When there's no more room in hell, Judge Patrick Bromley will walk the earth.
Our reviews of Dawn Of The Dead (published September 18th, 2000), Dawn Of The Dead (2004) (published October 25th, 2004), Dawn Of The Dead (2004) (Blu-Ray) (published September 29th, 2008), Dawn Of The Dead (Blu-Ray) (published October 4th, 2007), Dawn Of The Dead: Divimax Edition (published March 16th, 2004), and Dawn Of The Dead (HD DVD) (published August 30th, 2007) are also available.
When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
The follow-up to director George Romero's landmark zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, 1978's Dawn of the Dead is one of the three best horror films every made. The film is now available in its third incarnation from Anchor Bay as a four-disc set with everything-you-could-ask-for extras, appropriately titled Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition.
Facts of the Case
As Dawn of the Dead begins, the country (and presumably the planet) has already been overrun by the undead, who are rising up and eating the flesh of the living. Chaos reigns everywhere, prompting two TV station employees, Stephen (David Emge, Basket Case 2) and Fran (Gaylen Ross, Creepshow), along with two S.W.A.T. team members, Peter (Ken Foree, From Beyond) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger, Knightriders), commandeer a helicopter and escape. They eventually occupy a local shopping mall, forming a kind of coexistence with the zombies—that is, until the mall is invaded by a biker gang threatening to destroy the foursome's safe haven and forcing a final confrontation of man vs. zombie.
No matter how many times I see it, there's a sequence in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead that's equally effective with every viewing. Our four protagonists have finally settled in to their new digs at the shopping mall, and are now complacent in their day to day activities. They wander through the stores. They play dress-up and pretend to dine out. They've grown bored, and for one extended, uninterrupted sequence, we watch as they kill time. We forget about their plight—the film becomes a portrait of four near-strangers learning to live together in a mall. We watch as Ken Foree hits a tennis ball on the roof. One rolls over the side and onto the ground below, which, we are suddenly reminded, is swarming with flesh-hungry zombies. The manipulation of this sequence and the jarring shock of this cut are a perfect example of the skill with which the film has been made; this is Romero at the absolute top of his game.
Romero and company are obviously working with some grand ideas and themes about consumerism, class, and race issues (even the onslaught of zombies isn't enough to overcome the racial divide in America, as evidenced in the opening moments). These are the concepts that elevate it above nearly all other films of its genre (and, had it not been made in the 1970s, would have elevated it above nearly all other films of the time). They're also the concepts that are discussed every time the film is mentioned, meaning that there's little I can add to the subject that hasn't been written already. It's the little things in the film that always seem to affect me, anyway—the way that, regardless of the fact that the characters are facing the apocalypse, they still try to function according to the rules of a society that no longer exists. When Peter and Roger go to the mall's bank to take the money from the drawers, they still take the time to walk through the maze of velvet ropes leading up to the counter. Even the zombies adhere to societal codes and values, as when one of the undead picks the coins out of the fountain despite the fact that he can no longer even comprehend their meaning. Zombie or not, we are all creatures of habit.
There are those who would argue that Dawn of the Dead is now unwatchable, as it has become too dated. I would have to disagree with that sentiment. Sure, some of the clothing and hairstyles are no longer current, but that's just surface—it in no way detracts from the experience of the film. The themes that Romero is working with and his execution of these themes, however, are still extremely relevant—the movie is timeless. Tom Savini's gore effects, while somewhat primitive, are just as effective now as they were in 1978; they're not about slick presentation, but about raw, visceral impact. Even the zombie makeup holds up surprisingly well. It's meant to be purely functional, not to detract away from the story being told—unlike the 2004 remake, which put a great deal of effort into creating one gross-out zombie after another simply for the sake of presentation (for the record, I actually enjoyed Zak Snyder's film in many respects, but the differences between the two versions really illustrate my points about Romero's Dawn in comparison with other horror films).
From the very first shot of the film, Anchor Bay has clearly knocked one out of the park with their Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition—you'd swear the movie was shot yesterday. The 1.85:1 transfer is stunning in its brightness and clarity—that carpet-covered wall (the movie's first image) has never looked so red. There's a multitude of audio options, too: a DTS track, a Dolby digital 5.1 track, a Dolby digital 2.0 track, as well as the option of playing the film with its original mono soundtrack. Obviously, the DTS track is the strongest, providing strong separation and excellent low end. As good as the DTS track is, the 5.1 track is almost as good, with the 2.0 track trailing not too far behind. The only audio option that isn't that strong is the mono track, but that's included more for the novelty than for excellence of presentation.
There's hardly a place to start in discussing the Ultimate Edition's plethora of extras. Anchor Bay's release rivals New Line's Lord of the Rings Extended Edition discs in terms of comprehensive coverage of the film—not necessarily in behind-the-scenes / making-of material, because Dawn of the Dead was not made at a time when directors shot with the eventual DVD in mind, but rather in the manner that provides fans with all possible material related to the movie. The four discs included here add up to the very best edition of the film that's ever likely to exist.
On the first disc is the film's original U.S. Theatrical Cut, which is essentially the same disc as the one Anchor Bay released as a single-disc edition earlier this year. This version of the film has received the best audio and video treatment, sporting not only the best of the three transfers, but no fewer than four audio options and a commentary track. The commentary, by writer-director George Romero, assistant director (and George's wife) Chris Romero, makeup effects creator-stuntman-actor Tom Savini, and DVD producer Perry Martin, is outstanding. It's fast and loose, infectiously fun, and packed with production history and bits of information about how certain effects were achieved. It also allows George Romero, a true cinema maverick at a time when that term is too generously thrown around, a venue to discuss his intentions in making Dawn of the Dead, and to expound on the current state of horror and film. This is everything you could want in a commentary track—it's one of the finest I've heard. Also included on the first disc are a number of original trailers, TV and radio spots, a short biography of Romero, and a publicity gallery.
The second disc of the Ultimate Edition contains the Extended Cut, which is the version Romero showed at the Cannes film festival. It runs about 12 minutes longer than the Theatrical Cut, adding a few more scenes of dialogue, some more action beats and moments of gore. This is not, however, the "Director's Cut"—that would be the cut Romero released into theaters. There's a reason, too; the Theatrical Cut is much tighter and plays better. Still, it's nice to have the Extended Cut included for comparison purposes (or if, for some reason, this is the version you'd prefer to watch on repeat viewings). The presentation isn't up to the standards of the first disc; the transfer isn't as strong and the soundtrack is presented in the original mono only. The extras are slightly more scattershot, too, though not without value. There's an extremely kitschy and amusing commercial for the Monroeville Mall (where the film was made), a few photo and memorabilia galleries, and a commentary by producer Richard P. Rubenstein (once again moderated by DVD producer Perry Martin). This track is drier than the one found on the first disc, focusing more on the business aspects of getting the film made, but in doing so it rounds out the film's history a little better.
On disc three is Italian horror director Dario Argento's cut of the film, put together as part of an agreement between Argento and Romero regarding foreign distribution rights. This European version, known as Zombi overseas, runs 118 minutes and features some significant changes from the U.S. version—a great deal of the more expositional dialogue has been removed in favor of several other scene extensions, more action and gore, and contains additional music from Argento's scorer-of-choice, Goblin. The European Version is the weakest of the three cuts, striving to be more of a straightforward action/horror film and sacrificing much of the film's satiric and thematic content. On this disc is a commentary from the film's cast: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, and Scott Reiniger. The foursome reflects on shooting the film and discusses the impact the impact it's had on their careers and lives; they joke around a great deal and seem to have a good time, but once again the track doesn't have the same substance as the one with Romero.
The fourth and final disc of the Ultimate Edition contains two feature-length documentaries: The Dead Will Walk and Document of the Dead. The former is a retrospective documentary combining clips of the film with modern-day interviews and reflections. What is most impressive about the documentary (which does begin to repeat some of the thoughts presented on the three commentaries) is just how comprehensive it is—the makers have dug up even the smallest bit players, including the Helicopter Zombie, the Nurse Zombie, and the Hatchet Zombie. Roy Frumkes's Document of the Dead is the superior of the two documentaries, shot during Dawn's production back in 1978 and chronicling the entire making of the film. It's an impressive doc—especially, again, considering that at that time filmmakers were not shooting behind-the-scenes footage for inclusion on another format. Also included is a Monroeville Mall tour with actor Ken Foree (very amusing) and some on-set home movies with optional commentary from one of the zombie extras.
Dawn of the Dead is not simply a film you see—it is a film you experience. It stays with you in a way that very few horror films do. Whereas most horror films give up all of their secrets after one viewing (if you couldn't already anticipate all of the scares, you sure can now), Dawn of the Dead becomes richer with each viewing. It's just a great, great film.
It's only fitting that one of the best horror films ever made should receive one of the finest DVD treatments of 2004, and Anchor Bay has outdone themselves with their third (and hopefully final) release of Dawn of the Dead. Everyone involved with both the film and the disc is found not guilty, a hundred times over.
Let them eat brains!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Writer-Director George Romero, Assistant Director Chris Romero, Make-up Artist Tom Savini, and DVD Producer Perry Martin
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