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Gavin Schmitt

Blu-ray Review: "Dawn of the Dead" (2004)

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A nurse, a policeman, a young married couple, a salesman, and other survivors of a worldwide plague that is producing aggressive, flesh-eating zombies, take refuge in a mega Milwaukee shopping mall.

Production company Strike Entertainment (who had connections to distributor Universal) pulled out all the stops for this film. Being a fan of the original George A. Romero film, as we all are, I initially had my doubts about this one. As it turns out, however, by avoiding much of the original story, writer James Gunn helps the film avoid many of the comparisons it would have been subjected to. This is, for all practical purposes, a film of its own. And between my first viewing in 2004 and more recently in 2017, it has only grown in stature.

Gunn's style of work with Troma ("Tromeo and Juliet") and his later work with "Slither" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" does not seem to arise much in this film. The humor is more subdued, but I will give him full credit for the Jay Leno / Burt Reynolds target practice scene. Excellent work. To be fair, Gunn actually left the project early to concentrate on "Scooby-Doo 2", Michael Tolkin ("The Rapture") and Scott Frank ("Minority Report") were brought in for rewriting; Tolkin further developed the characters, while Frank provided some of the bigger and upbeat action sequences. Interestingly, Gunn's "Slither" was the next project from producers Strike Entertainment.

Zack Snyder makes his feature film directorial debut, though he had made music videos for Morrissey and Soul Asylum throughout the 1990s, so he was not a complete novice by any means. Interesting, Snyder was born in Green Bay, which may explain why the film is set in Milwaukee. Assisting him is cinematographer Matthew Leonetti, who started out on "The Bat People" (1974) but went on to great things with "Poltergeist", "Fast Times at Ridgemont High", "Weird Science" and many others.

All of the acting in this is great, especially Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, so there is no need to even get into that. Polley was Snyder's first choice, actually, which was wise on his part. Nobody stood out as the best, nobody fell short... by horror movies standards everything was kosher. The scenery was also great (it is a mall, it looked like a mall, job done). The zombies? Fantastic! So much better than the original in terms of getting the gore and missing limbs down to a science. Blood today is so much better than it used to be. What you may not know is that the special effects were done by Heather Langenkamp, better known to horror fans as Nancy from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise!

There was some dispute between the producers and Snyder about putting Johnny Cash or Richard Cheese on the soundtrack, with Snyder ultimately prevailing. And I say unto thee, you could not have picked two better artists for the soundtrack. The Cash song ("The Man Comes Around") set the necessary mood while the opening credits create the back story, and the Cheese song ("The Sickness") kept the mood lighter when it needed to be (horror films really should not take themselves too seriously). Adding the original "Sickness" (by Disturbed) was a nice touch. In fact, the soundtrack as a whole really catapulted this film from good to great -- so we have to thank Snyder for that.

I really enjoyed the news footage placed in the movie at the beginning and at later times, especially with Tom Savini ("we have a twitcher") and Ken Foree (the televangelist). It really gave the movie a more "real-life" feel and was a good throwback to "Night of the Living Dead" with the radio reports, not to mention giving these "Living Dead" icons cameos.

If you are holding back from watching this because you love the original, give it up. This film deserves a solid chance. If it helps, just ignore the fact the title is "Dawn of the Dead" -- this film rips off the original film much less than other films try to do. At least here, proper credit is given, but it really is a breed of its own.

The 2017 Scream! Factory Blu-ray is phenomenal and the only home video version worth owning. Take your old DVDs and sell them. Scream! provides a two-disc set f both the theatrical version and the unrated one, both with new 2K scans. The features are packed in -- featurettes, storyboards, audio commentary, deleted scenes. New to this release is behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with several people, including horror royalty Heather Langenkamp and living legend James Gunn.

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