In 1978, George A. Romero unleashed hell in the form of Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to his classic Night of the Living Dead. This one, too, became considered a classic, as it blended humor, satire and gore into a nice little package. Now, in 2004, Dawn on the Dead has returned in new form.
We all know that sequels are unnecessary. There are millions of stories out there that have never been turned into movies, but the studios don't seem to get it. Instead, it has become commonplace to do the unnecessary; that is, to remake a classic that shouldn't be redone, or remake a movie that wasn't good enough in its time to warrant a redo to begin with. Of course, if we judge all movies solely on the fact that they are remakes, then we might as well just disregard half of the movies that come out each year. Though the original Dawn of the Dead is a classic, it is a zombie movie, and to be good, zombie movies don't necessarily have to be "original."
Let's get to the point: the new Dawn of the Dead is great. It is scary, it is funny, and it is gory. It has good acting and good special effects, and definitely traverses far enough away from the original to be considered its own movie. Some critics have panned this film because it does not have "the original movie's political and philosophical preoccupations (abortion, capitalism, patriotism, individualism)" (Wesley Morris, Boston Globe). Sure, this movie may not comment on society the way the original Dawn of the Dead did, but did anyone, aside from the critics, care back then, or do they now? No, people seem zombie movies to have a good time, and to criticize a good zombie movie because it doesn't have deeper philosophical issues is pure bologna. The new Dawn of the Dead is a great ride, and anyone who says otherwise needs a good slap to the back of the head.
Like the original, the movie throws us right into the melee without giving any reasons as to why zombies are running wild (the worst monster movies are the ones that try to explain where the monsters originated). This time, though, the main female lead, Ana (Sarah Polley), is a nurse. She goes home, falls asleep with her husband, and when she wakes up discovers that her world has been turned upside down. Not only has her husband been gobbled up by their next-door neighbor's little girl, but the whole city of Everett, Wisconsin is seemingly overrun with zombies. She flees, but only makes it as far as a shopping mall, where she holes up with a few other survivors. Of course, it is only a matter of time before the zombies make it inside for good. The rest of the cast includes Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer and lesser known Jake Weber.
Dawn of the Dead excels at many levels. One of those is the acting: everyone is quite believable. Polley works well in the lead. Rhames is always entertaining to watch. Phifer, who is one of the leads on NBC's "E.R.", is also quite good. Surprisingly, Weber, though the most unknown of the main characters, is the most believable and likable. Halfway through, the movie does introduce some more characters (so they can be gobbled up, of course) that aren't nearly as developed. There's the sexy blonde, the asshole, the old woman and the sarcastic middle-aged man. That about sums them up.
Of course, acting means nothing if the rest of the movie doesn't have something going for it. Thankfully, there is some good suspense (though after the first 40 minutes the movie isn't specifically too scary), some good action, and best of all, some good zombies. In the original, the zombies were a bunch of blue-faced idiots, who waddle around, hardly able to turn around without falling over. It worked in regards to the social commentary that Romero was trying to dictate, and also made for some good humor. Here, though, the social commentary is pretty much gone, as is the concept of the physically handicapped zombie. The zombies in this new version run at full speed, blood pouring from their mouth and the wounds that they received when they were first infected. Even better, the makeup job on these zombies are top notch; these creatures are nasty to look at, and even nastier when they are dismembered with a chainsaw (yes, it happens).
Another highlight is that the movie is really quite funny. Zombies always make for good humor, and this movie takes full advantage. One of the best scenes in the film is the one where the characters are taking sniper practice, aiming for zombies that look like celebrities (Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds, specifically).
Compared to the original, it is funnier and more exciting. The zombies are also much more fun to look at. On the other hand, this new version is made for the fast-paced crowd of the 21st century, meaning that some of the "deeper" things of the original have been left out. Luckily, the two movies differ enough so that even though they both take place in shopping malls and share the same title, they can easily be distinguished on their own and be celebrated for what they are. Whatever the case may be, the new Dawn of the Dead is a fun thrill ride filled with laughs and gore; it should not disappoint.
Dawn of the Dead is now available on DVD - both in Rated and Unrated form. As can be expected from most unrated releases nowadays, only a few small scenes have been added in to create a version that was never approved by the MPAA. There is no extra gore or sex. Still, as DVD's go, the Unrated version is definitely worth it for both the movie and its extra features.
The special features common to both the Unrated and rated DVDs are iffy, at best. The deleted scenes are worth it, but Andy's Lost Tape and Special Bulletin are both lousy mini-films that do little to compliment the film. Both of these features were created to give another perspective to the movie, but both are incredibly cheesy and made with a really low budget.
However, the special features on the Unrated version are much better. In addition to the lousy features from the normal DVD, this one includes two behind-the-scenes looks at the creation of the zombies. One featurette, called Splitting Headaches, looks at the process of creating kill shots (how the director blows up zombie brains), and the other, titled Raising the Dead, looks at the makeup procedure to turn hundreds of extras into nasty creatures. Finally, a third feature called Attack of the Living Dead looks at six of the most memorable zombies in the movie and discusses how they were brought to "life" in the movie. For instance, the fat woman in the wheelchair is actually a man, and several of the zombies who were missing arms or legs in the movie are actual amputees in real life.
If you loved the movie like I did, either version of the DVD is worth it, but if you're into special features, then definitely go with the Unrated version. All of the good special features, aside from the deleted scenes, are included solely in the Unrate dersion.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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