REVIEW: Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director’s Cut (2004)
Produced by: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Richard P. Rubinstein; Michael D. Messina (co-producer); Armyan Bernstein, Thomas A. Bliss, Dennis E. Jones (executive producers)
Written by: James Gunn (screenplay); Michael Tolkin, Scott Frank (uncredited rewrites)
Edited by: Niven Howie
Cinematography by: Matthew F. Leonetti
Music by: Tyler Bates
Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry, Lindy Booth, Jayne Eastwood, Boyd Banks, Inna Korobkina, R.D. Reid, Kim Poirier, Matt Frewer, Louis Ferreira, Bruce Bohne
Based on the 1978 film directed by George A. Romero
I’m a bit of a Zack Snyder apologist, as I actually mostly enjoy the films of his that I have actually seen – which is pretty much every film he’s directed, save for Sucker Punch and The Owls of Ga’Hoole – coincidentally, his least admired movies, so take of that what you will. I enjoyed 300, really liked Watchmen, and I honestly did not understand the backlash against Man of Steel, which I thought was a fantastic reimagining of Superman for the modern era. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I so enjoyed his remake of Dawn of the Dead, which I managed to see ahead of the original. I saw it in high school thanks to the extinct Hollywood Video’s MVP rental program that my family subscribed to (and that I took advantage of more than anyone), and it was one of the first horror films that I decided to give a try after years of thinking the entire genre sucked. The original wasn’t available at the store near me, so I settled on the remake, which I had heard was pretty good on its own, and I remember that I thought to myself that doing so in that order would allow for me to appreciate the remake on its own terms. Perhaps nostalgia goggles have tainted my perspective, but I can still confirm that, to this day, I still like this one just a smidge better.
Sharing the original’s most essential plot contrivance – survivors of a zombie outbreak seek refuge in a shopping mall – and then pretty much doing everything else differently, Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead could almost be called more of an homage if it weren’t for that whole taking refuge in a mall thing. None of the characters from the original are in this film, and the overall cast of characters is about 3 times as many or more. One of the main sticking points for George Romero himself and ardent fans of his original work was the fact that the zombies are now far quicker and more violent than ever before. These aren’t the walking dead – these guys are the sprinting dead. Apart from being undead, they have more in common with those infected with the Rage virus than they do the lumbering ghouls of Romero’s original films. As many reviewers have noted, this film also loses its satirical edge, pretty much sidelining most of the consumerist symbolism the mall setting provides – though the coffee shop called Hallowed Grounds is quite amusing and one of the more obvious allusions to the potential.
Ana is one of a few in the spotlight, a nurse in Milwaukee who barely escapes with her life when the neighbor’s kid, now zombified on the morning that all hell breaks loose, attacks her husband and passes on whatever infection is causing the madness plaguing the world on to him. Circumstances bring her in contact with burly police officer Kenneth, who is making his way to where his brother lives. Banding together, they also come across Michael, Andre, and the very pregnant Luda. The five of them take refuge in a mall, where they encounter the mall security guards – CJ, Terry, and Bart – who probably had the nightwatch when everything went down. Tensions between the two groups escalate, and the guards have the upper hand, opting to keep the newcomers in a confined space of the mall and under regular guard.
The rest of the film is essentially about the group’s infighting, especially once the cast is expanded yet again, adding several bit characters (read: zombie fodder) to the pack. There are no bikers here, as all the fighting is explicit and from within the group, and there are no zombies comically lurching about the mall with an eerie, comical suggestion of memory retention – just disgusting, rotting freaks shrieking and pouncing upon the first piece of living flesh they can get. Like the zombies, the film is fast-paced, gritty, and admittedly relatively dumb. The acting from the cast is, in my opinion, superior to the original, however, but when you have some fairly recognizable and respected Hollywood actors in your film (including future Modern Family star Ty Burrell playing pretty much the exact opposite of Phil Dunphy), that’s almost to be expected. There isn’t really a lot of time spent getting to know most of the characters, and the character who shares my name has a rather sudden change, but they serve their purposes and either make it out or get eaten alive… or worse…
It’s probably the nostalgia goggles, again, and if I were being objective, I’d probably admit to the original being overall better than its 2004 remake. That being said, I think I just have more fun with this one than the original, which had some immensely cheesy moments that hampered its impact, accompanied by an awful score that made the film amusing but made the rest hard to take seriously. It was smarter, though, and provides thoughtful moviegoers with more to chew on, so to speak… but this modernized, nastier remake is quite entertaining for a zombie flick that allows one to put it on and enjoy – there are some genuinely creepy and disturbing moments here, and the higher budget means there are some higher octane action scenes. Humor is retained and embraced, as in the original, but it’s better integrated with the tone of the movie, in my opinion.
Zack Snyder has been accused of being a bad director, no better than Michael Bay, but from what I’ve seen, he’s far more artistically talented than Bay ever has been. (The opening here, using Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” is spectacular and is a hint of what would come in Watchmen.) Even if his films aren’t themselves requiring much intelligence to enjoy, Snyder himself has enough intelligence and puts enough work into his films to make them at least appeal to all audiences, and that’s exactly what he’s done here with Dawn of the Dead – make it far more palatable for a wider spectrum while also producing a perfectly cromulent companion to the work that came before.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5