Dawn of the Dead (1978)
By: Julian on January 20, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Anchor Bay (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DTS 5,1, English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0, English DD 1.0. 386 minutes
The Movie
Director: George. A. Romero Starring: David Emge, Scott. H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree
Screenplay: George. A. Romero
Music: Goblin and Dario Argento
Tagline: When there's no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth"
Country: USA
In 2004, every Dawn of the Dead fan in the world shot their load upon hearing that Anchor Bay was releasing an Ultimate Edition of George A. Romero's seminal film – an edition that would be comprised of four discs, including three cuts of the film, two documentaries and an untold number of special features. The set that was released certainly lived up to the hype and has become one of, if not the, greatest horror DVD releases of all time.

We kick off with the US theatrical cut of the film that clocks in at 128 minutes, and is the version of Dawn of the Dead most Western viewers have grown to love. It is the cut available locally on Umbrella's R4 DVD and is Romero's own preferred version. It would be prudent to outline the plot of Dawn of the Dead here: the dead, as in Romero's 1968 picture Night of the Living Dead, have come to life after some kind of epidemic, and the modern world cannot handle the plague. The film opens inside a television studio, in which two men are having a vehement argument on air regarding how to handle the issue of the living dead, and where Francine (Gaylen Ross) works. Amid the pandemonium, Francine's boyfriend Stephen (who we come to know as Flyboy, due to his profession) tells her that a helicopter is waiting for them both, and they should escape to safer ground. Along the way, they meet two SWAT officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H Reiniger) and, after a number of obstacles including the near-fatal objective of refuelling, the four land on the roof of an abandoned shopping mall, which is surrounded by a sea of the undead. After locking the place down, the group decide that saying put 'might not be such a bad idea'.

The US theatrical cut is my least favourite version of the film, and this may be down to the fact that I am actually a recent Dawn of the Dead convert. I despised the picture when I saw the Umbrella disc for the first time some years ago, and only developed affection for it after discovering the numerous versions available on this disc. Though he denies any such subliminal intention, Romero has jam-packed Dawn of the Dead with innumerable allusions to class distinctions, materialism, greed and capitalism and, in the US theatrical cut, these references threaten to become overbearing. Before delving into an analysis of why this occurred, the historical context in which Dawn was lensed should be considered. Ten years after creating a runaway horror classic with what could have easily been just another 42nd Street gorefest, Romero was given far more money to play with (in the ballpark of $500 000, roughly five times that of Night). So, what to do for an encore? It reeks of pretentiousness; Romero's chance to do something big and signficiant, while keeping within the conventions of what he knows best – gore and visceral horror. Dawn of the Dead should certainly not be viewed in the context of virtually every other non-Romero undead picture of the seventies and eighties. There's no Fulci surrealism or comedy, nor is it a switch-your-brain-off exploitation gorefest – there's much more to Dawn than that, though the crucial question remains – 'why should it be so?'. Romero clearly had an agenda with this conceptually, but it doesn't entirely work. Like a forty-year-old dressed up in the same way as her eighteen-year-old daughter, something just doesn't sit right with Romero's social comment for reasons that cannot be clearly articulated.

The 139-minute extended cut of the film, which screened at Cannes in 1978, is on Disc 2. In this edition, there is some extra gore, a number of extended scenes and back-story. Funnily enough, this was my favourite version of the film, and it adopted something of an 'epic' quality. Making a horror film that runs almost two hours and twenty minutes in length is no mean feat – managing to keep an audience's attention during this time requires some great showmanship. And we get it – Tom Savini's grue gets some sensational screen time here, with all of the head-exploding, gut-ripping goodness that makes him among the best in the business. Romero, too, showcases his directorial style with ease, and the way this extended cut is paced better helps to show off these skills. Romero's social comment, which was borderline-ridiculous in the theatrical cut (reminiscent of the cloud of 'smug' enveloping the people of South Park in the television show), is diluted by engrossing narrative, interesting dialogue and Savini's gore. Quality, they say, is far more important than quantity – here, however, we get both. Dawn of the Dead's extended cut is the Gone With the Wind of the horror genre – a violent, sweeping epic that is the masterful opus of a genre maestro.

Finally, on Disc 3, we are treated to the European cut of Dawn of the Dead. Running 119 minutes, this cut was the product of fierce editing by Dario Argento, who was the European editor for the film. The aforementioned allusions are removed to the point of almost non-existence, the gleeful barbs of Romero's wry humour are blunted almost entirely and the film passes as an almost Fulciesque zombie action flick. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. There is more of Goblin's score in the piece, and there is the clear absence of a number of notable gore set pieces, including the helicopter half-decapitation, one of the film's most crowd-pleasing moments. Far inferior to the extended cut, but fun nonetheless, if bordering a bit on the dumb at times.
On all four discs, the picture for the films is nothing short of marvellous. All three versions of Dawn of the Dead have been presented in widescreen 1:85:1 with 16:9 enhancement. The picture looks great, especially in the US theatrical cut, with very few moments of grain or film artefacts. Anchor Bay's magnificent transfer three-fold perfectly accentuates the sense of claustrophobia and menace brilliantly brought to life by Michael Gornick's cinematography.
Again, the audio is pretty much pristine. The US theatrical version has four English soundtracks – 5.1 DTS surround, 5.1 Dolby surround, 2.0 Dolby surround and original mono. The extended version is unfortunately only presented in original mono, however the European cut of the film has 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby as well as the original mono.

The soundtrack by Goblin is good, if a tad formulaic, and it certainly isn't the group's best work. Musically, the extended cut is far more appealing, with Romero having inserted a number of library tracks in exchange for the Italian music foursome's pseudo-porn score.
Extra Features
Where do you begin with a release that is more a showcase of features than of the film itself?

Disc one has a full audio commentary with Romero, Savini and assistant director Chris Romero (George R's wife). The DVD's producer Perry Martin moderates the track. The commentary is filled with some intriguing facts about pre-production, production, post-production and audience response but, like all of the commentaries in this set, it tends to slow down every now and again. Various theatrical trailers for the film have been included, as well as TV and radio spots, a poster advertising gallery, a bio for Romero and info on an IDW Dawn of the Dead comic book.

Disc two comes with a commentary by producer Richard P Rubinstein, and is also moderated by Martin. There are a number of galleries here, including behind-the-scenes photos, memorabilia and production stills. Personally, I find galleries the most tedious of features, so these generated little interest for me. A similarly dull commercial for the Monroeville Mall, in which the film was shot, is also included.

Things get sunnier on disc three, which showcases some more galleries– this time lobby cards, posters and advertising, home video and soundtrack artwork and press books are the order of the day, considerably more interesting than still shots that can be seen in live action in making-of docos. International theatrical trailers are included, as well as UK TV spots in which this version was screened and a Dario Argento bio. The commentary is with actors Emge, Foree, Reiniger and Ross, who participate in an entertaining track.

Disc four is where the real special feature fun begins. The main feature on this disc is the 75-minute retrospective The Dead Will Walk. Directed by Perry Martin, this thoroughly comprehensive making-of hauls together almost every cast and crew member who had even slight input into how the film was to play out. Everyone from Argento to the chick who played the Nurse Zombie is interviewed, and it makes for a truly excellent documentary. Perhaps of more interest to the purists is the inclusion of Roy Frumkes' 1985 documentary Document of the Dead, which chronicled every aspect of production of Romero's classic, as well as some of the director's previous films. While this is indeed a well-made retrospective, it isn't as arresting and compelling as Martin's work. Also included on this disc are some home movies with a commentary track by Robert Langer, a zombie extra; as well as a Monroeville Mall tour with Foree.

The DVDs themselves come in an attractive cardboard slipcase and the discs sit into a thick fold-out digipack. Included as inserts is a set of liner notes, which explains the difference between the three different cuts as well as the extras included on each DVD. Also included is a gory preview of the aforementioned comic.
The Verdict
Ultimate is right. Anchor Bay has expended an amazing amount into creating what is possibly one of the most comprehensive releases of any film ever committed to celluloid. Dozens of special features, as well as the three available cuts of the film, should keep the fans salivating long after they have this set in their hot little hands. As a film, Dawn of the Dead has stood the test of time, though it's a pity that the least worthy cut of the picture is the one most people have been exposed to.
Movie Score
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