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Since the late ‘70s there have been a number of horror film remakes that have come along. Some have been good, like David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, while some have been not so good like the aforementioned Carpenter’s Village of the Damned and Jan de Bont’s The Haunting. While all of these directors had a few good films under their belts before tackling their own remakes, director Zack Snyder has chosen the unenviable task of remaking what is probably considered horror’s biggest cult classic, genre luminary George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, as his first feature film. Can Snyder succeed in remaking the film for today’s audiences and also please the rabid fans of the original in the process?

Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director's Cut
The film opens with Ana (Sarah Polley) leaving work after a long day nursing in a suburban Milwaukee hospital. She drives home through her idyllic suburban neighbourhood and carries on a conversation with the charming little girl who lives down the street. She arrives home and is greeted warmly for date night with her husband. It’s nice to be Ana…that is at least until the early dawn hours come. In the span of just a few minutes, Ana’s life is shattered as she is left trading away her seemingly picture perfect life for one of survival in a world slowly being over taken by the undead.

Among the fever pitched chaos that has apparently decimated society overnight (according to a great opening title sequence), Ana joins a group a people attempting to escape the calamity; police officer Kenneth (Ving Rhames), average Joe Michael (Jake Weber), and expecting parents Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and Luda (Inna Korobkina). The five quickly decide that their options have been left to seeking refuge within the confines of the nearby shopping mall. Upon arriving they form an uneasy alliance with the mall security guards CJ (Michael Kelly), Terry (Kevin Zegers) and Bart (Michael Barry), who are reluctant to allow anyone into the mall as they have claimed it for themselves. Soon after, they rescue a truck full of passengers also seeking a safer place to stay, among them truck driver Norma (Jayne Eastwood), rich boy Steve (Ty Burrell), blonde Monica (Kim Poirier), father and daughter Frank (Matt Frewer) and Nicole (Lindy Booth), church organist Glen (R.D. Reid) and the nervous looking Tucker (Boyd Banks). With all of the film’s major characters now more or less firmly in place, the group slips into somewhat of a routine and begin to live life day to day and store to store, all while the zombie population outside their walls continues to grow at an exponential rate. The stoic Kenneth even begins a friendship with the owner of the local gun store, Andy (Bruce Bohne), across the zombie infested mall parking lot by way of white boards and binoculars in what oddly enough turns out to be the best interaction between characters in the film. Soon, however, the group begins to formulate a plan of escape for themselves and Andy once they reach the conclusion that they will not be able to stay in the mall forever as the zombies outside aren’t going anywhere and will eventually find a way to get in. To say much of anything else about the plot of the film would ruin a lot of the surprises and, this being a horror film, more importantly the scares.

As you have probably noticed, this Dawn of the Dead features a much larger cast of characters than the original and most of the film’s problems stem from this.  Too many of the secondary characters are a waste and completely glossed over and, when lined up as zombie fodder, there is no resonance to their untimely demise or suspense as to whether or not they will survive. Other characters seem only to serve as plot devices (and not all of these subplots necessarily go anywhere) adding little depth of their own. Only Ana, Kenneth and Michael offer anything in the character development department. This is really the only major flaw in the film, but it is a big one and makes the film seem a bit hollow at its core.  

Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director's Cut
Another large difference is the tone of the film. While Romero’s film had its underlying satire of commercialism going for it and lumbering and bumbling undead, this newer film seems content on simply providing good scares and seat jumping moments for its audience courtesy of its much faster and ravenous zombie hordes. I think the trade off works to the 2004 version’s advantage; while not as thought provoking and humorous as its 1978 counterpart, it is a much more frightening film and offers the same dire, apocalyptic feel. As far as both films are concerned, this is the way the world will end and neither film delves in too deeply as to the cause of the zombie plague.

So the question must be asked, “Why remake the original classic in the first place?” and I can surmise a couple of reasons for the remake. One, this newer film will more thoroughly entertain today’s younger audiences as it is faster paced, more frightening and contains better special effects and makeup work, i.e. it is more accessible to the masses. A second reason is that it has name recognition, as most people have heard of the original film even though most have probably never seen the original or know anything about the story to begin with. This is the same reasoning behind last year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and a plethora of upcoming ones such as The Amityville Horror. Today’s audiences are already pre-sold on the title of the film even though they may not have seen the original or know little about it other than it was an older horror film.  From a marketing standpoint it makes perfect sense as it is easier to build off of reputation than start from scratch in the world of film.

So does this new version stand on its own merits as a good horror film? The answer is yes, and even if it does not work on varying levels like the original (though it never pretends to either) it offers exactly what it intends to, good scares and edge of your seat frights. It contains good pacing and it never takes itself too seriously, knowing when to throw in some humour amongst the splattered brains and when to go for the jugular with the horror. It is also a better film on DVD in the form of the unrated director’s cut than its theatrical counterpart. There is more gore to be found (if that’s your bag), some scenes put back in that explain a few things (like how the initial group of characters got into the mall in the first place), and some minor character development for the secondary characters (but still not enough to make you care for them at all). The screenplay by James Gunn is not full of twists and turns or entirely original, but still manages to entertain and fulfil all of the obligatory prerequisites of a horror film while Snyder pays homage to the original through a few well placed cameos and familiar cues. The only real fault in the film, besides the already mentioned character issues, is the final minute or so of the film and the silly tacked on end credits sequence, but overall this is one good horror flick that should please genre fans new and old.

Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director's Cut
Dawn of the Dead is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that is full of saturated colours and high contrast, making the look of the film very dark and brooding while giving it a home video feel. I would assume that some sort of bleach bypassing was done to the film to achieve these effects, but whatever the process it certainly works for the film and gives it a unique look. Not surprisingly for a newer film, the transfer is well done and offers minor effects from edge enhancement here and there, and a few areas of film grain. Overall this is a very good transfer.

The DVD offers Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, French and Spanish along subtitles for each language. The audio for the film is good but not great, but this is more a fault of the actual film than the transfer for the DVD itself. While effective enough for the film, it never envelopes the viewer and does not offer enough of those unexpected surround sound moments for a horror film like you would expect. It does handle the dialogue, sound effects and music in good fashion as the film’s audio tracks seems nicely balanced for this DVD. Tyler Bates’ score for the film is good, but not unlike anything you haven’t already heard in several other horror films and does not particularly stand out as anything exceptional. On the other hand, the choices in the song score for the film are quite unique and enjoyable, especially during the inspired beginning credits sequence.

First up is the audio commentary track, featuring director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman. Both seem to have truly enjoyed working on the film and convey every bit of that in the track.  I found the commentary to be informative and enjoyable…very rock star (listen to the commentary track and you’ll know what I mean).

Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director's Cut
Next is ’The Lost Tape: Over 15 Minutes of Terrifying Footage Revealed’, which is an entertaining look at what Andy endured during the zombie siege. Since little is known about Andy during the actual film, this short made especially for the DVD tells the events of the story from his perspective in the form of a video diary kept during the events of the film. This is by far the best and unique special feature on the DVD, but I would suggest that you only watch this feature after viewing the film so as not to ruin any surprises from the actual film.  

Another short, ’Special Bulletin: Zombie Invasion’ consists of the news footage shot for the film featuring the late Richard Biggs of Babylon 5 fame as a newscaster.  The footage explains a little more about the zombie phenomenon and is a bit interesting if not overly long; it is a welcome addition to this disc’s special features.

The bulk of the rest of the special features, exclusive to the unrated director’s cut disc, are culminated in three featurettes (‘Splitting Headaches: Anatomy of Exploding Heads’, ‘Raising the Dead’ and ‘Attack of the Living Dead’) showcasing the special effects and makeup work for the film. The featurettes are approximately six minutes a piece in length and are definitely worth viewing to see some of the ingenuity behind the film’s effects work used in creating and killing the zombies.

The rest of the special features contain deleted scenes with optional commentary, trailers, the standard DVD-ROM content, a short video introduction for the unrated cut by director Zack Snyder and pre-menu trailers for Van Helsing, Universal Horror films on DVD, Shaun of the Dead and Seed of Chucky. The menu system for the DVD is nothing particularly special, but does the job and is above average in execution.

Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director's Cut
While Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead does not elevate itself above its source material like Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Cronenberg’s The Fly, it is very much akin to Carpenter’s The Thing. As with that film and Howard Hawks’ original, both Dawn of the Dead films can stand on equal ground even though both are very different. While this new version is not without its flaws it still manages to be a gleefully horrific and bloody film that should satisfy the genre neophyte as well as the seasoned veteran.