Dawn of the Dead (‘04) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
The world is in danger when a mysterious virus turns people into mindless, flesh-eating zombies. In a heartland mall, a handful of survivors wage a desperate, last-stand battle to stay alive... and human! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
In the spring of 2004, about six months after the release of Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) became a surprise hit and inspired every studio to put the post-millennial horror remake train into overdrive, some nobody music video director named Zack Snyder and Scooby Doo (2002) screenwriter James Gunn tread on to hallowed ground to remake George A. Romero’s cerebral and darkly comedic Dawn of the Dead (1978) as a frenetic and hip action flick. The unlikely energy of their concoction was inspired in part by the surprise popularity of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), which reimagined Romero’s apocalyptic living dead formula for the post-9/11 era. Snyder’s imagery embraced total modernity and Gunn’s plotline was only similar to Romero’s in its broadest strokes (i.e. both featured people hiding in a shopping mall to escape a zombie apocalypse). These proved to be good choices, ensuring that the new Dawn of the Dead avoided a litany of comparisons to its superior inspiration and stood on its own as one of the best horror remakes of its era.
Romero’s four protagonists came from only two walks of professional life. Half of them, Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross), worked for WGON television in the heart of Philadelphia, while the other half, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), were SWAT officers enforcing martial law in project housing complex inhabited mostly by minority immigrants. After snagging a news chopper to escape the plague-ravaged city, the unlikely quartet stumbles upon the Monroeville shopping mall. They are awed by a treasure trove of conveniently located department stores, but eventually grow bored, at which point their tiny society begins to deteriorate. As they quietly witness the large-scale apocalypse outside the mall’s walls via stale television interviews, a bloody battle against a marauding biker gang becomes a welcomed diversion. They finally have an excuse to defend the horde they had earned when they cleared out all the zombies inside (there’s a secondary metaphor in the imperialistic manner that the protagonists simply claim the mall after killing its inhabitants).
Snyder’s version upped the personnel ante from Romero’s four protagonists to more than a dozen survivors, yet Gunn’s script (which included uncredited work from Michael Tolkin and Scott Frank) focused more directly on the experience of a single central character – Ana (Sarah Polley), an ER nurse whose husband is transformed into a zombie during the breathtaking pre-credit sequence. This contrast between scope and intimate portrayal is indicated very early, in the scene where Ana escapes her suburban Milwaukee cul-de-sac by the skin of her teeth. As the camera pulls out from her speeding car, we’re shown a spectacular God’s eye view of society’s hasty breakdown, complete with the kind of bombastic action Romero could only afford to have his actors describe verbally when he made the original Night of the Living Dead (1968).
The expanded cast of characters fill traditional roles, probably for the sake of brevity, but are not restricted by them. Gunn tends to invert expectations at every turn and the longer a person lives, the greater their turn from archetype. C.J. the mall cop (Michael Kelly) experiences the biggest arc, changing gears from self-centered power-tripper to a valuable and brave member of the team. It’s likely that the filmmakers were just playing with conventions, but Gunn’s streamlined script asks broader questions about survival instincts. Romero’s film existed in a post-Nixon, post-Vietnam period, where there was time to ponder the failings of the cultural revolution and poke fun at the emptiness of the “silent majority’s” love of consumer products. The public’s need for useless merchandise didn’t abate between films (if anything, consumer culture increased ten-fold), but, aside from a brief montage in the center of the movie, there was no longer time to ruminate on the existential dread of consumer dependence. Synder’s next-gen zombies were plentiful and fast moving, like hurricanes or flowing rivers of hot lava. The danger was already breaking down the door. They were already in the building. Thinking about the sociopolitical implications of a terrorist attack is useless – just run.
Changes in urban environments since the late ‘70s also led to further narrative distinctions between the two versions. Romero’s film begins in an urban area, Philadelphia, before moving out to the rural area that houses the mall. Once the protagonists establish their hold on the enclosed shopping center, all major threats are posed entirely by outsiders, including leftover zombies and other survivor factions. In the years following 1978, the cultural makeup of the suburbs would change to match that of inner-city centers, all while indoor malls proliferated. As a result, Snyder and Gunn are more concerned with the developing drama between the survivors already holed up in the mall, all of whom arrived at the suburban shopping center from other walks of suburban life.
Though its successes are defined by such modernity, Dawn of the Dead’s biggest shortcomings were tied to its adherence to the conventions of the era. Before it (and 28 Days Later), zombie fiction saw a revival in the form of Japan’s Resident Evil and House of the Dead video game series. Romero himself (who was reasonably supportive of the remake) was quoted as saying that it reminded him “more of a video game” than his movie, which was definitely part of Snyder’s design. He wanted to evoke the run-and-gun, instant gratification of game play. In addition, the end credits roll over another early indicator of the upcoming popularity of found-footage horror. Then again, Romero’s film isn’t exactly ‘timeless.’ Perhaps the remake’s reputation will improve over the decades as its conventions dissipate into the general consciousness, where they no longer feel like dated gimmicks.
Dawn of the Dead was a big home video hit for Universal, who released it on separate unrated and R-rated DVDs, unrated Blu-ray, unrated HDDVD, and even UMD (the defunct Playstation Portable format). Later, it was discovered that there was (at least) one small difference between the North American unrated version and the one released internationally. Around the 00:09:40 mark, a nude zombie’s bare breasts are seen by Ana through her broken windshield. In what might be the all-time most counterproductive censorship, the North American cut covers her breasts with a smear of blood. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray comes fitted with a new 1080p transfer, derived from the digital intermediate archival negative. I assume that the original film negative would be unusable given the sheer quantity of post-production color grading. I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this transfer, because I hadn’t realized how bad the old Universal Blu-ray was. Comparing the two releases directly, I now see that I was wrong and that this is a substantial upgrade, though it also should be noted that the film’s extremely processed look leads to a load of artifacts in either case. Snyder, who is now famous for dark, desaturated superhero movies, and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti take some cues from Nispel’s Chainsaw Massacre remake in the way they embrace the grit of their film source. Grain texture is made all the more aggressive by heavily-cranked contrast levels, which crushes blacks and causes whites to bloom. This remastered transfer doesn’t ‘correct’ those levels, but evens them out a bit, revealing more delicate textures in the shadows and highlights. There is still notable edge enhancement, but this and the other oversharpening effects are muted, which helps to punch up some wide angle details and diffuses haloing problems with the predominantly fluorescent internal lighting. The Scream Factory transfer slightly desaturates the film’s sickly green tint to bring out more reds, blues, and naturalistic skin tones. I definitely prefer this more eclectic grading style, because I always found the green and yellow color qualities grotesque, but wouldn’t be surprised if some fans complain about the change.
The intermediate archival negative used was the R-rated cut, so the unrated transfer does have standard HD inserts from the older disc. Fortunately, the Scream Factory disc also has better compression than its Universal counterpart, so the differences between the footage is negligible, especially when it comes to the brief gore inserts. The more substantial deleted sequences, on the other hand, do look a bit fuzzier and overly crushed.
Dawn of the Dead is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound and the lack of compression does wonders for this burly, aggressively dynamic mix. I didn’t notice any differences between this and the Universal Blu-rays, but there’s also nothing to complain about. Snyder and the sound designers use the surround channels effectively throughout the movie, but it is the push and pull of blaring noise and utter silence that gives it a sense of danger. The action-packed climax is the mix’s clear highlight, including LFE-rumbling explosions, directionally enhanced gunshots and bus engines, and loads of screaming, bloodthirsty zombies. Dawn of the Dead was one of composer Tyler Bates’ first studio horror movie scores and led to work with James Gunn, Rob Zombie, Neil Marshall, and others. He clearly had something to prove here and delivers a particularly intense musical palette that blends nicely with the many ironic rock/pop songs Snyder peppers into the carnage.
Take A Chance On Me (15:28, HD) – Actor Ty Burrell, who has since become a star, thanks to years of playing a lovable dad on Modern Family, recalls his experience making the movie.
Gunn For Hire (8:26, HD) – This new interview with James Gunn was probably recorded while Scream Factory already had him in the chair for their Slither reissue. He discusses turning Romero’s dark satire into a more straight-laced action-horror movie and how it helped propel his career.
Punk, Rock, & Zombie (23:10, HD) – Actor Jake Weber speaks at length about preparing for the role (he watched Faces of Death and shocked himself into acting poorly, apparently), some of the film’s deeper meaning, and its characters.
Killing Time At The Mall: The Special Effects Of Dawn Of The Dead (25:36, HD) –Special makeup effects artists David Anderson and Heather Langenkamp Anderson (yes, the same one that acts in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies) finish up the new extras with a chat about, you guessed it, the special effects makeup. It includes loads of Anderson’s own video diaries, some of which is not available in the other extras.
Deleted Scenes with optional commentary from Snyder and producer Eric Newman (11:30, SD)
Disc Two (all archival extras):
Commentary with director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman – The original Blu-ray commentary and Snyder’s first as a director. It is info-packed and brimming with enthusiasm.
Splitting Headaches: Anatomy Of Exploding Heads (5:36, SD) – The effects crew runs down the technical processes behind gory headshots.
Attack Of The Living Dead (7:24, SD) – A further look at some of the other gory zombie kills.
Raising The Dead (7:54, SD) – Even more behind-the-scenes with Snyder and the effects crew.
Andy’s Lost Tape (16:22, SD) – Andy the doomed gun store owner’s video journal.
Special Report: Zombie Invasion (21:05, SD) – Extended faux-news reports that are seen in sections throughout the movie.
Undead And Loving It: A Mockumentary (5:09, SD) – A dopey joke featurette that implies the film had used real zombies.
Drawing The Dead Featurette (2:48, SD) – A brief description of the storyboarding process.
Storyboard comparisons (5:51, SD)
Surviving the Dawn (23:30, SD) – For some reason, this lo-res EPK (including interviews with original Dawn of the Dead cast members) can only be accessed by clicking ‘up’ when the ‘bonus’ title is selected (rather than ‘enter’)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.