When There's No More Room in Hell

... the dead shall walk the earth in HDR, as Norm digs into Shout! Factory's 4K edition of Zack Snyder's DAWN OF THE DEAD.

Shadows loom on the cover of Shout! Factory's 4K edition of Zack Snyder's DAWN OF THE DEAD.

Just a week ago, Wilson Cruz asked Twitter why we’re all so fascinated with zombies. I have a tight five on this, of course, but I tightened it up even further: Fear of depersonalization, disease, hostile masses and friends and family failing to understand us, combined with the base terror of being chased and eaten – the brilliant idea that George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead plants on top of the classic mindless-shambler concept, mostly to provide a cheap gross-out moment for drive-in audiences. Fifty-five years later, it’s arguably the most influential horror movie ever made; I love John Carpenter’s Halloween as much as anyone, but the slasher genre is inherently limited. Night of the Living Dead has a far greater reach, and one that doesn’t depend on returning characters or locations. The dead are everywhere, after all.

I wrote about Romero’s masterpiece back in October, when Criterion reissued its excellent special edition in 4K; today, I’m writing about one of the films that wears his influence right on the poster: Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, which got its own 4K release from the kind folks at Shout! Factory this week.

While Snyder’s film is technically a remake of Romero’s 1978 sequel, it’s really its own thing. Yes, the logline is the same: A diverse assortment of characters take refuge from the zombie apocalypse in a shopping mall. But everything else is new, accelerated, intensified; we don’t even have the illusory comfort of a chopper pilot among our heroes. The plague itself is new and terrifying, ripping through the suburbs overnight and spreading across the world during the opening credits; in no time at all, the old world is washed away and replaced with a merciless, predatory landscape.

28 Days Later… may have premiered a year earlier, bringing “fast zombies” into the 21stcentury, but its raging hordes were fallible, mortal; prone to fighting with each other and ultimately starving themselves to death. Snyder’s sprinting undead move in swarms, racing after anyone unlucky enough to be exposed. Zombie movies don’t offer happy endings, and never have, but Dawn wipes away even the pretense of hope; no one’s getting out of this thing alive. James Gunn’s screenplay updates Romero’s misanthropy and nihilism for a new generation of horror fans, tweaking the social commentary and finding room for a lot more gallows humor. And then there’s the cast, of course.

Two decades on, Snyder’s Dawn now carries the gold seal of being the best-cast zombie picture ever. Sure, he’s got Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames in the leads (and no, I still cannot get over the fact that Sarah Polley starred in a zombie picture produced by a major studio just two years after she walked away from Almost Famous) but look at that supporting cast: Mekhi Phifer! Jake Weber! Michael Kelly! Lindy Booth! Jayne Eastwood! Matt Frewer! Hell, that’s Air Bud’s Kevin Zegers as poor horny Terry!

Sure, Ty Burrell is probably the biggest name among them now, but at the time he was a flinty-eyed bit player whose comic chops had yet to be discovered – meaning his energy was perfect for the role of a a Patrick Bateman-esque finance bro whose cocksure arrogance provides an interesting contrast to Weber’s soft-spoken competence and willingness to work with Polley and Rhames to solve problems as they come up. It’s a dynamic that must have come straight from Gunn’s script, as Snyder seems oblivious to it.

I’m not bothering with character names because everyone’s playing a type: It’s another way in which Gunn and Snyder turn a traditional weakness of the genre into a strength. The characters are deliberately two-dimensional so we can invest in them more quickly, and be shocked as well as touched when they reveal something deeper … like the gentle rather than remorseful spin Weber puts on his line reading of “Being a dad”, for instance, or Frewer’s resignation in his last scene. (And given the direction Snyder’s career took afterward, the dignity he allows that character is probably also straight from Gunn’s script.)

Every single one of these people is in shock for the first hour of the picture, and given the speed at which a fast-zombie narrative has to progress, the story plays out over a matter of days rather than the months that passed Romero’s film. The pacing makes it fun – as do all the graphic kills, I suppose – but there’s a shuddering, squirmy dread underneath everything; this particular undead uprising feels weirdly credible, somehow. Maybe this is the way the world ends.

As with Criterion’s Night, Shout!’s 4K Dawn simply adds a new platter to the existing Blu-ray special edition, which sounds a little less exciting than it actually is. The new master looks fantastic, doing justice to Matthew F. Leonetti’s grainy, grimy cinematography while also treating it like film instead of a date file; where the previous Shout! Blu-ray set sourced its master from a digital intermediate of the unrated cut, this edition goes back to the original camera negative of the theatrical cut for its 4K scan, splicing in elements from the 2K unrated edition where needed. I honestly didn’t notice the joins.

That new scan is also offered on the Blu-ray of the unrated version, which is otherwise identical to the 2017 disc in its special features, all drawn from earlier Universal releases: Audio commentary from Snyder and producer Eric Newman (which also appears on the 4K disc, the only special feature there), a whole mess of EPK-level featurettes that are retrospectively fascinating because, again, that’s future Oscar nominee Sarah Polley running around the set of a goddamn zombie movie – along with storyboards and the “Andy’s Lost Tape” bonus thing.

Shout!’s own extras, which as usual dig a little deeper, appear on the set’s third disc, which also offers the theatrical cut: Retrospective interviews with Weber, Burrell, Gunn and makeup artists David Anderson and Heather Langenkamp Anderson. (Yes, that’s Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street. She’s moved on.) There’s also a trailer, a still gallery and a cache of deleted scenes with commentary by Snyder and Newman.

Really, though? You’d be buying this for the movie. And it’s never looked better, or felt more timely; in contrast to shows like The Walking Dead or The Last of Us, which exist to debate whether it’s possible to survive the end of the world with one’s humanity intact, here’s an apocalypse that shows us how it’d probably go down: Very badly, in blood and fire.

… wow, now that I think about it they really should have waited to put this out until the weather got nicer.

In Sunday’s paid edition: What do She Said and Tár have in common? The answer may surprise you! Or it may not, I don’t want to presume. Subscribe and find out!

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