Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Starring: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, Tom Savini
Country: USA, Italy
Running Time: 127 min / 137 min / 120 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was a hugely influential film, not only in the horror genre, where it established the classic tropes of the zombie movie, but also in terms of low budget independent filmmaking. It made over 150 times its budget, a feat big Hollywood productions could only dream of.
However, it was Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s follow up to Night, made a decade later, that is arguably more iconic. Night may have sown the seeds of the zombie genre, but Dawn kicked the doors down and helped it become one of horror’s biggest subgenres (aside from the slasher perhaps) and a cultural phenomenon.
Personally, I’ve always been more of a Night man, largely because it’s the one I saw first, a little too young, and it scared the crap out of me. I still love Dawn though (as well as Day), so I, like most horror/genre movie fans in the UK, was thrilled to hear that Second Sight Films were releasing an exhaustively well-stuffed box set of Dawn of the Dead on both UHD and Blu-ray. The release date got pushed back a couple of times after an early tease, so the film’s many fans have been chomping at the bit for this for a long time. Finally, the day has dawned (sorry) and it’s hitting shelves soon. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to ask for a copy to review. My thoughts on the film and the box set as a whole follow.
Dawn of the Dead takes place further into the zombie outbreak than Night, with the world in chaos. We’re thrown right into the thick of it with a TV news station struggling through what is likely to be one of their last broadcasts. Francine (Gaylen Ross) is an executive there and she and her partner, Stephen (David Emge), plan to take a helicopter and get out of the city, where the outbreak is really taking its toll.
Meanwhile, we see S.W.A.T. team members Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) shoot their way through a tenement block that’s overtaken with zombies and gun-toting residents. Roger is set to meet Stephen and Fran at the helipad and invites Peter to join them.
The quartet head out on their way and, after a perilous stop at a small airport, end up landing the chopper on top of a mall, so they can have a rest and stock up on supplies.
When they manage to break in though and find a secluded loft space the zombies can’t get to, the four of them decide to stay in the mall for a while. They eventually even devise a plan to block off the entrances and kill the remaining zombies inside, so they can live there in peace.
This doesn’t all go to plan though, as you might imagine.
Dawn of the Dead, sensibly, sees Romero take a very different approach to the zombie movie than its predecessor. Though again seeing a group of people holed up in a bid to survive the onslaught outside, the tone and scope is very different.
For one, despite the gore being amped up to 11, Dawn feels like less of a horror movie than Night. The tenement scene early on is brutal and intense, but later on more comedy seeps in and the whole wish-fulfilment side of having a mall all to themselves, on top of having S.W.A.T. team members with big guns running around, gives the film more of an action-adventure vibe. Romero himself, in some of the interviews included in the set, claims he was aiming to make more of a comic book movie than anything particularly scary.
The horror is still there though, and even if there aren’t any jump scares or particularly tense stand-offs, the film is still disturbing at times. The hopelessness of the situation the world is in and relentless nature of the zombie plague is effectively portrayed and, though it ends fairly heroically, the future of the survivors hardly looks positive. Interestingly, a much more bleak ending was planned and even partly shot, but Romero changed his mind during the shoot and opted for the admittedly slightly corny (a word the director himself uses) finale we get.
As mentioned, the gore quotient is high too. It wasn’t Tom Savini’s first film as a special effects make-up artist, but it’s the one in which he made his name and lead to him finding fame with Friday the 13th not long after. His work here maybe isn’t as refined as his later work, but this is purely due to the sheer volume of effects in the film. There is so much carnage and countless clever effects that still look grisly today. The colour of the blood is far from realistic, something Savini bemoans in an interview here (he said it looked good in reality but not on film) and Romero excuses, saying he wasn’t going for realism, but it fits the stylised mayhem on screen and may have been a little too sickening, had the blood and gore looked totally natural.
What I found interesting, watching the film now, was how much of it reminded me of the current COVID situation. The virus currently causing worldwide chaos isn’t as destructive as a zombie outbreak, but the argumentative news pieces we see in Dawn and the way our protagonists grow bored of shutting themselves away from the problem certainly felt familiar, adding a further disturbingly realistic edge to the film.
Like with Night, Dawn also has a strong political/social subtext. In setting the film in a mall and watching how possessive and corrupted the characters get over their horde of ‘stuff’, Romero adds a healthy dose of satire surrounding consumerism. As the director will admit, this is pretty blatant, so maybe subtext is the wrong word, but it’s handled well and gives the film an edge over more bog-standard horror fare.
I used to feel Dawn of the Dead was a little overlong, dragging its feet more than Night, but I didn’t get that sense at all this time around. It’s long because it crams a lot in, but never feels slow. There’s a slight lull before the epic finale but, everywhere else, the film races along. The pause towards the end does the climax a lot of favours too and is where we get a lot of the emotional weight and satire, seeing how cold the characters have become towards each other after being isolated with all they need for too long.
Speaking of length and pace, this set allows viewers the choice of three different cuts. I must admit, I didn’t sit and watch all three from start to finish. I just watched the theatrical cut all the way through and caught glimpses of the others while I listened to their commentaries. However, from skimming through like this and listening to the special features, here’s what I gathered about the different versions:
The extended ‘Cannes’ cut may be the longest version of the film here but, by all accounts, it was a version that was hastily assembled for an early screening at the Cannes film festival, so is something of an advanced workprint. It contained largely only library music too, so misses out on Goblin’s moody soundtrack.
The ‘Argento’ cut is the version of the film Dario Argento edited together for European audiences. This was part of the agreement made, as Argento’s company financed much of the film and he felt some tweaks would need to be made for non-American markets. From what I can gather, this cut omits much of the relationship drama and comedy elements (though surprisingly keeps the infamous pie scene) and amps up the bleak tone. This is aided by a full Goblin score that some consider a little overbearing. This version is shorter and tighter though and has a number of fans.
The theatrical cut is Romero’s own refined cut made after Cannes, so in my mind is the way to go. It’s how the writer and director intended the final film to look and sound, with a mix of library and Goblin tracks and all the satire and human elements intact.
Whichever version you watch, the film remains a cast-iron classic. Smart, punchy and occasionally quite disturbing, Romero takes his zombie concept to the next level with Dawn. With a bigger canvas and way more blood-soaked carnage, it’s somewhat of an epic, despite the restricted setting. With a great balance of satire, action and horror, it transcends any minor flaws it may have, to more than justify its lofty status in the pantheon of genre movies.
Dawn of the Dead is out on 16th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Sight Films. I watched the Blu-ray presentations and the picture quality on all cuts is pristine. I watched the theatrical cut on my projector and it looked particularly stunning. The detail is incredible and the colours natural (other than the fake-looking blood of course). Grain is subtle, as it was shot on 35mm, but there is still a nice natural look to the film. On my full watch-through, I listened to the mono track and it sounded flawless. I scanned through the other audio options too and they also sounded great.
The set includes:
UHD DISC 1: THE THEATRICAL CUT (127 mins)
– NEW 4K scan and restoration of the Original Camera Negative by Second Sight at Final Frame New York and London supervised and approved by DoP Michael Gornick
– Presented in HDR10+
– Audio: New restoration of the original OCN Optical presented in Mono 1.0, Stereo 2.0 and 5.1.
– Commentary by George A. Romero, Tom Savini, Christine Forrest
– NEW commentary by Travis Crawford
– NEW optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired
UHD DISC 2 – THE EXTENDED (‘CANNES’) CUT (137 mins)
– Produced using 4K scan of the Theatrical Cut Original Camera Negative and 4K scan of the Extended Cut Colour Reversal Internegative
– Presented in HDR10+
– DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
– Commentary by Richard P. Rubinstein
– NEW optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired
UHD DISC 3 – THE ARGENTO CUT (120 mins)
– 4K scan of the Interpositive by Michele De Angelis at Backlight Digital, Rome
– Audio: DT-HD Master Audio Mono 1.0 / Surround 5.1 / Stereo 2.0
– Commentary by Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Emge
– NEW optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired
BLU-RAY DISC 4: SPECIAL FEATURES
– NEW Zombies and Bikers – With John Amplas, Roy Frumkes, Tom Savini, Christine Forrest, Tom Dubensky, Tony Buba, Taso Stavrakis and a whole host of zombies and bikers! (59 mins)
– NEW Memories of Monroeville – A tour of the mall with Michael Gornick, Tom Savini, Tom Dubensky and Taso Stavrakis (34 mins)
– NEW Raising the Dead: The Production Logistics (25 mins) With Michael Gornick, Christine Forrest, John Amplas, Tom Dubensky (23 mins)
– NEW The FX of Dawn with Tom Savini (13 mins)
– NEW Dummies! Dummies! – An interview with Richard France (12 mins)
– NEW The Lost Romero Dawn Interview: previously unreleased archive interview (20 mins)
– Super 8 Mall Footage by zombie extra Ralph Langer with option of archive commentary by Robert Langer and new commentary by Ralph Langer (13 mins)
– Document of the Dead: The Original Cut (66 mins)
– Document of the Dead: The Definitive Cut with optional commentary by Roy Frumkes (100 mins)
– The Dead Will Walk 2014 Documentary (80 mins)
– Trailers, TV and Radio Spots (TBC)
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
AUDIO CD DISC 1
– The Goblin Soundtrack – 17 tracks including Alternate and Bonus Tracks
AUDIO CD DISC 2
– Dawn of the Dead: A De Wolfe Library Compilation Part 1
AUDIO CD DISC 3
– Dawn of the Dead: A De Wolfe Library Compilation Part 2
– Rigid box with lid featuring the original iconic artwork
– Two inner digipaks
– Dissecting the Dead – 160 page hardback book featuring 17 new essays, archive article and George A. Romero interview plus original marketing, artwork and merchandise images and behind-the-scenes stills.
– Dawn of the Dead: The novelisation book by George A. Romero and Susanna Sparrow with exclusive artwork
* The Blu-ray version of the set is exactly the same, but of course with the 3 versions of the film presented in 1080p on Blu-ray discs without HDR10+
Right. Where do I start in reviewing this set?
Travis Crawford’s commentary discusses Romero’s career as a whole, covering the Dead films in great detail, as well as examining the differences between the various versions of Dawn. It’s an excellent commentary – thoroughly researched and fascinating.
The Romero, Savini and Christine Forrest commentary is an enjoyable look back at the shoot with plenty of interesting facts and anecdotes.
Richard P. Rubinstein’s commentary on the Cannes cut talks more about the business side of the production, so offers yet another markedly different take. There’s a discussion about the remake too, which he was involved with (the commentary was recorded shortly before its release). It’s an interesting track but a little dry perhaps, so not quite as engaging as the others.
The Argento cut has an enjoyable commentary by the principal cast. It’s less informative than the others but it’s a lot of fun to listen to them get together and laugh and joke about the shoot and film. They have a few great anecdotes to share too.
So there’s a perfect balance between the commentaries. I was initially dubious about having so many but they’re all markedly different and each offer something well worth listening to.
‘Document of the Dead: The Definitive Cut’ is my favourite feature though. Originally made as a teaching tool, the first half covers all the levels of the filmmaking process in detail, as well as offering plenty of wonderful behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Dawn of the Dead. The second half goes long beyond the film’s release, looking at the rest of Romero’s career and how it, and the film industry, changed after Dawn. There’s also a section on the influence of his films, including amusing clips from spoofs, such as Night of the Giving Head. You get to see him working on Two Evil Eyes, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead too and there’s a lengthy ‘Dead’ reunion section towards the end. The documentary might be a little technical for some in its first half, but it moves quickly enough to prevent it from feeling dry. The whole film ends with a wonderful, sweet story about how Romero kept the legend of Father Christmas alive for his kids. Then you get a few behind the scenes clips of Survival of the Dead during the credits.
I must admit, I only just noticed it had its own commentary whilst writing this review, so didn’t get around to listening to that.
I skimmed through the original cut of ‘Document of the Dead’ though and that doesn’t go as far into looking at the influences of the Dead movies and doesn’t have anything about the post-Dawn entries into the franchise. So if you want something more closely examining the making of Dawn, this cut might be your best bet.
‘The Dead Will Walk’ takes a largely chronological approach, starting with Romero’s career and how it took him to Dawn. Then it goes through the film talking about the making of different scenes largely in the order in which they appear, with a few little tangents. Once it’s in the mall though it plays it looser. It’s very good, well constructed and with contributions from all of the main cast and crew.
The super 8 footage is great. There’s some real gold from on set and the commentaries are fun, helping explain what we’re watching.
The ‘Lost Romero Dawn Interview’ is decent too. It contains some quite detailed thoughts on the production. It treads a lot of the same ground as the other features but it’s nice to have Romero alone talking about the film.
The Richard France interview is quite heartfelt and he’s an honest and interesting speaker, who offers a different angle on the film than many of the other contributors do.
Tom Savini is his usual talkative, excitable self in his interview. He’s honest about some weaker effects (largely the blood colour) and talks about how his work advanced from this on to Day of the Dead.
The ‘Raising the Dead’ featurette is affectionate and anecdotal whilst giving a good idea of what went into making everything happen.
The ‘Memories of Monroeville’ featurette is fun too, with Savini etc. revisiting the mall in recent years. It makes the shoot sound like a great time.
Finally, the ‘Zombies and Bikers’ extended featurette offers an entertaining look at what it was like to be one of the film’s many extras. The stories of the bikers are particularly enjoyable and don’t crop up elsewhere as a lot of the zombie anecdotes do. There’s a tribute to the fans in this video too.
I didn’t get a copy of the books or CDs to comment on those, I’m afraid. I do have the Goblin soundtrack already though and can certainly recommend that disc.
It’s a staggeringly good set. I can’t think of any single title that’s been given such royal treatment, ever. With so many features there is quite a bit of crossover in content but there’s something new in every piece and the cast and crew talk so fondly of their experience on the film that it’s a pleasure to listen to them talk about it each and every time.
I can’t recommend the set enough. It’s quite a lot of money to spend on one film, but there’s more than enough extra material and goodies here to justify the price tag. It should be on the top of every film lover’s Christmas list. Release of the year, without a doubt, possibly even the decade. Hell, it could be a contender for the best single title release of all time!