Before I begin, I should state for the record that I consider George Romero's original 'Dawn of the Dead' to be the most influential and seminal horror masterpiece in all of cinematic history. It not only offers a seemingly timeless and horrifying look at humanity reduced to its base nature, it functions as an edgy work of art with pop-scream nuances that have made it a hit with audiences over the decades. In fact, in high school, Romero's masterwork was responsible for more late-night, cinematic binges than any other flick I snuck into my basement to watch.
When fans found out 'Dawn of the Dead' was being remade as a flashy 2004 release, there was an outcry in the horror community unlike anything I've ever heard. Message boards erupted with rage, petitions were signed, and angry e-mails were sent by the thousands. But unlike most in my passionate zombie-loving brethren, the prospect of a remake of Romero's tour de force didn't actually bother me. Instead, I thought if any horror flick deserved a remake and a chance to win over a modern audience, it was Romero's satire of American consumerism.
The core of the remake itself plays out much like the original -- a zombie plague sweeps the nation and leaves society devastated in its wake. A group of survivors hole up in a local mall and try to survive until the government can clean up the mess. As unspeakable horrors transpire outside of the mall, the survivors end up being their own worst enemies and inevitably lose their safehouse to the undead. Chaos ensues throughout.
Unlike the survivors of the original flick, however, the survivors in the new 'Dawn of the Dead' are a group of battle-weary, panic-stricken loners who band together just to make it through the night. Ana (Sarah Polley) has just lost her husband to a cannibalistic little girl. As she flees her home in a wonderfully executed opening, she drives through her neighborhood, now in violent shambles. She meets Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a police officer who's headed toward the mall with a business man named Michael (Jake Weber), a gun-toting thug (Mekhi Phifer), and the criminal's pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina).
At the mall, they reluctantly join forces with three paranoid security guards, a group of people led by a trucker, an injured family, and others. Of course, as the survivors pile in, the zombies follow. Disease spreads fast and the zombies hit even faster. As Ana and Kenneth form a tight friendship, they attempt to keep everyone alive and find a safe haven that isn't overrun by the newly undead.
Upon its theatrical release in 2004, most of the early fan outcry over this 'Dawn of Dead' remake was silenced by a largely positive critical and audience response to the film -- in fact, the film went on to become the highest grossing zombie film worldwide.
Although I'll personally always prefer the original, this version certainly has its positive atrributes. There are quite a few quality character beats, a welcome amount of palpable tension, and enough creative uses of the film's zombies to keep a horror-junkie like myself entertained through the end credits. The soundtrack is also unique and boasts a great mix of tunes -- among the highlights, Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around" opens the film, while a hilarious lounge cover of Disturbed's "Down with the Sickness" plays as the camera pans across a horde of zombies.
And while it doesn't achieve the deftly-layered commentary of its predecessor, the film does regularly hint at more significant issues that make it a cut above most other remakes and recent horror drivel. Likewise, a strong ensemble cast turns a series of excellent performances (especially Rhames, Polley, and Phifer) raise the overall caliber of the film.
Unfortunately however, director Zack Snyder doesn't offer nearly the same sure-handedness in 'Dawn of the Dead' that he would later exhibit in '300' -- while his eye for image composition is impeccable, his reliance on a cliché ridden script packed with teeth-gritting dialogue and a series of bizarre decisions by the characters keeps 'Dawn of the Dead' from totally clicking.
Perhaps the best (and most frequently cited) example of the script's deficiencies is its inability to decide on a consistent set of rules for its undead universe -- are the zombies slow and lumbering (as they were in the original 'Dawn of the Dead), or are they speedy and hyperactive (like the pseudo-zombies in Danny Boyle's '28 Days Later')? Take your pick, because this remake of 'Dawn of the Dead' features both. While all of the zombies in Snyder's corpsian opus are seemingly capable of moving at lightning speed, they only seem to do so when it pushes a particular scene along. At other times, the zombies are just slow enough to allow our heroes safe passage. When one character abandons the mall to rescue a dog (one of the most dim-witted scenes in any recent horror flick), an entire crowd of vicious zombies is struck blind and dumb just long enough to build implausible tension for the audience.
Of course, fans can (and do) argue all day about how quickly zombies should move -- but even as a rabid, uber-fan, I'm relatively apathetic on this point. My only requirement is that the creatures be terrifying and that their limitations and abilities be kept consistent throughout a given film. Snyder's zombies are frightening when he pulls the right strings, but the discrepancies continually reminded me that I was watching a film with a substandard script.
George Romero has openly praised other zombie films outside of those in his own canon (he adored 'Shaun of the Dead'), so I'm inclined to trust his opinion on this remake of his own masterpiece. As it stands, his published thoughts on the film sum up my own -- he says, "[The new Dawn of the Dead] was better than I expected... but it sort of lost its reason for being. It was more of a video game. I'm not terrified of things running at me... it's like Space Invaders. There was nothing going on underneath."
Well said, sir. In the end, the new 'Dawn of the Dead' is a fun ride that showcases some quick scares, but it lacks the intelligence and haut tension of the original. It's certainly not a waste of time and most horror fans will probably have a good time watching it. Still, do yourself a favor and check out the original -- the story and character development are superb and often make this remake feel like nothing more than entertaining eye-candy.
(Note that this HD DVD release features the "Unrated Cut" of the film, which tacks on 9 minutes of additional material. There isn't anything of spectacular note, although the extra bits do fill in a few gaps from the theatrical cut, briefly expand some character relationships, and, of course, up the gore wherever possible.)
Earlier this year, Universal seemed to be tossing any flick they had onto HD DVD, regardless of whether it showcased the high-def format or not. The result was a sobering number of HD DVD duds that offered little upgrade over their standard DVD counterparts. More recently, however, the studio seems to have reversed that pattern, offering up a series of quality HD transfers. 'Dawn of the Dead' continues the trend, turning in a strong 1080p/VC-1 encode that looks much better than its DVD predeccessor.
Although the film's palette is starkly bleached and awash with blues and grays, primaries still pop and reds are particularly healthy. Shadow delineation is quite strong, with visibility in the shadows both deep and naturalistic. Black levels occasionally seem overbearing, but only in scenes where darkness is used to good effect. Skintones are intentionally pale, but exhibit excellent texture detail that renders hair, pores, and clothing fibers with ease.
The film boasts impressive fine details as well -- the mall setting is a jackpot of small background elements that look quite good. Tiny writing, ammo shells, leaves, and droplets of water are all sharp and rarely falter. There are some moments when shots drift out of focus, but the effect seemed intentional to me -- as if to capture the disorienting panic of the on-screen survivors. I also couldn't find any instances of the kind of intrusive edge enhancement that has haunted many of Universal's poorer releases.
There are, however, a couple of problem areas -- namely a heavier than average grain field and smattering of video noise. The downside to the high resolution in this case is that it sharpens the on-screen grain as much as it does the image. When small details are overlapped by this salt-and-pepper-like filter, there can be a loss of clarity, especially in lower lit situations. As for the digital noise, it appears in a few spots but is never overly distracting -- you'll catch a few spurts in the mid-morning shots in the opening scenes, an early shot of a toilet, and in the pitch black basement of the mall.
Despite these smaller issues, overall the video quality is very impressive and is sure to please fans of the film. This presentation is an obvious upgrade from the standard DVD (which suffered from compression issues, crush problems, and soft edges) and it confidently stands alongside some of the better HD DVD transfers out there.
I really can't say enough good things about the TrueHD 5.1 surround mix (48kHz/16-bit/18 Mbps) that Universal has produced for this HD DVD. Paired the film's onslaught of screams, gunshots, and revving engines, the result is nothing short of spectacular. The zombies have a wet, throaty throttle to their moans that seems to emanate from every channel, while treble tones are stable and the sub woofer rumbles effectively on more than one occasion. Simply put, the dynamics of this mix will put your surround system through its paces.
Despite the explosions of violence that occur at regular intervals, dialogue remains crisp and well prioritized. Even more importantly, the mix takes full advantage of the rear channels to deliver an immersive and convincing soundscape. There were even a few occasions where I was fooled into thinking a sound was occurring in my home rather than in the film's soundfield. Combine that with exacting accuracy of pans between channels and 'Dawn of the Dead' reveals itself as a top tier audio track that left me with zero complaints.
(Note 'Dawn of the Dead' also includes a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix, but it pales in comparison to the TrueHD track. Dialogue is tinny, the surrounds seem muffled, and channel movement is stocky. It's clearly a weaker track that sounds much like the standard track on the Unrated DVD.)
This HD DVD edition of 'Dawn of the Dead' ports over all of the special features from the "Unrated Edition" standard DVD, and it's an impressively comprehensive package.
The first thing you'll find is an all too brief "Director's Introduction" (1 minute) that unfortunately doesn't reveal much about the personality or intentions of Zack Snyder. For that, you'll have to turn to a fun-but-frivolous "Commentary Track" that features Snyder (in full fanboy mode) and producer Eric Newman. Coming off more as a fan than as a professional director, Snyder is refreshingly candid, acknowledging various issues he encountered making the film as a first time director, and occasionally making scathing comments about his own film's shortcomings. While he doesn't offer much in the way of interesting comparisons between his film and other zombie offerings, he does explain his motivations, and the reasons he changed certain elements of the Romero universe in his remake.
Next comes a short film also directed by Snyder, called "The Lost Tape" (17 minutes). Designed as a companion piece to the film, this fictional short features a progressive video diary of Andy (the man stuck in the building across the street from the mall). An interesting and most unusual supplement, this is certainly a decent short film, although it probably could have benefited from being just a bit shorter.
Next up is another tie-in, "Special Report: Zombie Invasion" (21 minutes). Although it's been slightly retitled, this the same content that appeared on the DVD, comprised of a string of gruesome news reports and footage about the zombie plague. I really had a good time with this one, but once again it drags on too long and loses its luster before all is said and done.
A collection of eleven "Deleted Scenes" (12 minutes) have also been included, all with optional commentary from Snyder. The scenes are a mixed bag of reasonably cut extensions and suitably effective character beats. There isn't anything extraordinary, but fans will want to check them out as they bridge some of the minor plot pints in the final cut of the film.
Rounding out the package are three making-of featurettes that focus on the film's practical and special effects. "Splitting Headaches: Anatomy of Exploding Heads" (6 minutes) is hosted by Snyder and special makeup effects artist David Anderson. Together, they examine the practical effects that brought many of the nasty death scenes and zombie-executions to life. "Attack of the Living Dead" (7 minutes) is a similar supplement that specifically looks at the special effects used to make believable zombies. This one gives away some key plot points, so make sure you've seen the film before sampling it. Lastly, in "Raising the Dead" (8 minutes), Snyder and Anderson explore the process extras went through to make the transformation into zombies, and how they changed the level of decomposition on the zombies as the film went along.
(Note that all of the video-based supplements listed above are presented in 480i/p only.)
While I'll always be partial to George Romero's original 'Dawn of the Dead,' Zack Snyder's remake is certainly an entertaining (if less artful) reboot for modern audiences. This HD DVD is even better, boasting a great video transfer, an impeccable TrueHD audio track, and a nice collection of supplements. If you're a fan of the film, I wouldn't hesitate to pick this one up.