Universal // 2004 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 29th, 2008
When the undead rise, civilization will fall.
A big-budget remake of George A. Romero's zombie-flick-of-all-zombie-flicks? Sacrilege!
Actually, by avoiding the trap of being slavishly devoted to the original, director Zack Snyder (300) has crafted a damn good modern zombie movie. Having already been released on DVD and HD DVD, 2004's Dawn of the Dead takes its bow on Blu-ray -- just in time for the Halloween season.
For reasons unknown, the world seems to be coming to an end. The dead are rising and seeking to devour the flesh of the living. Anyone bitten by a zombie dies and is reanimated as one of them. After seeing her husband attacked by a zombie child, a nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley, John Adams) meets up with a Milwaukee cop (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction), a TV salesman (Jake Weber, Medium), and a gangbanger (Mekhi Phifer, ER) and his pregnant wife (Inna Korobkina, The Ladies Man). In order to get off of the streets and away from the zombie hoards, the group makes its way to a shopping mall. There they meet a trio of gung-ho security guards led by CJ (Michael Kelly, Invincible). Eventually, other survivors arrive at the mall, including an overbearing rich guy named Steve (Ty Burrell, The Incredible Hulk), a father (Matt Frewer, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) and his teenaged daughter (Lindy Booth, Wrong Turn), a truck driver (Jayne Eastwood, Chicago), and a slut (Kim Poirier, HypaSpace).
As the massive crowd of zombies on the street outside grows, the group decides that they won't be safe in the mall forever. Fortifying a pair of buses against zombie attack, they plan to make a break for a local marina where they can sail Steve's yacht to one of the sparsely populated islands on Lake Michigan.
There's no denying that Zack Snyder's version of Dawn of the Dead isn't as intimate, bleak, claustrophobic, or satirically prescient as George A. Romero's. There was never much chance it would be. In 20 years, it won't be remembered as a classic of the horror genre, but that doesn't mean it's a bad movie. In fact, it's an awful lot of fun. The flick features some genuinely intense set pieces, startling scares, and gruesome make-up effects by David Anderson (Men in Black). More importantly, Snyder shows appropriate respect for Romero (even including cameos by Tom Savini, Ken Foree, and Scott Reiniger from the original Dawn), while forging his own path with a new plot (incorporating only the mall setting and a pregnancy plotline from the original) and fast-moving undead killers (much dreaded among zombie purists).
Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, and Jake Weber are at the center of the movie's action. Theirs are the only round characters in the film, so it falls to them to anchor the drama and infuse it with some semblance of emotional and psychological realism. The rest of the actors play one-dimensional types custom designed to play off of each other with a maximum of drama and humor, but they all do so with aplomb. Michael Kelly and Ty Burrell are particularly effective playing self-centered jerks who deliver most of the laughs in what is a surprisingly funny and at times verbally witty monster movie. Matt Frewer is another standout. His role is miniscule but poignant. Like all strong character actors, he adds much to what might have been a throw-away role. Each actor, right on down the line, makes the most of the role he or she is given (however small). Their efforts add a charm and texture to the movie that belies the fact that, truth be told, most of the characters aren't much more than zombie fodder.
It would be easy to bag on Dawn of the Dead for the flatness of its characters as well as its fairly predictable story arc (the only surprises are the scares along the way), but it would also be beside the point. Snyder's movie is an exercise in horror style, a delightful piece of cinematic junk food designed to make you laugh one minute and jump out of your seat the next. His approach to this enterprise is so enthusiastic and energetic that it's difficult not to have a good time. Some zombie flick aficionados may complain that he failed to honor the original Dead trilogy's reputation as a gorefest with a social conscience, but that's a path Snyder was wise to avoid given Romero's subsequent milking of his own film legacy with increasingly vapid and self-serious entries in what is now his Dead pentalogy (rumored to become a sextology in the near future).
Aside from some isolated instances of haloing from edge enhancement, Dawn of the Dead looks quite impressive on Blu-ray. The earlier DVD release already had a strong transfer, but depth, detail, clarity, and color are all improved to one extent or another in this high definition presentation. Snyder and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti (Poltergeist) gave the movie a look that combines desaturation with splashes of vivid color. The 1080p transfer handles these dueling extremes with aplomb. Detail is solid and grain is isolated and controlled. The image looks great. The DTS HD audio track is also impressive -- a thunderous yet crisp mix of a source track that makes full use of the format's expansive dynamic range.
Hell may be overflowing, but the extras on this disc sure aren't. Supplements include an audio commentary by Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman. The track is duller than I'd expected given the enthusiasm with which Snyder usually talks about his pictures. It's reasonably informative, though, and full of good will. As with their Blu-ray release of John Carpenter's The Thing, Universal has opted to reformat the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes from the DVD release of Dawn of the Dead into a U-Control picture in picture feature. Whether that's a good thing or bad is a matter of taste. That's it.
Despite the movie's overall quality, there are a couple places in Dawn of the Dead where Snyder and crew commit that most ghastly of disaster movie sins: They allow characters to do startlingly, annoyingly stupid things for the purposes of plot advancement. Sorry, but if you're in the middle of a zombie holocaust and you get about a half dozen people killed or zombified (including yourself) in the service of trying to save a dog, then you're a dumbass and I lose all sympathy for you.
Is Zack Snyder's version of Dawn of the Dead as good as George A. Romero's? No. But it's a solid modern zombie flick featuring well-executed scares, impressive blood and guts effects, and a decent story.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary