Judge Mike Rubino saves all of his Documents of the Dead for tax purposes.
"The zombies are developing, and I'm getting dumber by the minute."—George A. Romero, on the set of Day of the Dead.
What began as an educational film chronicling the making of Dawn of the Dead (1978) blossoms into a full-fledged, decades-spanning documentary on George A. Romero's zombie canon.
Facts of the Case
Filmmaker and zombie enthusiast Roy Frumkes made his original Document of the Dead in 1978, which served as an instructive and analytical look at Romero's directorial process while filming at the Monroeville Mall. In subsequent years, Frumkes returned to the project, adding more behind-the-scenes footage from later Romero films—from Two Evil Eyes all the way through his most recent movie, Survival of the Dead. The result is The Definitive Document of the Dead, a broader look at Romero's style and the cultural impact his films have had on the horror genre.
Dawn of the Dead had an enormous impact on me as a child. Watching it with my best friend in his parents' den, we sat there in awe as blue-tinted zombies tore apart people as if they were fallen piñatas. In retrospect, probably not the best VHS rental for two fourth-graders. We weren't even old enough to understand Dawn's significant cultural influence! Document of the Dead, revised and revisited over the course of more than 30 years, has the advantage of hindsight that we, as children of the early '90s, lacked. Director Roy Frumkes has been able to go back and look at his own footage from that late-'70s film shoot, and all the subsequent set visits he's paid to Romero, and analyze the filmmaker's impact on the horror genre. It's a shame, then, that this documentary fails to present those findings in any cohesive or novel way.
Coincidentally, Document of the Dead follows the same trajectory as George Romero's filmmaking career. It starts off strong, stylish, and revelatory only to grow weaker, more generic, and less focused as time goes on.
What I mean is, Frumkes's original Document, filmed on 16mm and broken down into the sections of film production, could be one of the most interesting making-of features I've seen. It's highly educational, as the narrator breaks down Romero's auteur style, his frame composition and his use of fast editing techniques. I actually learned a lot about filmmaking in the first half of this movie. Frumkes and his team analyze scenes from Night of the Living Dead and Martin in depth, and compare them to the currently-in-production footage of Dawn. It has an academic air to it that drew me in as a fan of film criticism.
The later visits to the sets of Two Evil Eyes, Land of the Dead, and so on, aren't as instructional. Frumkes catches up with Romero, and his family, while peaking in on the productions for just a scene or two. The analysis of Romero's style fades—this may be due to the fact that Romero himself has become a more straightforward director in his later years. What's left is more of a fan documentary: cast reunions, comic book conventions, and some occasionally personal interviews with Romero.
The last section of the film could have tapped in to the current undead zeitgeist in America, but it loses its way some. Instead of talking video games, television, or other movie franchises in any detail, Frumkes inserts a clip from "Night of the Giving Head." It's an ill-conceived directorial choice to throw in a clip of softcore porn into your documentary. Saucy clips aside, the film is ultimately more about Romero and his development as a director than it is about the zombie culture at large. It's going to be fun for fans, but I'd hardly call it "definitive."
This new, standard definition, release of Document features just the updated cut of the film (I've read that the Blu-ray contains the original version as well). If you own the Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition, then you already have the best part of the film, since Document was featured on one of the supplemental discs. But if you're a completist, or a student of cinema in any way, you'd do well to seek out this version, too. The transfer is solid, despite varying film, video, and digital sources used to make the movie, and the sound is an adequate 2.0 mono track. The disc also comes with a commentary track from Frumkes.
The first half of this film, which focuses on Romero's style and technique while shooting Dawn, is fun and engaging. Frumkes not only has free reign on Romero's set, but also an eye for academic analysis. The rest of the film, which checks in with Romero every five to ten years, is less focused on education. While still fun to watch, it edges towards feeling like a really cool special feature instead of a stand-alone documentary.
Despite its flaws, zombie fans would do well to check out The Definitive Document of the Dead and learn something from a master (of horror).
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