Dawn of the Dead (2004) - Unrated Director's Cut

Since George Romero brought the world Night of the Living Dead, his films have been the bar against which zombie movies have been judged. How better to compare a film against Romero’s work then to remake one of his films, which is exactly what this version of Dawn of the Dead sets out to do. Of course, that only makes it easier to see where this zombie flick falls short. Zombie movies are a genre unto themselves. Fans of the gorefests are willing to overlook issues with plot, characters, and physics just to get a good brain splatter or chainsawed limbs. Because of this, zombie movies are a bit hard to judge on the same scale as regular films.

Originally Dawn of the Dead was the second film in George Romero’s zombie trilogy. This remake takes on the same concept as the original - as a zombie epidemic is unleashed upon the planet, a group of survivors take shelter in a shopping mall. But where Romero’s tale also served as a commentary on the survivors, who slowly turned into a type of zombie themselves while their entire world existed solely inside the mall, this film takes no such stance. It’s a straight forward gore film, where the people in the mall have to survive not only the zombies, but also themselves. Now that concept still sounds like it would still be a good social commentary on the nature of mankind, but that aspiration is a bit high for this flick, which resigns itself to using the concept to move from bloodbath to bloodbath. Not that there’s anything wrong with that - those kind of movies have their place as well, usually during the consumption of large quantities of alcohol.

Even allowing for the film being a brainless zombie bloodbath, the movie has its problems, the biggest being its choice in zombies. Don’t get me wrong, the zombies look awesome, with the makeup being based on real corpse decay studies (who do they get to study that anyway?). The problem is these are fast moving zombies. Now, unlike some of the absolute purists out there, I don’t mind fast moving zombies as long as there is some reason given for this phenomenon. I mean, they are corpses - these are the bodies of the dead, whose muscles should be tightening as rigor mortis sets in. 28 Days Later... got away with it by declaring its undead weren’t actually dead - they were virus laden victims. Dawn of the Dead doesn’t make any attempt to explain where its zombies come from, so there’s no explanation why they are fast moving zombies. Slow moving zombies I could take without an explanation any day of the week, but if you’re going to use fast moving zombies, at least try to explain to the viewers why we should believe in this.

Another of the film’s problems is the fact that almost every one of the movie’s protagonists is a complete and utter moron. While every horror flick worth anything has, at the very least, a ditzy blonde or such, this film has most of its characters taken in by stupidity. Michael (Mekhi Phifer) knows his pregnant girlfriend Luda (Inna Korobkina) was bitten by the zombies, and sees she’s not doing well. Instead of asking the lead character Ana (Sarah Polley), who he knows is a nurse, to look at her, he hides Luda from the rest of the survivors, denying them access to see her despite their concerns. Elsewhere in the film the heroes can overpower a pair of gun wielding rent-a-cops, but they can’t get past one man to try and help someone they know may not be alright? It doesn’t make sense. And then there’s the group of survivors that come to the mall in a truck and kind of disappear and reappear whenever its convenient. It’s as if the writer wanted a certain number of characters, but couldn’t figure out what to do with them all the time, so they just disappear. One lady doesn’t even appear until ten minutes after the truck arrives, showing up for the first time in a montage where she’s getting it on with resident asshole Terry (Kevin Zegers). Where was she until then, while other members of the truck’s survivors were turning into zombies or getting a once over by the nurse? I’m willing to stretch the limits of common sense where the zombies are concerned, but appearing/disappearing cast members who we’re supposed to get attached to are just by-products of sloppy writing.

So, Dawn of the Dead is not a very good movie, but it is an extremely entertaining blitz of zombies, and sometimes that meets what I’m looking for in a movie. If you like quality films, go pick up Casablanca. If you’re looking for a mindless slaughter of fast moving zombies go ahead and give Dawn of the Dead a try. It’s not the original George Romero classic, but it’ll do if nothing better than Troll 2 is available. Now that you know Dawn of the Dead is a mindless blood-fest, you should know that if you are still interested in seeing it, the Unrated Director’s Cut is the way to go. While there’s nothing instantly noticeable that makes the film run nine minutes longer than the theatrical cut, that extra time is full of a little character development and more importantly - extra gore, and if you’re watching this flick then you’re watching it for the gore. Why stop with an edited cut when you can get bigger brain splatterings and zombies with missing limbs pursuing the survivors? The simple answer is you shouldn’t, and although the director’s cut doesn’t add any substance to the film, it is the superior version.

Unfortunately that superior version is about the peak of the DVD release. While there is bonus material included on either version of the film, most of the extras the two versions share really isn’t worth the time it takes to watch. With both the theatrical and unrated versions you get deleted scenes, a couple of short supplementary videos and a feature commentary. The unrated version also gives you a few behind the scenes featurettes, which are really the only bonus features worth anything, giving even more reason to pick up the Unrated Director’s Cut.

Both versions have a commentary track with director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman. Since the commentary on the director’s cut refers to scenes that have been extended, it would appear a separate commentary was recorded for each version. Unfortunately the commentary exposes very little as to how things were done, and more about how little Snyder knew about what he was doing when he started this project. Most of the rest of the commentary talks about information that’s also covered in the deleted scenes or behind the scenes featurettes, making the track a bit annoying and redundant.

The deleted scenes are interesting, in that some of them probably should have been put back into this Unrated cut. Some of the alternate versions of scenes in the movie clarify issues that I’ve had with the film since I saw it theatrically - a different introduction to the survivors on the truck where you get to see them all, a scene between Michael and Luda that shows her getting sick slowly, instead of as abruptly as it appears in the final film. At the same time, other deleted footage makes sense to have been cut, so I guess you take the good with the bad.

The supplementary videos that appear with both versions are the biggest disappointment of the set. “The Lost Tape” is a video journal kept by Andy (Bruce Bohne), a survivor in an adjacent building to the mall who the Dawn of the Dead heroes keep contact with through binoculars and dry erase boards. In the film itself Andy is a sympathetic ally of the main characters, alone in his building with no food or company, but plenty of ammunition. “The Lost Tape” unfortunately take some of the mystery away from Andy, turning him into a conspiracy theory spouting survivalist, and a bit of a loon, which kills the sympathy I previously felt for him. Secondly is “Special Report: Zombie Invasion” which is a mock up of news footage that aired during the initial zombie infection. The news mock up itself is pretty bad, with some absolutely terrible acting in places, but it still managed to win me over with one thing - it’s obvious the people behind this are fans of “Babylon 5”. Not only is the main anchor who hosts the news show played by the late Richard Biggs, but towards the end the president is voiced by Bruce Boxlightner - coincidence? I think not.

For the Unrated release, there are also the three behind the scenes featurettes, which aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but they are more interesting then anything else included. “Raising the Dead” looks at the zombie makeup, from conception to execution. “Attack of the Living Dead” focuses on six of the film’s most memorable zombies, from the one armed zombie that appears in the Unrated Edition, to the fat lady who was, in fact, played by a man. Finally, “Splitting Headaches” looks at the effects that were used to create the awesome brain splattering head explosions on the zombies since, as we all know, only a head shot will kill a zombie, fast moving or otherwise.

As a movie and as a DVD release, this remake of Dawn of the Dead is a bit of a disappointment, but as a straight out zombie flick it’s a lot of fun, and a picture I’m sure to be sharing with friends for years to come. This just goes to show that some films don’t need quality as long as they have brains exploding all over the place.