has made changes to the formula, cribbing from 28 Days Later with the fast-moving dead. With literally hundreds of extras, the film definitely take it’s name seriously. While the choice to have athletic zombies instead of lumbering masses of flesh is a controversial one, it certainly helps to give the scenes an extra charge of tension. It all amounts to an efficient action/horror hybrid, with a conclusion boasting explosions, gunplay and chainsaw splatter. The ending may be a downer, but hey, fun is Snyder’s main ambition, and that’s what he delivers. Dawn of the Dead won’t go down in history like its forerunner, but it will remain my favourite remake of recent years. Sacrilege it may be, but it’s entertaining sacrilege nevertheless...
If 2004 proved anything, it was that zombie movies are big business. And since Dawn of the Dead raked in the cash, it isn’t surprising that Universal would bombard us with several editions. Released on the heels of the “Theatrical” cut, this alternative disc doesn’t offer many surprises in terms of content, but is still awarded my recommendation. EIV have successfully ported over the US release, and there doesn’t seem to be anything different (except for the aforementioned nudity, of course). This is a stellar edition of the film, that will satisfy gorehounds...
The Look and Sound
The film is barely a year old, so naturally the transfer is first-rate. Anyone living or dead, will love the work here. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), this is some of the best work I’ve seen Universal do. In most respects, it is better than the R1 copy, with more razor-sharp details and fewer instances of edge enhancement. The image handles colour expertly, with Matthew Leonetti’s striking photography taking on real depth. The film is overly bright from the beginning onward, with contrasts raised for stylistic effect. The eye candy is aided no end by a very sharp picture overall - it was hard to pick faults, though Snyder’s use of bold colours does reveal grain. Niggles aside, I think you’ll agree that the transfer is picture perfect.
Like our fellow Yanks, we get a fully-blooded Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which is quite the party track. It might be living hell for your neighbours, but it was a blast for me (anyone concerned about their hearing, should stick with the 2.0 option). As with most studio horror films, it’s a pumped-up affair, with plenty to keep you awake. The famed opening sequence sets the tone nicely; beginning low, before erupting in audio carnage. The atmosphere generated by the track is certainly impressive (you can hear the zombies scrambling around you), and the sound design will make you “jump” at all the right moments (the parking lot zombie was a howler). Still, I have to find faults - it’s an occupational requirement, you see - and I was disappointed by the restriction of Tyler Bates’s score to the back of the action. It needed breathing room, but was often swamped by the various elements occurring on screen. Then again, the few musical interludes sound great (has Down With the Sickness ever sounded so good?). Ultimately, this track kicks all kinds of undead booty, but DTS would have been the cherry on top.
Naturally, these are pretty neat, and animated with gusto. Boasting that anamorphic zest, we get quick flashes of film footage, and the various options scrawled in blood-red lettering. Adding to the craziness, is a dose of heavy metal, making these menus highly enjoyable. They’re a tad overdone, but so is the film...
This is a “hit” film in most respects, so I dare say we haven’t seen the last of 2004’s Dawn. Some of the extras here feel like filler, with little depth given to the production of the film, and too much time spent on building various story elements found in the feature. That said, Universal have produced a very entertaining disc. You’ll no doubt make it through these materials with a large grin on your face, regardless of the quality. So, what’s here? Everything found on the R1 disc, of course!
These features are usually pointless, and this continues that tradition, with some redundant words from Snyder (it’s all the more pointless on this version of the film, since you can only select it from the menu screen, and not when you start the film). He basically says that this version is longer, gorier and “closer” to him, thanks to various character moments. Snyder’s energetic persona makes it worth watching once.
Audio Commentary by Snyder and producer Eric Newman
A decent yack-track, Snyder and Newman are clearly proud of their work, and the discussion has a chatty, laid-back nature, making it an easy listen. Still, it is very light on major insight - don’t go into this expecting an in-depth analysis. It’s one of those commentaries in which the participants reflect on their achievement, offer a couple of decent points, and congratulate the cast and crew. Most surprisingly of all, there is hardly any talk of the original film. Not a great track by any means, but fun and frothy nevertheless (the director’s glee at the films gore, makes this one worthwhile).
“The Lost Tape”
One of the more interesting ingredients of Snyder’s remake, was the character of Andy (Bruce Bohne), the gun shop owner who was stranded across from the shopping mall. This 16-minute piece was made in conjunction with the shoot, and tells of his final days; a Blair Witch-style diary. It’s nicely tied in with the films events, and Bohne gives an enthusiastic portrayal. That said, it’s doubtful I’ll watch this piece next time I pop-in the DVD...
This is over 20-minutes of faux news reports (some of which made it into the final cut). It helps to generate a sense of riding chaos, and tension, yet this vignette goes on for far too long, and thanks to some ridiculous acting, any genuine “terror” is lost. It really has no place on the disc - it’s fun for a while, but I’d rather have a featurette or documentary any day of the week.
The title should give it away - these are the deleted scenes. Snyder and Newman give optional commentary for what is, essentially, small pieces of characterisation or different takes. Still, the lost footage is a nice addition, and all of the scenes are enjoyable while they last.
We finally get to some decent production details, but the featurettes don’t amount to anything spectacular, with short pieces that hardly earn the comprehensive tag. “Raising the Dead” is an 8-minute look at special make-up effects, with some diverting on-set footage of the zombie extras being made-up, and the bloody kills that flood the film. It’s just a shame that David LeRoy Anderson and his team aren’t given the time to show us the intricacies of the process. “Attack of the Living Dead” is an even shorter vignette, focusing upon several of the more memorable zombies (including the bloated old woman, actually played by a man). It’s a fun few minutes, with several neat details raised. And finally, we get “Splitting Headaches”, another make-up piece; this time centred on gore. Naturally, this montage is relentlessly bloody (though darkly humorous too). An acceptable, if unremarkable package of extras, the disc gets points for effort. That said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Universal released a better edition in years to come...
Not even Hollywood could obliterate my fond memories of Romero’s twisted masterpiece, yet the “new and improved” Dawn of the Dead is hardly cause for alarm. Drenched in plasma, and sporting a fast pace and pant-wetting action, it’s a film that should entertain most horror aficionados. It’s not better, but it’s good. Lets just hope that Romero creates a new classic with Land of the Dead, and puts this studio meddling to rest. Until then, Snyder’s retread will do nicely...