Anchor Bay // 1978 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mark Van Hook (Retired) // March 16th, 2004
When there's no more room in hell, the dead...well, you know the rest.
Anchor Bay delivers unto us yet another edition of George A. Romero's perennial zombie splatter classic to coincide with the release of the dubiously conceived, mega-budget Universal remake. Though the original film still rocks as hard as ever, the promise of yet another deluxe DVD on the horizon raises the question: buy now, or wait for the real deal?
By now, Dawn's story is the stuff of horror legend, so much so that it hardly bears repeating. Nevertheless, here it is again.
Taking place essentially where Romero's original Night of the Living Dead left off (though with no actual reference to the original film), Dawn once again concerns a mysterious plague that causes the dead to rise from the grave and attack the living, yearning only for the taste of human flesh. Four survivors (Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, and David Emge) manage to flee the major cities and head for an indoor shopping mall, where they take refuge from the horrors on the outside. With all the supplies they could ever want at their disposal, they soon become content in their new surroundings, until a threat to their peaceful existence arrives in the form of a murderous biker gang. And as the confrontation between the two groups escalates, they find that it is the humans, not the zombies, who pose the greatest threat to their survival.
My first experience with Dawn of the Dead was a strange one, and I remember it fondly. I was in high school, in either my sophomore or junior year, and I was getting ready to throw my annual Halloween party, in which I would invite a group of friends over to watch the scariest movie I could come up with. The first of these events (of which there would be only two, and you'll see why) was a smashing success, due in large part to the film I selected -- John Carpenter's Halloween (natch). So when the requests started coming in for me to attempt to repeat that success with another party, I was a bit bolder in my film selection, choosing Dawn of the Dead, a picture I had heard plenty about yet had never seen.
To say that Romero's movie didn't go over quite as well with my friends as Halloween is an understatement. They hated it. They were so put off within the first half hour of the film that barely anyone paid any attention for the rest of the duration, choosing instead to talk amongst themselves, and when it was all over, I felt a great big sigh of relief let out of the room.
And, I'm ashamed to admit, I myself only ended up sort of liking it. I was a bit more receptive to the film's more humorous aspects, and was more willing to accept Tom Savini's over-the-top gore effects. But perhaps because of the lack of audience concentration in the room, I still felt slightly bored, and the character development that I had read was supposedly the film's hallmark was, needless to say, lost on me (Dario Argento's cheesy 1970s musical score didn't help any either). Oh, and it sure as hell wasn't scary.
Sacrilege, you say? Well relax, dear readers, because of course, in the years since that fateful Halloween, I've come to love and respect Dawn as much as its most ardent fans (well, maybe not that much, but pretty close). Seeing it removed from that audience of uneducated cinematic neophytes, I was finally able to see the film for what it was -- a great big zombie comic book, with some of the best gore effects ever put on film and the balls to treat its subject matter with both real satiric humor and actual human introspection. Some might say that it's lost its luster or become dated, hence the surprising lack of outrage over this "reimagining." But what has always worked about the film, I feel, still works as well as ever, so much so that I can't imagine any remake coming close to matching the original's best qualities.
Watching the film again on this spiffy new Divimax DVD, which contains Romero's original theatrical cut, I realized something funny about Dawn of the Dead -- if anyone were so bold as to actually attempt it, the film could work as a stage play. It sounds ludicrous, but think about it. After our heroes reach the mall, the story essentially settles down into an effective four-character drama set in an almost entirely enclosed space, with only a few brief action sequences penetrating the dramatic developments until the end, where all hell breaks loose. The characters are so strong, and the plot points, such as the strained romance between Gaylen Ross's pregnant Fran and David Emge's Stephen, are handled so effectively that an entire stage story could arguably be set up so that the zombie violence happens offstage. It's a testament to Romero's skills as a storyteller that the whole thing would probably work. Hell, I'd pay to see it.
But of course, this being a Romero movie, strong characters alone just won't do. He had to go and hire Tom Savini to create some of the most groundbreaking splatter effects ever envisioned, with the two of them dreaming up all sorts of great, nasty ways to kill both zombies and humans. Intestines are torn out, heads are blown apart and lopped off in equal measure, screwdrivers are jammed into ears, and huge chunks of flesh are ripped from limbs. None of it is particularly scary, but (and this was of course what my friends and I failed to realize all those years ago) none of it is meant to be particularly scary. It's all done in such an over-the-top fashion, and often in such a gleefully energetic way, that most of it ends up being impossible to take seriously, and intentionally so. When one decidedly tall zombie begins a scene by stalking one of the heroes and ends up having the top of his head accidentally removed by a whirring helicopter blade, you know we're not in Hitchcock territory. The gore is part of the fun, and boy oh boy, is it ever still fun.
And speaking of fun, the film's overt satirical themes still play just as well today as they probably ever did, if not more so, with indoor shopping malls (a revolutionary concept at the time) having become the standard consumer hangout of choice in the years since the film's release. Take one look at the zombies plodding around the various shops, snatching change from the mall fountain, and tripping over each other on the escalator in Dawn, and then take a look at your average American shopping mall at Christmas time today, and you'll find that the two pictures probably won't be all that dissimilar. Romero has made no secret of the film's obvious attack on consumerist society, and, according to the new disc's insert, has repeatedly scoffed at critics who praise his subtlety in infusing this satiric message. It's all right there in the open, and the hilarity of the subtext just adds to the total entertainment package that is Dawn of the Dead.
And now, as we stand on the eve of the release of the Dawn of the Dead remake, I wonder -- will the new version contain all the things that made the original so joyous? Will it eschew the subtext and satire in favor of a more straightforward action picture? Will it replace Savini's magically inventive gore effects with much easier CGI, or even throw out the gore altogether, à la Resident Evil? And if so, what would audiences who do end up taking to it think of the more intentionally humorous, outrageously gory original?
Honestly, I don't really care. I'll see the remake out of curiosity, but no matter what happens, I have every faith that discerning viewers will continue to make Romero's original the one true version of the film. Because when it comes to zombies, nobody's ever done it better.
As mentioned previously, Anchor Bay's new DVD of Dawn is part of their Divimax series, and includes the theatrical cut of the film. Having watched the movie for years in its Director's Cut VHS form but not knowing it by heart like the most adamant fans, I only noticed a few changes in the cutting, notably a few shots cut shorter and some jarring edits here and there. Discriminating fans probably already have their cut of choice, but for me, I guess I just don't know the film well enough to catch much of a difference.
What I can say is that the Divimax disc looks spectacular. Flesh tones (har har) are accurate, and color saturation is near perfect, with blood effects looking as brightly reddish-pink as they probably ever have. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum, and the source print is free of blemishes. I know the film has been released in at least one or two previous DVD incarnations, but I can't imagine any of them looking as good as this.
On the audio side of things, the disc offers up both Dolby Digital 5.1 and
DTS 5.1 tracks, with DTS being the obvious choice here for a fuller, richer
sound. The sound is a bit muted, but certainly serviceable, as there's only so
much that can be done with a 25-year-old soundtrack. Music and ambient effects
are well handled, and the tracks generally make good use of the surround field.
The disc also includes a track in Dolby Digital 2.0, as well as the film's
original mono track. No subtitles are featured.
And though touted as a "Special Edition," most of the extras on the Divimax disc are mostly promotional in nature. There are two theatrical trailers, three TV spots, and nine radio spots included, as well as a full promotional poster gallery. There's also a text bio on Romero and a preview of an upcoming Dawn comic book.
The only real extra of note is a brand new and terrifically entertaining screen specific audio commentary moderated by the disc's producer, Perry Martin, with George Romero and his wife Chris, who worked as an assistant director on the film, as well as Tom Savini. All four seem to be having a ball recalling old anecdotes about the production, and Savini especially is a riot in recounting his many appearances in the movie (as various stunt zombies and in one actual speaking role late in the film). The four discuss a wide range of topics including the always-heated issue of CG vs. makeup effects (you can guess which side they take), the idea of remaking the picture, and the various cuts made at the time of its release. Unfortunately, there is precious little new info on the much-discussed fourth Dead film, which Romero has been desperate to make but can't get financing for. None of the info revealed is new, and it doesn't appear that he's any further along with the project then he was five years ago, which is a shame, because with the host of Romero zombie imitators flooding the market these days (Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, for example), it'd be great to see the master show 'em all how to do it right. Too bad he can't get it done.
Strangely enough, the commentary also fails to make mention of the upcoming super-deluxe DVD rumored to be coming in the fall, which brings us to...
It's now a well-documented fact that along with this well-produced DVD version of the theatrical cut, Anchor Bay will be releasing a 27-disc deluxe edition Dawn of the Dead set in the fall of 2004, which will reportedly contain over 250 different versions of the film as well as over 13 full days worth of special features. So the question now remains, do you wait for this mega-set, or spring for the cheapie disc now (which is being sold for as little as $11.99) and trade it in when the deluxe model hits? For me, the answer is simple -- or maybe not so simple. It breaks down like this:
If you missed any of the previous DVD incarnations of the film and absolutely, positively must have it on disc now, then buy the current disc. If you prefer the theatrical cut, then duh -- buy the current disc. If you want to protest the release of the remake by championing Romero's original film (which I'm sure Anchor Bay is banking on), then buy the current disc. If you're a Dawn über-fan and want to own the best-looking and best-sounding version of the film currently on the market, well, then, you've probably already got your copy of the current disc.
On the other hand, if you're a patient soul who prefers the Director's Cut, or need your Dawn disc to have gobs of extra features, or if you're just too cheap to shell out a measly 12 bucks for the appetizer that is the Divimax Special Edition version, then by all means, wait. I'm sure you'll be rewarded in the end.
So there. Hope that clears everything up. And if it doesn't, then just remember, it's Anchor Bay. We've seen this all before.
Anchor Bay comes through with the best (aesthetically) version of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead yet released, with a terrific commentary to boot. For as little as $11.99, you too can own one of the tastiest zombie films ever committed to celluloid, that is, if you're not willing to wait for the next, even better version.
George Romero and co. are once again found not guilty, though Anchor Bay are found guilty on the charge of shameless DVD tie-in to a pointless remake of a horror classic, and are sentenced to spending a full week in a room with a Hare Krishna zombie. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mark Van Hook; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Writer/Director George A. Romero, Special Make-up Effects Artist Tom Savini, and Assistant Director Chris Romero, moderated by Perry Martin
* Theatrical Trailers
* TV Spots
* Radio Spots
* Poster and Advertising Gallery
* George A. Romero Bio
* Comic Book Preview