[box cover]

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

In an age where everything — cars, information, adolescence, theatrical release windows — has been sped up to a startling degree, it stands to reason that even the pop-cultural symbol of torpidity, the zombie, would find its inner Carl Lewis. But while there has recently been a rash of films featuring zombies capable of running an undeniably fleeter 40 than possible in previous incarnations, it's important to give credit where credit is due by remembering that the sprinting dead concept was invented more than two decades ago by schlockmeister supreme Umberto Lenzi in Nightmare City (1980). What's more, his zombies could operate firearms, too. Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead has none of that film's ludicrous ingenuity, and, at worst, no particular reason for being. But it does gain a good deal of forward momentum in its slam-bang early going, which, for a while, goes a long way toward concealing the movie's thorough pointlessness. In fact, the film is never better than in its opening ten minutes of expertly staged mayhem wherein Ana (Sarah Polley), a young, overworked nurse, returns home after a grueling day of work, goes to bed with her boyfriend, and wakes up to a bona fide zombie holocaust. Her boyfriend is quickly, brutally dispatched and, just as quickly, joins the ranks of the undead in pursuit of her and every other sentient living thing. Without pause, Ana flees the suburbs, encountering sundry visions of hell before crashing her car and getting rescued by Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a behemoth of a man with little use for words or the company of others. Nonetheless, they band together, meeting up with another cluster of strangers along the way before reaching the shopping mall in which they hope to take refuge. Unfortunately, the complex is already home to a small group of gun-toting redneck security guards who'd rather not share their relative good fortune any further. Though they're soon overpowered, matters are quickly complicated by the arrival of more survivors, some of whom are wounded and close to death. Realizing that, without preemptive action, there will soon be zombies amongst them, impossibly tough decisions must be made which threaten to upset the tenuous harmony barely keeping these diverse individuals from each others' throats.

*          *          *

If that sounds like an interesting parallel set up to contrast the literal go-for-the-throat rule of sustenance governing the undead anarchy outside, then too much is already being read into this aggressively superficial retelling of the original Dawn of the Dead (1978). Though A-list scribes Scott Frank and Michael Tolkien did perform uncredited surgery on James Gunn's screenplay, the best they could do was remove the forced snarkiness and unironically play up the human drama. However, Snyder doesn't have it in him to stay the dour course, eschewing unremitting dread for amusing, but distancing, sardonic flourishes like a mall-life montage scored to a lounge lizard-y rendition of Disturbed's "Down with the Sickness." Another problem is that Snyder, while an undeniably capable stylist, borrows so heavily from the dog-eared Alien playbook that one feels as if they're riding the kiddie version of an amusement park's biggest, baddest rollercoaster. (When "The Simpsons" have already parodied the scare in which the creature scampers across the foreground of the frame while the protagonist lurks tentatively in the background, it's time to retire it.) So when the thrills are second-hand, the script is devoid of subversive intent, and it feels as if the director's auditioning for his second film, all that's left is empty product skewed cynically at the cheerfully undemanding — the kind of attractive-yet-useless knick-knack people acquire while shuffling dead-eyed through a shopping mall. 'Tis a pity someone's already made that movie. Universal presents Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director's Cut in a superb anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include an engaging feature-length commentary by Snyder and producer Eric Newman that's only occasionally marred by their insistence on calling everyone a "rock star." There are also two bits of additional footage, the first being "The Lost Tape" (16 min.) of Andy the gun store owner, which is essentially a lame collection of very bad exposition-filled monologues, while the other, "Special Report: Zombie Invasion" (20 min.), is the mock-televised news coverage of the film's unexplained global epidemic (which, while tedious, does curry gorehound favor with an unexpected cameo). Also included are three behind-the-scenes featurettes — "Raising the Dead" (8 min.), "Attack of the Living Dead" (7 min.), and "Splitting Headaches" (5 min.) — and eleven deleted scenes. Keep-case with a paperboard sleeve.
—Clarence Beaks

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