George Romero is one of the most influential filmmakers of our time. He has taken a subgenre of film and perfected to the point where no one should even try to make a movie of this type except him. The type of which I speak is of course the zombie film. Night of the Living Dead was a ground breaking new type of film, but the sequel Dawn of the Dead is thought by many to be the best zombie film ever made.
That film has recently been remade. Although the remake was a fairly fun exercise, it lost all of the heart and social commentary of the original. Now, the masters of remastering, Anchor Bay have put out the definitive release of Dawn of the Dead featuring three different versions of the film and a bevy of extras.
The plot, at first glance, is quite simple. Flesh eating zombies are taking over the world. A small band of humans take refuge in one of the first large scale indoor malls and fight off the zombies. That’s about it for the plot, but there’s so much more to this film than that simple plot.
At the time of Dawn, George Romero was taking notice of the way he felt consumerism and the need for “things” was beginning to take over The United States and perhaps the world. The main setting for Dawn of the Dead is iconic in the level of consumerism in the country as it is one of the worlds first indoor malls. He had zombies invade the mall searching for human brains to eat. But while there, many of the zombies, even though they had no human brain activity left, almost by instinct tried to shop for clothes or even jewelry. The massive scenes of zombies slopping through the mall were unmistakably representative of Romero’s belief that we are all sheep being controlled by large corporations. Whether you agree with him or not, the images are still compelling.
Dawn of the Dead brought together three masters of the horror genre: George Romero, Dario Argento, and Tom Savini. Romero of course directed this film along with the original Night of the Living Dead and various other horror films. Dario Argento is an Italian director who had made his own mark as a writer and director of horror films, even being called “the Italian Alfred Hitchcock”. Argento had become friends with Romero and actually brought him over to Italy to write the sequel that would become Dawn and even produced it. Tom Savini was a talented up and coming special effects artist and stuntman. Romero probably didn’t know it at the time but he had put together a dream team to create Dawn of the Dead.
Disc one features the theatrical cut of the film. This is probably the most widely seen version of the film. Disc two features the definitive version though, The Director’s Cut. This version is almost a half hour longer and features more zombie action and a little more character development. The third disc is the Dario Argento European edit. As the producer of the film Romero allowed Argento to cut the European release of the film. Argentos’ cut is the shortest of the three and the most stylish. Argento has a flare for filmmaking that stands in drastic contrast to Romero’s more stiff industrial approach. Even though Argento didn’t script or shoot the film he is able to show his influence in the editing of this version. This cut also showcases the soundtrack done by Goblin, a band Argento has used for most of his films. This versions the most fast paced of the three which is quite refreshing, but several classic sequences are notably absent. Hey, you can’t watch Dawn of the Dead without seeing that zombie get his head cut off by the helicopter blade can you?
It’s easy to see why this movie is so influential in the genre. It’s gory, it’s funny, and it’s compelling as an action horror film and in its underlying message. Dawn of the Dead is one of the few movies to hit theaters without a rating also. Rather than chop it to bits or give it an X rating, Romero chose to drop it into theatres without one. This just boosted the ticket sales!
Dawn of the Dead exists in the upper echelon of horror classics and it is without a doubt the best zombie film ever made.
When I sat down to watch this new release I was stunned by the picture quality. I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember, and have been used to murky colors and terrible bleeding. I can’t put into words how amazing this new widescreen release looks, but I’ll try. Colors are vibrant, detail is high, and blacks are definitely black. Even grain is kept to a minimum. The may be the best looking transfer of a 25 year old film I’ve seen on DVD to date. It doesn’t stand up to The Lord of the Rings releases but come on, the source material is 25 years old! I have no complaints.
I don’t understand what happened with the sound. The best version, Romero’s director’s cut only features the original mono soundtrack. The best version of the film gets the worst audio? Not that it’s bad, because it isn’t. It’s well mixed and very clean, just no surround usage. The other two cuts get either a DTS5.1 or a Dolby Surround, and as expected, they sound a lot better, featuring cleaner separation and some surround usage. So, it’s a mixed bag depending on which version you watch. None of the choices sound bad, they just aren’t home theater demo quality.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The four disc set comes in a classy looking black slip covering featuring the original artwork from the movie, nice job.
There are three commentary tracks the first two of which are equally entertaining and enlightening. The first is my favorite featuring Romero, his wife and producer Christine, and effects guru Tom Savini. It’s great to hear these three share stories of making the film and their thoughts on its legacy.
The next commentary features the four main characters in the film. Their comments are interesting as they approach the film from the opposite side of the camera. Some of there stories may be familiar if you have followed their interviews and so forth but even so, the commentary is quite engaging for the hardcore fan. The third commentary is from producer Richard Rubinstein. He has a few interesting things to say but I actually found his commentary to be boring overall. Realistically he should have been included with the Romero commentary but the two don’t speak anymore, so that’s just the way it is (I don’t blame Romero either).
Next is a feature length documentary made during the shooting of Dawn of the Dead called Document of the Dead. The movie starts as an overview of filmmaking terms and techniques using clips from Night of the Living Dead as examples of these terms and techniques. It is obvious that this documentary is being made by film students and those involved with a film school. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s quite a good thing. This documentary is a true study of the filmmaking process used by Romero and the environment in which he works, not just a two hour back slapping tribute to him (of which there is a little bit).
Director Roy Frumkes is given special permission to film his documentary on the set of Dawn of the Dead during the production. He has unprecedented access to the cast and the crew. Through discussions with those involved he learns a great deal about Romero’s style, or lack there of, in filmmaking and surprisingly how he cultivates a family atmosphere on the set.
At first the documentary feels like a film school study of the making of Dawn of the Dead and discussion of the evolution of that film from Night of the Living Dead. But quickly the project itself evolves into a true investigation into Romero’s entire career featuring clips from Night of the Living Dead, Two Evil Eyes, Martin and Dawn of the Dead, as well as discussion with Romero and other cast and crew on all of these films.
One segment of the film that is quite interesting to watch is an interview with Tom Savini as he applies zombie makeup to extras for Dawn of the Dead. It is apparent that he and Romero have become good friends and they place a great deal of trust in each other. Savini is able to go to George with ideas for the project and George usually says sure lets do it! One example is a sequence in the film where one of the characters stabs a zombie in the ear with a screw driver. Savini had suggested it to George and he agreed to give it a try. That sequence is one of the most memorable from the film.
There’s even quite a bit of discussion of the release problems with the film. Dawn of the Dead was considered to gory for a regular R rating but Romero felt it didn’t deserve an X. So he began lobbying for an addition to the system that would cover films like his that might be to intense for younger viewers but didn’t include the strong sexual situations usually associated with X rated films. Dawn of the Dead was eventually released as an unrated film and it still brought in great box office returns. At this point I began to feel like the movie was winding down but I had a surprise coming my way….
The surprise is that the film simply cuts on the Dawn of the Dead set and kicks in 10 years later on the set of Two Evil Eyes! The Director really showed some dedication with this project coming back ten years later to take a look at the progression of Romero’s career and at his, at the time, latest project, Two Evil Eyes, which once again teamed him with Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. This time the pair worked together on two short films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe that would be combined to make a single feature film release.
Romero discusses the problems that have always plagued him as a non-Hollywood independent filmmaker and how the current filmmaking environment (1989) is making it harder and harder for non studio films to get made. Adrienne Barbeau and Romero’s wife discuss the making of Two Evil Eyes and how George continues to cultivate the same types of working environments as he had ten years earlier.
The biggest difference between the making of Dawn of the Dead and Two Evil Eyes for George is a little more gray hair, a middle aged pudge, and the replacement of his cigarette with a yo-yo and gum.
Document of the Dead is a true look at the filmmaking process of George Romero, from storyboards and script, to post production and promotion. This film covers what he does and how he does it. Like I hinted to earlier there is a bit of back slapping and praise all around from cast and crew but for the most part the Director keeps the film discussing the process of making a George Romero film not on how great he is.
Romero isn’t a slick guy or a slick filmmaker. He’s pretty no nonsense in everything he does from the way he dresses to the way he edits. He comes from the world of training videos and commercials and he brings those utilitarian low budget techniques to all of his films. Knowing this you wouldn’t expect that he would have such a strong vision of what he wants his final projects to be. But Document of the Dead reveals quite the contrary, he does have a very specific vision for each of his projects and one way or another he does succeed in getting the film he envisions made.
The only complaint I have, and it’s a nit picky one, is that the story arc of the movie is a bit muddy. It starts off as a films school like discussion of the filmmaking process using Romero and his films as a guide, then turns to a battle between Romero and the industry to get his cut of the film released. This battle is intriguing and interesting but when he wins by releasing his film his way to critical acclaim and box office success it feels like the movie should end, but instead we got back to covering Romero as a filmmaker and then the battle starts over again. The ten years later segment feels out of place. But at the same time there’s great interviews, special effects coverage, and discussion of the contemporary film industry that I wouldn’t want to miss. So it really falls on the assembly of the film not the content because all of the content is excellent.
I never thought of George A. Romero as a pioneer in the world of independent filmmaking, in the world of influential horror films definitely, but as a pioneer in indie film no, as it turns out he is truly a pioneer in both. No self respecting Romero fan or film student should be without a copy of Document of the Dead. Also, another film from Synapse, Dario Argento’s World of Horror offers a bit of cross pollination as it covers the works of Dario Argento including Dawn of the Dead and Two Evil Eyes.
The Dead Will Walk is an all new feature length documentary that features all new interviews with the cast and crew. It’s a little more like a “DVD Extra” than the documentary that is Document of the Dead but it’s no less compelling. It’s really cool to watch both documentaries and compare the cast and crews views of the movie during the making of it to 25 years later. I think most of them didn’t expect it to make the impact that it did. These two documentaries represent the most in depth coverage of a film that I’ve seen to date.
On top of that we get images, bios, a ton of trailers, a comic book preview, a commercial for the mall, radio spots, and a walking tour of the mall and more.. That tour by the way has an annoying flicker that makes it a little hard to watch. The level of extras in this set is mind blowing, some of the best I’ve seen. (have I said that before? Thank you Anchor Bay)
One of the greatest movies ever made finally gets the special edition it deserves.
Overall (Not an Average) 9/10