Not so much a remake as a "re-thinking" of George Romero's beloved horror film, Zach Snyder's new edition of "Dawn of the Dead" certainly kicks in with a fierce pre-credits sequence. Ana (Sarah Polley) has just gotten off her shift at the hospital - where a man was taken to the ICU after a mere bite - and arrives home. When she wakes up the next morning, the little girl from next door is taking a bite out of her husband's neck and both soon try to attack her.
She runs outside to find utter chaos. It's essentially impossible to get a hold of 911, fires rage outside, ambulances careen down city streets and the news does not look good. People are being chased down by the living dead, being bitten and then chasing others. Ana manages to get into her car and drive, but a crash in the woods later, she's in trouble. She meets up with a police officer (Ving Rhames), then a guy (Jake Weber) who's walking around with a couple about to have a baby (Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They end up at the local shopping mall, where the first level doesn't seem entirely safe.
When they reach the second floor, they're confronted with a trio of overzealous security guards who allow them to stay, but take their weapons. They all wait out potential rescue, but with the chaos outside seemingly spreading further, hope of being saved seems to grow dimmer with every passing hour. Eventually more join them at the mall (there's also the matter of fun store owner Andy, marooned across the street and communicating with the main group via markets on boards., but there's also the matter of the crowd of undead gathering outside the mall, eager to do some shopping.
The film is simply a very fast, very slickly filmed horror picture at the core. However, a lot of things elevate it beyond mere big B-movie. The casting is uniformly excellent, as are the performances. Polley was an interesting choice, but the plays the character with the appropriate grit. Rhames offers an angry determination, while Weber plays is straight very well. Ty Burrell, as a survivor who joins the party later, also gets some great lines.
Like the recent "28 Days Later", the zombies move along with real speed, not just lurching forward. Director Snyder actually also makes the nearly 2-hour running time move by with rapid speed, largely due to some creative and well-staged set-pieces that are either genuinely creepy, suspenseful, scary or all three. Snyder's tone for the film is bleak and serious, but "Dawn" still works in a few clever bits of dark humor. The film's decision to go for "real" also works - we never learn why it all happens in the film, it just does.
Some things don't work as well, however. The screenplay (by James Gunn, writer of the "Scooby Doo" live-action movie) throws together a few too many characters into the mix. While the actors and screenplay (moreso in this director's cut, according to the director) manage to develop characters enough that I cared about them, but maybe losing two or three would have allowed some more focus. The characters also occasionally make some questionable decisions, but I suppose that's a staple of the genre.
Overall, this is a fun remake that manages some sleek thrills and suspense. The character development is a little shaky at times, but it's good enough and the performances are solid enough that I didn't want the characters to become zombie chow. Both the 100-minute theatrical cut of the film and the 109-minute director's cut (the director's cut is unrated and adds some more action and character development) are available on DVD.
VIDEO: "Dawn of the Dead" is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (unfortunately, a pan & scan version is also available.) The presentation is perfectly fine, but it isn't quite to the level of what I'd expect. While I didn't see the film theatrically, sharpness and detail are just pretty good here. Most of the film looks crisp and clear, but fine details aren't always visible and some shots appear a tad soft.
The picture also does show a few concerns. Mild, noticable edge enhancement is present at times, especially in some of the outdoor sequences. A couple of minor traces of pixelation are also spotted, but the print was in excellent condition. Grain was visible at times, but it seemed to be an intentional element of the photography. Colors appeared bright and well-saturated, with no smearing. Overall, a satisfactory transfer, but it could have been a little better.
SOUND: "Dawn of the Dead" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound mix works well for the film, although understandably, there are patches throughout the movie where it's simply characters talking in the middle of the mall. The action sequences open the audio out a bit, with the surrounds offering various sound effects and ambience. Dialogue remains clear and easily understood throughout, while effects and music sounded well-recorded. Strong bass is present during a few of the more intense moments.
EXTRAS: director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman offer an audio commentary for the film. The commentary provides some laughs and a solid amount of information, as the two chat about the making of the film. We learn more about developing the characters, casting, working with the actors, budget, make-up effects, extras and the look of the film. This being the director's cut, we also hear more about what has been put back into the film. Overall, it's a pretty good commentary, although it does fall back on narrating and just praising the film on some occasions.
"Andy's Lost Tape" is a short documentary that the character who owns the gun store across the street made during his last days. Found by survivors, this is sort of the "Andy Project". It's not particularly interesting, although fans of the film may find it fun to watch once through.
"Special Report" is a 21-minute documentary that offers "news report footage" of the events in the film. It's fun for a little while, but wears out its welcome fairly quickly. After watching the film, this sometimes goofy footage seems unnecessary.
"Undead Footage" is approximately 11 minutes of deleted footage. Some of this is footage that was re-shot or re-worked, and other footage involves short zombie clips or character development. The DVD also includes three shorter featurettes that offer some actual production information: "Splitting Headaches: Anatomy of Exploding Heads", "Raising the Dead" (make-up effects) and "Attack of the Living Dead" (taking a look at some of the specific zombie sequences.)
Oddly, there are no trailers for the film. Unfortunately, there are promos for other Universal titles that play before the menu.
Final Thoughts: "Dawn of the Dead" was a surprise, offering a lot of tension and suspense, as well as a few good scares. The performances are also very good, which helps involvement in the characters. Universal's DVD edition offers a mixed group of supplements and acceptable video quality, but very good audio. Recommended.
The Film ***