Dawn of the Dead: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (17th November 2020).
The Film

In the weeks since the dead started coming back to life, polite civilization has all but collapsed. Martial law has been imposed in many states and citizens are no longer allowed to occupy private residences, but the support services like rescue stations are unable to handle the influx of people or the attacks of the growing numbers of the recent dead. Seeing the endless evidence of the breakdown of authoritative entities, many are striking off on their own; among them Pittsburgh news helicopter pilot Stephen (Hellmaster's David Emge), his news producer girlfriend Fran (Madman's Gaylen Ross), his SWAT buddy Roger (Knightriders's Scott Reineger), and Peter (From Beyond's Ken Foree), another SWAT team member who strikes up a fast friendship with Roger over their mutual disgust with the ruthlessness of their colleagues. Flying over the state of Pennsylvania, they see further evidence that they need to strike out on their own as the only signs of civilization are hillbilly hunting parties who shoot the undead for sport. They eventually come across a sterling shopping mall that has been abandoned by all but the living dead who are still attracted to the social spot even in the absence of fleshy food sources. The quartet decides the mall would be the ideal place to holed up given its endless resources and illusions of luxury living; and they plot to barricade the dead outside and dispose of the ones already inside. The more assured they get, however, the more reckless and complacent they become; with Roger getting bitten and infected while the once urgent issue of what to do about Fran's pregnancy is ignored in favor of consumer escapism with cash and goods that are without value; that is; until a band of zombie-killing bikers invades the mall in a takeover that incurs losses on both sides, and plenty of food for the zombie hordes.

Coming ten years after the massive critical and cult success of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead was the hit that Pittsburgh-based director George A. Romero very much needed, having attempted to get away from the horror genre with the panned counter-culture love story There's Always Vanilla, the compelling and insightful feminist suburban witchcraft drama Season of the Witch, the more realism-based infection film The Crazies, and the masterful, character-driven vampire film Martin which had just started making the theatrical rounds as Dawn of the Dead went into production. Inspired by a tour of a brand new shopping mall, Romero started writing a script dependent on being able to use the location without prior permission, but the production really got off the ground when what Romero had written so far was passed on by producer Richard Rubinsten (Pet Sematary) to Italian distributor Alfredo Cuomo (Tepepa) who got Italian horror auteur Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and his producer brother Claudio Argento (Santa Sangre) interested in a sequel to the seminal zombie film classic. Although the budget was considerably larger than anything with which Romero had ever worked with before, the scale and scope of the film was still very much made possible by the martialing of local resources by Romero and future wife/associate producer Christine Forest (Monkey Shines), the enthusiasm of a horde of Night of the Living Dead fans who wanted to be zombie extras, and the reckless willingness of burgeoning make-up effects artist Tom Savini (Friday the 13th) and assistant Taso Stavrakis (Day of the Dead) to hurl themselves off the upper levels of the mall and crash into things without any formal stunt training.

Although some of Romero's incisive commentary about consumer society are conveyed with as much subtlety as the gut-munching zombie gore, it is Romero's ability as director, writer, and editor to maintain the fine balance between horror, action, and comedy – even as it has shown that it can dramatically support either the "everybody dies" ending originally scripted or the cautiously-optimistic ending filmed – that makes the film an experience in which even touching upon social commentary separates this from any number of grindhouse action films and the glut of zombie cash-ins to come worldwide in the wake of the film's release from Lucio Fulci's Zombie (itself a considerably different type of visceral viewing experience) onwards. The Argento aspect of the film's success in English-speaking territories is harder to glean. The filmmaker sharing credit with progressive rock band The Goblins (of "Goblin") – as he did on their scores for his films Deep Red and Suspiria – and the driving main theme is an unforgettable element of the film heard separately but most of the score was woven into a more diverse soundscape by Romero with several library tracks and stingers that hit their dramatic notes in spite of sounding like network television clichιs. Overseas, including England, it was Argento's Zombi (or Zombies: Dawn of the Dead) edit – with its beefed up Goblin cues and removal of much of its humor while also including other footage unused in Romero's cut – that some fans would see first, while others would discover a two-and-a-half hour edit on 16mm rental years later that turned out to be an edit Romero put together quickly for Cannes; however, the U.S. theatrical cut turned out to be Romero's director's cut and received wider distribution during the home video boom (including many territories where the Argento version was once the only way to see the film). The success of the film netted a three-picture deal with the film's distributor United Film Distribution Company with the requirement that one of them be another "living dead" film, and the result was Day of the Dead which had originated with an even more ambitious scale that inevitably had to be scaled back considerably as Romero started to find that more money meant more compromises after the relative creative freedom of Knightriders and the bigger Creepshow which was picked up by Warner Bros. After a more sparse period of feature filmmaking during the late eighties and into the nineties – that included half of the Argento anthology Two Evil Eyes and a two-picture deal with Orion in Monkey Shines and The Dark Half – and several larger projects that fell through including a Resident Evil movie before the current franchise of diminishing returns, the seemingly impersonal Canadian production Bruiser in 2000 seemed like the beginning of a new phase of his career with a second cycle of living dead films – the theatrical release Land of the Dead, the "found footage" Diary of the Dead, and the direct-to-DVD Survival of the Dead – but the last decade of his life consisted of more failed projects even as his popularity as a cultural figure in horror films never waned.

Video

Released theatrically without a rating in the United States by United Film Distribution Company – an R-rated edit appeared later on in double- and triple-bills but has not resurfaced since – Dawn of the Dead's 127 minute theatrical cut is Romero's director's cut, fine-tuned as it was from a two-and-a-half hour workprint hastily-prepared for Cannes, while Argento's 119 minute version appeared in other territories. Both alternate versions have been of interest since they included footage that was not in the director's cut (which itself had footage neither of the other cuts had). While Romero's cut has been constantly available stateside on VHS, the film was subjected to BBFC cuts after the pre-cert days and not available fully uncut until 2003, but the laserdisc collectors' circuit was where the real news was with a 1995 Japanese deluxe set featuring both the Argento cut and the Cannes cut and a 1996 American set featuring a new transfer of the Cannes cut with commentary and other bonuses. It was this mislabeled "director's cut" that first hit DVD stateside from Anchor Bay and in the U.K. from BMG (first cut by the BBFC and then subsequently uncut) in editions that left a lot to be desired. A strange intermediate cut appeared on DVD from Anchor Bay as an Anniversary Edition featuring improved color and some additional scenes while losing others. The exact nature of this cut is unknown but it was quickly replaced with Anchor Bay's Ultimate Edition four-disc set featuring anamorphic transfers of all three cuts, commentaries, and a fourth disc of extras – along with a separate Divimax edition of the theatrical cut and one of the Argento cut – in 2004 and a similar set from Arrow Video in the U.K. in 2010 in which the Argento cut and Cannes cut were NTSC-PAL conversions. While Anchor Bay debuted a Blu-ray of the theatrical cut in 2010, Arrow Video's set featured the same transfer on a Blu-ray disc and the two DVDs of the Argento and Cannes cut from the DVD edition.

While the theatrical cut transfer was stunning for the time, with vibrant colors that were always uneven in video transfers owing as much to the materials as cinematographer Michael Gornick's quick and dirty photography, a remaster was rumored to have been held back for several years by producer Rubenstein wanting to fund a 3D post-conversion which was ultimately produced at the cost of over six million dollars (still more than twice as much as the budget of the film when taking inflation into account), having since made the festival rounds but still not widely availalbe. In 2016, we learned through social media that Gornick had been to Italy to supervise the grading of a 4K restoration of the interpositive of the Italian version, and this master quickly popped up on Italian and French 4K Ultra UHD (the former with 1080p transfers of the Romero cut and the Cannes cut which had debuted on an expensive Japanese Blu-ray set from Happinet). This was quickly followed by the announcement that Second Sight had made a deal to oversee the production a 4K restorations of the Romero and Cannes cuts for a limited edition Blu-ray set which soon became separate 4K Ultra UHD and Blu-ray sets; the latter provided here for review. The theatrical cut 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer came from the 4K restoration of the original camera negative while the Cannes' cut's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode came from a composite of the 4K OCN scan and a 4K scan of the Cannes version's Color Reversal Internegative, and the Argento cut's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer comes from the aforementioned Italian restoration. The theatrical cut impresses right away with the vivid red of the carpeted wall under the first shot even underneath an optical overlay of the credits, and an array of colors and textures is teased out of the opening's sometimes harshly lit and underlit quickly-edited shots. Colors take on a more stable quality during the SWAT scene where some thought goes into the color scheme with the blue uniforms of the officers, the bright crayon-colored bloodshed, and paler blue of some of the zombies. The overall look of the film is variable – the interior mall scenes sometimes have shots that look like they could have come from slick TV advertisements of the time, but the overall enhanced resolution makes it a joy to take in the rough edges of the effects, with the variable skin tones of the zombies owing to the original photography (including a mix of location fluorescent lighting and photoflood bulbs Gornick installed on location and was able to leave up while the shops were open during the day). The Cannes cut is a bit more variable with the CRI bits having a bit more contrast while looking better than it has in the past, while the Argento cut is probably the least pleasing of the restorations while still being watchable. Saturated colors remain vibrant but it is possibly brighter than it should be since the blacks are largely gray (with costumes faring better than shadows). The brightness does not adversely affect the highlights, and the blood is still strawberry while the zombie skin is still blue or gray depending on the scene, but presumably these changes were either baked into the master or Second Sight elected not to tamper with the choices made by Gornick for the Italian restoration even though he was involved with the newer masters of the other cuts.

Audio

The theatrical and Argento were treated to surround remixes for Anchor Bay's DVD editions, and the 5.1 and 2.0 stereo downmixes have been included for these cuts along with the original 1.0 mono versions in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Presumably the DME tracks were not available for the Cannes cut which remains in mono like the previous releases. What is apparent in the lossless mono Cannes mix are the uneven levels of the dialogue in this preliminary mix with onscreen speakers voices seeming disconnected from the background chatter during the opening news station sequence along with some bits of post-dubbed offscreen dialogue. The mono mix is more refined in the theatrical cut, while the soundscape is expanded on the surround tracks with the score gaining a bit more bassy presence (particularly the mix in the Argento version where the music is usually more prominent). The Italian dub has not been included in the Argento version, but the English track is what went out for export to the territories where Argento was contractually allowed to market the film before the Romero version. All three versions have optional English HoH subtitles.

Extras

Romero, his wife/associate producer Christine (now billed as Christine Romero), and Savini recorded a commentary for the Cannes cut of the film for the Elite laserdisc but came together in 2004 for a new track for the theatrical cut on the Anchor Bay DVD moderated by Perry Martin. That audio commentary by director George A Romero, effects artist Tom Savini, and associate producer Christine Forrest has been carried over for the Blu-ray. Romero discusses the origins of the project, Argento's involvement (including inviting him to Rome for a couple months to write), the mall location and getting permission from the stores inside, as well as the casting and his concern less with characters than character types and arcs. Forrest discusses the day to day workings of the shoot, with her role consisting of multiple responsibilities, including securing new resources when ideas struck Romero, as well as reflecting on the impossibility of mounting such a film these days. While she thinks Romero could achieve the things he wants with an adequate budget, Romero feels that more compromises come with more money. Savini discusses coming onto the project to do make-up effects and getting promoted to a character and an untrained stuntman working out his own stunts. While commentaries in which the participants point out family and friends are often boring in that respect, that is not the case here as the extras and supporting actors include not only Pittsburgh locals who went onto bigger things – including Pultizer-prize winning playwright Warner Shook (Tales from the Darkside) whose zombie scene was written by Romero specifically for him.

New to the Second Sight release is an audio commentary by film historian Travis Crawford who previously recorded commentary tracks for Arrow's trio of There's Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, and The Crazies, as well as Eureka's Monkey Shines. He notes the presence of the other commentaries and the information contained in them, and thus decides to provide more of an overview of Romero's career and the film's context within it. He makes some compelling cases for Martin and the impersonal-seeming Bruiser as Romero's most personal works while acknowledging how flawed his Orion duo are even though a lot of us fans felt more obliged to like them in spite of those flaws simply as Romero's output amidst a major slump in his career. He also provides discussion of all three cuts of the film, noting that each cut offers things the others do not, as well as highlighting some of Romero's early concepts for the film.

The Cannes cut includes the audio commentary by producer Richard P Rubinstein from the Anchor Bay disc – although sadly, not the aforementioned Romero/Forest/Savini track from the laserdisc or the Savini/Stavrakis track from the BMG DVD – in which he discusses the origins of the cut – getting the script to Argento through his and Romero's shared agent/mentor Irv Shapiro – and the misapplied "director's cut" label (noting that they were not working under that system at the time but that it was the first cut of the film that Romero felt comfortable screening). He also reveals that it was prepared for the Cannes film market not the festival itself, and that they ensured a good reception for interested distributors by packing the theater with young people. He also discusses the cutting and distribution arrangement with Argento – who he notes was primarily a noted film critic in Italy (which some fans seem to forget) and relatively new to filmmaking – revealing that Argento initially had the United Kingdom but that James Ferman wanted to cut thirty minutes from his edit but only a minute or so from Romero's edit which he felt gave context to violence that seemed gratuitous in the Argento cut. As with the Anchor Bay edition, the Argento cut is accompanied by an audio commentary by actors Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, and David Emge (although it is too bad they had not been brought together back then for the Cannes cut or the theatrical cut since they are surprised by the absence of the zombie helicopter shot). Ross discusses her desire not to be a weak, screaming female character while also noting that the script does make the character a drag what with the bonding of the three male characters (and her male co-stars behind the scenes). Foree and Reiniger discuss their characters and how it mirrored their offscreen friendship, and Reineger takes credit for the reason those bumps were installed between the escalators at the malls and Foree notes in the tenement sequence that the racial element is less disturbing than the other aspects of the scenario involving the residents being unwilling to give up their (un)dead and instead keeping them in the basement and feeding them. In discussing his character, Emge does note the weaknesses of David in wanting to be one of the guys, takes some ribbing about his style of running, and also discusses some of his stage work with some of the other supporting actors. They also provide some entertaining background on the day to day (actually, night to night) workings of the set, including a bar that did not close until two in the morning patronized by zombie actors who crashed a golf cart and caused other damage in the mall.

A fourth Blu-ray disc includes the bulk of the set's video extras. "Zombies and Bikers" (58:30) is a brand new documentary featuring several of the surviving zombie and biker performers – among them helicopter zombie Jim Krut, and zombie kids Donna Savini and Mike Savini, as well as Nancy Allen who was recruited to assistant make-up artist by Jeannie Jefferies and would also do make-up on the Romero-adjacent Effects – who appeared in the film, discussing how they became involved through friends of friends or through the casting of John Amplas (Martin), reflecting on the experience of long nights, cold temperatures, and the assembly line of being made up and fitted with appliances, killing time between shots – including some of the damage that resulted from it – in between comments from Forest, Gornick, assistant camera Tom Dubensky (Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh), key grip Nick Mastandrea (Scream), Savini, and Stavrakis. In "Memories of Monroeville" (34:24), Dubensky, Gornick, and Savini revisit the mall location, noting the changes from the once "temple upon the hill" to a "walled fortress" and recalling anecdotes as they tour the public areas including the corridor meant to lead to the protagonists' hideaway where there once stood a photo booth where the zombie actors took photos of themselves and horrified mallgoers by replacing the sample photos on the outside of the booth with their zombie headshots, and the food court where once there was an ice rink, as well as reflecting on the simpler time when the mall and store owners gave them the "keys to the kingdom" with an attitude of "now don't steal anything, okay" and a local car dealership gave them a free car to use in the film for credit.

"Raising the Dead: The Production Logistics" (25:03) features Forrest, Gornick, Dubensky, and Amplas discussing the difficulties between Romero and Image Ten over the sequel in the years following the original film – with Forrest describing Night as having once been an "embarrassment" for Romero because of the conflict – Argento's involvement, Forrest's concerns about the scope of the project and the toll it took on Romero's health, how the reception of Martin bolstered interest in the project, and moving on from Dawn to the UFDC three-picture deal. "The FX of Dawn with Tom Savini" (12:56) recalls his youthful enthusiasm working on the project where about eighty-percent of the effects gags were ones they came up with on the spot, his feelings about the crayon blood and blue skintones of the zombies, and how the assembly line approach to the make-up as a dry for Day of the Dead. "Dummies! Dummies!" (12:20) is an affectionate interview with actor Richard France who had come to Pittsburgh to work on his PhD and was asked by a neighbor to appear in a film which would turn out to be There's Always Vanilla, although he did not really get to know Romero until his larger turn in The Crazies. He had been teaching in the Midwest when Romero contacted him about doing Dawn of the Dead and he recalls the coming up his chemistry with scene partner Howard Smith in shaping their scene, his surprise at the "dummies" line becoming iconic, and the gift Romero gave him of a way into acting (and voice acting) since he had come to hate the politics of teaching.

"The Lost Romero Dawn Interview" (20:28) has been featured on various releases of Dawn of the Dead and the documentary Document of the Dead. The content has been heard elsewhere in different forms and seems redundant but it is one of the few pieces of video material on the set to feature Romero. He recalls resisting a follow-up to Night for some time because he did not want to be pigeonholed as a horror director despite his love of the genre. He reflects on the projects in-between, particularly the failure of There's Always Vanilla, being inspired by the shopping mall phenomenon, meeting Argento through Cuomo (who had distributed The Crazies in Italy), not feeling obliged to deliver violence in his films, as well as discussing some of the effects he feels did not work (including the machete to the head which has become a popular still from the film). High school student turned zombie performer Robert Langer brought his camera with him to the shoot, and the results shot on rapidly decaying stock appear in Super 8 Mall Footage (13:25) which is playable silent or with two commentary tracks, one by Langer and the other by his older brother Ralph Langer who was teaching filmmaking and had gone to college with sound recordist Tony Buba. Over footage of Savini's makeshift make-up effects lab, they recall the shooting experience and the diversity of people to turned up for the shoot – including local celebrities, socialites, and a Pittsburgh Steelers player – and how the zombie performers killed time coming up with gory deaths and pitching them to Romero and Savini.

In 1978, teacher Roy Frumkes (Street Trash) took his camera to the set of Dawn of the Dead to make a documentary for the School of Visual Arts on filmmaking. The sixty-six minute 16mm film Document of the Dead was not widely available until 1989 when one of his former students Len Anthony (Fright House) made a video deal and commissioned an update; whereupon Frumkes integrated camcorder footage he shot on the set of Two Evil Eyes into the ninety-two minute home video cut of the film. When the film was released on in 1998 by Synapse Films, Frumkes trimmed approximately seven minutes of material for a new "special edition" cut, and later revisited the film for the 2012 "Definitive Cut" released to DVD by Synapse Films as well as a website exclusive Blu-ray edition featuring the 1979 16mm version in high definition and the "Definitive Cut" (a mix of film and standard definition video) on an included DVD. The so-called "Document of the Dead: The Original Cut" (91:36) included on the disc has a running time close to the 1989 cut of the film – which is not the "original cut" if you include the 1979 version – but it is actually the 1998 "special edition" cut with the deleted footage appended at the end (apparently ripped from the Synapse DVD as it includes a menu screen describing the supplementary material). The audio commentary by Frumkes, director of photography Reeves Lehmann, and narrator Nicole Potter included with that cut is not featured here, but the included "Document of the Dead: The Definitive Cut" (102:12) does include the track Frumkes recorded for that edition. While the 16mm original would have been a nice inclusion in high definition, the two versions of the film here plus the deleted scenes, and the commentary make it a fairly comprehensive packaging of one of the earliest and major documentary works on the film. Also a welcome inclusion here is the Anchor Bay set documentary "The Dead Will Walk" (75:02) which features all four cast members onscreen, Romero, Forrest, Savini, Argento, Rubenstein, and several of the participants featured throughout the other extras in this set at a time when Romero was still alive and in the midst of a brief career revival and the remake was fresh in everyone's conscience. The disc closes out with a marketing section (18:37) featuring three U.S. theatrical trailers, two German theatrical trailers, three U.S. TV spots, two U.K. TV spots, and three U.S. radio spots (although nothing from the Italian side).

Packaging

Not provided for review were the The Goblin Soundtrack CD, the two disc De Wolfe Library Compilation, 160-page hardback "Dawn of the Dead: Dissecting the Dead" book featuring 17 new essays, an archive article and George A Romero interview, original marketing, artwork and merchandise images, and behind-the-scenes stills, and the "Dawn of the Dead: The Novelisation" book by George A Romero and Susanna Sparrow with exclusive artwork.

Overall

While it cannot be said that Second Sight has gone the completist route of including everyting associated with the rich supplementary release history of Dawn of the Dead, they have been both judicious and fairly comprehensive with what they have included while the newly-produced material for the most part supports the major ported-over extras with added detail and some fresh insight; all of which impressively supplements the major investment that was the remastered and probably definitive-for-some-time video presentation of the feature.

 


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