Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dawn Of The Dead - The Ultimate Edition (1978)

Dawn Of The Dead almost defies criticism. Its impact on pop culture is assured at this point, and any of the film's faults are certainly counterbalanced by its tremendous influence and ever-growing fanbase. It's a testament to the film's power that I just watched the film (in different forms) SIX times in the past week, and I still retain my strong affection for it. It might even have been reinforced.

I can't tell you how many times I saw Dawn Of The Dead as a teenager. My cousin and I used to watch it constantly, quoting lines at each other until even innocuous moments ("I saw it on a map!") attained hilarious charm. Even at that age I was aware that this was something more than your average horror film. It was something epic. Something apocalyptic. Something meaningful.

Even as a more well versed film viewer I still get a tinge of nostalgia from viewing it. I notice its flaws a lot more now. The sometimes dodgy acting. The cheap (and rapidly produced!) effects. The sometimes heavy handed themes. But it sucks me in every time. The story is that compelling, and George Romero's direction is as strong as its ever been.

It's the end of the world. The dead have come back to life (for an unspecified reason), and the world as a whole (or, at the very least, Pittsburgh) is having a hard time dealing with the hungry, flesh-eating hordes. While society goes down the tubes, rednecks gets kicks from hunting the ghouls like deer. Traffic helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emgee) and his girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross) are joined by SWAT team members Roger (Scott Reineger) and Peter (Ken Foree) as they attempt to escape the city. After landing on the helipad of a deserted shopping mall, the four rest briefly before taking the opportunity to explore the abandoned area (while dodging the hundreds of zombies still wandering the halls).

The quartet block off the entrances with trucks and lock down the doors before "going on a hunt", destroying the brain of any of the creatures that remain inside and stashing their bodies in the freezer. Then, with the mall to themselves they begin living a luxurious but empty lifestyle with all of their needs now fulfilled. Their peaceful existence is interrupted, however, when a roving gang of bikers spot the helicopter on the roof and storm the mall, leading to an intense and gory finale.

Dawn Of The Dead positions itself as a sequel to the classic Night Of The Living Dead, but besides the zombie antagonists and the recurring theme of a group of people holding up in a building surrounded by a growing number of the undead, the film is mining very different territory. Here the underlying (and sometimes in your face) themes have to do with commercialism and consumerism. The pale faced creatures claw at the glass windows of the mall, desperate to get in because "this was an important place in their lives". These packets of "motorized instinct" are positioned as sympathetic compared to the awful way that humanity is treating each other in the face of doomsday.

Much has been made of the levels of violence of the film, and with good reason. While positioned as a comic-book horror film, the violence is graphic and sometimes shocking. Particularly in the gut-munching finale, and in the initial SWAT-team raid. To Romero's credit he was never willing to cut the film to make it more palatable or marketable to the public. The world in which these characters live is a violent place. Romero is smart, however, to temper this violence with light comedic moments, even throwing in a zombie pie-fight before things go haywire at the end of the film.

There have been multiple versions of Dawn Of The Dead released on DVD, but Anchor Bay has gone all out with this release, truly earning its Ultimate Edition moniker. Four disks containing three versions of the film and two feature length documentaries, not to mention commentaries, trailers, photos and plenty more. This may be the final word on Dawn Of The Dead (but don't bet on it).

Disc 1 - The U.S. Edition

This is the 128 minute unrated version of the film championed by Romero as his preferred cut. The video quality of this version is absolutely pristine, and it's fully possible that the film has never been seen with this level of audio and visual clarity. Aside from the 70s fashions (which are on full display), the film could have been made yesterday. Much credit should be given to Michael Gornick, the director of photography on the film. It is, of course, presented in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The disc has also been given a nice array of extras. The commentary has George A. Romero, Make-Up Effects Creator Tom Savini, and Assistant Director (and George's wife)Chris Romero and is moderated by Perry Martin, the DVD producer. Recorded in Romero's living room, this is a fascinating and insightful look at what turned out to be a historic and amazing shoot. You get a lot of detail about the troubles of shooting only nights for months on end, but also wonderful anecdotes about the production. Very worthwhile.

As well, we're treated to U.S. Theatrical trailers, television spots, radio spots, a poster and advertising gallery, a George Romero biography and a preview for the Dawn Of The Dead comic book (a mini-version of the first issue is included with the set).

Disc 2 - The Extended Edition

Often mistakenly referred to as a director's cut, this is actually the edit of the film that Romero created for the Cannes film festival and was created before he had a chance to finalize his choices. This version runs 139 minutes, and features a few extra scenes (most notably an expansion of the encounter with the police officers before the group takes off, including a few lines from Joe Pilato (Day Of The Dead)). There are a few extra scenes of violence, and a little more exposition, but it doesn't make a dramatic difference to the film as a whole. A worthwhile inclusion, but the theatrical cut remains snappier and superior.

Slightly inferior to the quality of the theatrical cut, the video quality is still on par with previous Anchor Bay releases of the film. Included on this disc is a cute (but odd) commercial for the Monroeville Mall (where most of the film takes place), production stills, behind-the-scenes photos and a memorabilia gallery. Also included is a feature length commentary from Dawn Of The Dead producer Richard P. Rubinstein, moderated by DVD Producer Perry Martin. Again, it's quite an interesting track, though decidedly more focused on the financial aspects of the film (as you would imagine). About half way through the focus goes onto the recent remake of Dawn Of The Dead and the track starts to dry up as Rubinstein attempts to justify it to what (at the time) was a pretty peeved fan-base. It ends with a diatribe about pirating, but for much of the running time it's a very informative track in regards to the devotion that Rubinstein had for giving George Romero as much creative freedom as possible.

Disc 3 - The European Version

I was particularly excited to view this 117 minute cut edited by Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red) for European audiences. In reality, it could be argued that this cut was as influential as Romero's own, since the zombie boom in Italy (where Dawn Of The Dead was titled Zombie) was a direct result of this film's success. Deliberately losing some of the character development, Argento's cut is faster paced and includes considerably more music from the group Goblin, whom Argento collaborated with on the soundtrack. Some scenes (particularly the SWAT raid and biker attack) actually flow a little better in this version, though the personal moments are missed. Worth viewing for fans for countless bits that are unseen in other versions of the film.

Available on bootleg or import versions for years, this is likely the best the European cut of the film has ever looked. The image quality is on par with that of the extended cut of the film.

We're treated to a really fun commentary featuring actors David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross who reminisce comically about their time making the film. Lots of great anecdotes and laughter pervade this track, though I was distracted by how much Scott Reiniger sounds like Crow T. Robot at times. A very worthwhile extra.

Also included are International theatrical trailers, television spots, lobby cards, a home video cover gallery, a poster and advertising gallery, a pressbook gallery, and a bio of Dario Argento.

Disc 4 - Documentaries

The fourth disc included the new 75 minute documentary The Dead Will Walk, featuring interviews with almost every major player involved with the making of the film (and a number of the zombie actors as well!). Lovingly assembled, the amount of affection the interviewees have for the films (and Romero!) is obvious. It repeats some information included in the commentaries (though, that should be expected), but seeing the participants so aware of their place in cinema history is a treat.

A more scholarly look at Romero and the making of Dawn Of The Dead, Roy Frumkes Document Of The Dead has been available for years as a separate film, but this is its first time packaged with the film it documents. Very rough, but featuring some invaluable footage shot during the making of the film, Document details Romero's career up to and including the making of Dawn, and details the filmic style that Romero had developed. A post-script section shows Romero on the set of the 1990 film Two Evil Eyes as he works with Tom Savini to perfect a gory death scene, and it's fascinating to be a fly on the wall witness to the often frustrating process of film-making.

We're also treated to some on-set footage shot by Zombie extra Robert Langer, who provides commentary over the silent footage. It provides a little more insight into the relaxed party-atmosphere of the mall while the film was being made.

Finally, we have a tour of the Monroeville Mall hosted by Ken Foree and featuring some of the Dawn Of The Dead cast. Fans looking for recognizable locations might be disappointed, but it's a terrific extra, and is filmed by horror FX maestro Greg Nicotero (KNB FX).

A triumph of ingenuity and superior movie-making, Dawn Of The Dead is a milestone in American horror film and has lost none of its power in the 30 years since its release. Made for a paltry $650,000, and put together completely away from the influence of a studio, it's a testament to the power of a single director's vision, and the loyalty he receives from the people who believe in him. An amazing and important film receives a deservedly epic box-set.

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