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Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition (DVD)

Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross

Directed by George A. Romero


I’ll never forget the chill that ran up my spine when I saw a television commercial for Dawn Of The Dead. First, there was that bloody head rising above the horizon as the announcer intoned that George A. Romero was about to bring us “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience of all time.” Then that one quick shot of the elevator doors unleashing a horde (well, it seemed like a horde) of ravening zombies…and that the big letdown: “No one under 17 will be admitted.”

What??? I was not 17 yet, but I HAD to see this movie. So my friend Michael and I went to our local theatre – where Dawn, unbelievably, actually was playing – and somehow talked an usher into letting us in even though we had bought tickets for something else. May the universe smile kindly on that usher forever, for what I saw that day changed my life forever. Watching Dawn Of The Dead for the first time, one had the electrifying sensation of seeing something that had never been done before – even then, Romero’s brilliant fusion of savagery and satire was truly a shock to the system.

What can be possibly said about this film that hasn’t been said already? Well, for one, this “Ultimate Edition” is truly that, as well as the most significant horror release of the year. As momentous an event as last year’s Alien Quadrilogy, this box set features all three major cuts of George Romero’s zombie masterpiece (although Romero himself says there could be as many as ten out there!), each accompanied by commentary and special features, along with a fourth disc stuffed to the gills with even more special features, a brand new documentary and Roy Frumkes’ classic Document Of The Dead. With such a massive wealth of material to dive into, it only seemed reasonable to split the job in two. So Johnny Butane explores Dawn’s European cut, which has built a mystique around itself over the years, plus the bonus disc and its two great documentaries. I get the pleasure of revisiting both the original theatrical cut and the “extended” cut, which is not a “director’s cut,” as many have erroneously assumed over the years.

First things first: the U.S. theatrical cut (Romero’s preferred version) is, for me, still the best of the three. Watching it again in this simply beautiful and amazing new remastered print (which Anchor Bay premiered earlier this year on a bare-bones disc), Dawn simply feels like a nearly perfect film: all the elements come together and there’s a sense of correctness in everything, from the somewhat underappreciated acting and characterizations to the film’s rich subtext to Romero’s careful doling out of the extreme gore. The pacing works (thanks to Romero’s exceptional use of multiple angles and rapid – yet coherent – cutting) as does the narrative and thematic arc. Seen 26 years later, Dawn Of The Dead is one of the boldest artistic statements of the 70’s, an achievement that is nearly impossible to replicate today.

Dawn was not so much the result of careful planning as much as happy accidents and an overall belief in the piece itself. In the commentary that accompanies the theatrical cut, Romero, his wife and assistant director Christine Romero, and makeup whiz/stuntman/actor Tom Savini repeatedly cite the commitment made by every member of the cast and crew to bring Romero’s vision to the screen; under tough conditions, with limited resources, but with endless energy and creativity. It certainly shows, especially now that the film has been given a new digital luster. Stephen King once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) that Romero took a million dollars and made a movie that looks like ten million. I’d go along with that.

Shockingly, they didn’t even have that much. According to producer Richard P. Rubinstein, in his commentary accompanying the “extended” version, the actual budget of Dawn Of The Dead was an unbelievable $640,000. If that’s truly the case (the director himself places it around $750,000), the achievement only becomes more impressive.

Rubinstein also notes in the early stages of his commentary that the “extended” edition of the film, which adds about 13 minutes of footage, is not Romero’s preferred cut, and makes a cogent argument against the concept, ushered in with DVDs, that longer cuts equal better films. Assembled for presentation at the Cannes film festival, the movie is nearly there; Romero would refine it a bit more before it hit theatres. The music is not completely in place (the opening TV station sequence lacks the excellent Goblin cue that set the tone for the rest of the film so well), and the extra footage, while enjoyable, does not do much to advance the story. There are more gore shots, particularly in the basement of the project where Roger (Reiniger) and Peter (Foree) destroy a roomful of zombies as they chow down on some gruesome remains, and there is an extension of the police dock sequence that gives more screen time to future Day Of The Dead star Joe Pilato (the scene also clarifies, once and for all, that David Emge’s character, Stephen, does not shoot the police dock radio operator, a point that always seemed just a little confused in the theatrical cut).

I suppose there’s no such thing as too much Dawn (except maybe for this year’s empty remake, which is just made even more pointless by a fresh viewing of the original), but while the extended version is interesting to watch purely for the extra footage, the final US theatrical cut really does work the best in terms of pacing – even against the slightly shorter European cut, if you ask me, but I’ll let Mr. Butane debate that.

As a lifelong horror fan, the memory of seeing this film for the first time will be with me forever, and it’s a movie I can watch over and over again without ever tiring of it. While plenty of other filmmakers in the 70’s were stretching the boundaries of horror, and using the genre as a outlet for social commentary (Last House On The Left, Deathdream, numerous others), the visionary Romero took that idea one step further and made the first modern horror epic. He splashed his bloody nightmare onto a vast, apocalyptic canvas, spiced it with cynical, morbid wit and a humanistic point of view, and delivered a film that truly deserves the term “classic.”

- Don Kaye

One of the things sorely lacking in Day of the Dead, I’ve always thought, was the influence that Dario Argento had brought to the table in Dawn, namely a bizarre and pounding score by Goblin. Or at least, that’s what I used to think.

When Dawn was released overseas, co-producer Argento decided to make his own cut of the movie which came in about 10 minutes shorter from the US theatrical release, but features some scenes that the US audiences never had a chance to see. It also had an enhanced score by Goblin who, despite their effectiveness in most of Argento’s films, seem to really over extend themselves for Dawn and give a much more choppy feel to it, since the way the music is edited tends to bring the crescendo in and end it before it has run it’s course. It’s almost painful at times.

This jerkiness is only enhanced by the 5.1 surround (mono is also available), but other than that the disc sounds amazing, like we’ve never heard it before. I haven’t checked out the theatrical cut of it yet, but I’m sure it sounds just as clean. Of course it looks absolutely perfect in all aspects, it’s almost like it’s a new film. This is what DVD was invented for as far as I’m concerned; to make movies that weren’t made under the best conditions and for little money look better than we ever though possible. Anchor Bay has been the forerunner in this field, and this new Dawn disc is no exception.

Extras on the disc include a variety of trailers and TV spots, some of which are just plain jarring and uncomfortable, and all of which feature the European title prominently (Zombie or Zombi: Dawn of the Dead). The funniest one by far is the 3+ minute German trailer, which goes on for far too long and seems way too angry.

Adding to the extras there’s a poster and still gallery featuring tons of posters, lobby cards, video and soundtrack covers from all over the world. It’s an impressive collection but some of it will really make you wonder who the hell these distributors were trying to sell the movie to. Some are terrible, some are inspired, but I can virtually guarantee there are some you’ve never seen before. It’s worth a look for the sheer number of zombie images it contains.

Now let’s talk about the commentary, shall we? It starts off with the booming voice of Ken Foree, sounding like he’s the happiest man alive to be hanging out with Scott Reiniger, David Emgee, and Gaylen Ross again, and who could blame him? This commentary is all about fun, and you can tell this is a group that still enjoys each other’s company. Because of the scattershot nature of hanging out with friends and discussing a movie you made 20+ years ago, however, the track can get a bit annoying at times. My suggestion, if it starts to bother you too much, is to just watch the Dead Will Walk featurette since most of the more interesting anecdotes are re-told there.

It’s strange to note that, at first, anytime Gaylen comes on screen she announces it to the rest of the group on the commentary, no matter what else they may be talking about. I’m not sure if it’s an ego thing or a need for acceptance, or just because she was nervous, but she does eventually stop doing it. Overall the feel of this commentary is old friends getting together and having fun remembering what it was like to make a film that would evntually lead them onto the sort of infamy that can never be planned, and for the most part it’s a fun listen.

One overwhelming feeling I got after watching this, and indeed most of you will after watching any of the movies’ extras, I’m sure, is that all of these people have the highest possible respect for George A. Romero. No matter what they’re speaking of, from the conditions of the shoot (cold, very very cold apparently), to the way in which he treats his actors and crew, nothing but kind things are said about him. That’s usually the case with actors who don’t want to piss off their boss, as it were, but since it’s been so long since any of them have worked with George and they could still say nothing but good things about him, it just goes to show you the kind of influence Romero has on the people who work with him.

You know you’ve made an influential film when a DVD company dedicates an entire DVD to just the docs made about it, and that’s just what Anchor Bay did for the fourth disc in this set.

First up is The Dead Will Walk, and all-new featurette that features the cast and crew reflecting on what it was like to make a movie like Dawn of the Dead, and how it’s cultural and fan-based impact has affected them throughout the intervening years. And this isn’t just Romero, Savini, and the cast; this is pretty much everyone that had anything to do with the film, from it’s editor to it’s sound producer to some of the “hero” zombies.

Clocking it at 75 minutes, this is the kind of documentary you always hope for but rarely get. It’s great to see so much of the cast and crew come back to talk about making this movie, which they obviously still have very fond memories of. Gaylen Ross is probably the most surprising of the bunch, though, because she really doesn’t look that much older than she did while making the movie. A bit older, obviously, but damn good for her age.

Next up is Roy Frumkes’ Document of the Dead; the out of print feature length doc chronicling the making of the film from it’s pre-production to its eventual worldwide success. If you’ve never seen it before, you’re in for quite a treat. Most of it takes place during the filming of Dawn, walking around the mall with George and seeing Tom Savini talk animatedly about how much fun it is to make zombies for a living.

The doc starts to slip a bit, however, when it jumps ahead 10 years to being on the set of Two Evil Eyes, where we watch the hours and hours it takes them to setup one gore shot that lasts about 20 seconds in the film. Granted, it’s impressive when you see it, but why didn’t they do something for Day of the Dead instead? The only thing I can come up with is that Two Evil Eyes was the first re-teaming of George and Dawn co-producer Dario Argento, but that’s about it.

Despite this slow down, Document gives a good look back on what kind of impact the film had on it’s creators ten years later, though even it gets depressing when both George and Tom talk about how hard it is to get work now and how difficult it is for an independent director in this day and age. This is tempered by the fact that we know George is finally making Land of the Dead now, but it still kind of kills your buzz.

Next up is On-Set Home Movies, shot by one of the hundreds of extras who were chosen to play zombies. They were there for three days of the shoot but only thought to bring their camera for one, but they still have some cool footage that we’ve never seen before, and it offers a different perspective on things from the point of view we all wish we had; as zombies. It’s narrated by the gentleman who shot it, who does a very good job of throwing in just enough anecdotes and stories to make it worthwhile listen, so it’s not overly cheesy or geeky. Plus it’s only 13 minutes long, so it has no time to overstay it’s welcome.

Finally there is Monroeville Mall Tour, which follows Ken Foree, David Emgee, and a slew of “hero zombies” as they tour the mall as it is today, followed by drooling fans. Well, maybe not drooling, but interested at least. What it demonstrates is just how much has changed in the mall since the movie was shot, and just how loud Ken Foree’s voice can be when coupled with a massive echo chamber. Scary, really.

This extra disc really brings the whole package together and is a welcome addition to the Dawn universe. I’m glad Anchor Bay took the time and effort to put together such a great collection, and to compile the kinds of extras a film this classic is so deserving of.

Overall, Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition is everything you could want for a movie as well-loved and celebrated as Dawn is. What it does is only help to expand your appreciation for the movie on a global scale, and should give you some new perspectives on what it was like to make history the way George, Tom, and the rest of the crew did. It’s a must-have for any and all fans of zombies, and there’s not reason to hesitate on getting it for even a second.

- Johnny Butane

Special Features:

Disc 1: Original U.S. theatrical cut; DTS, Dolby Digital, and original mono soundtracks; Commentary with George A. Romero, Tom Savini, Christine Romero; trailers; TV and radio spots; George A. Romero bio; poster, photo, and advertising gallery; comic book preview

Disc 2: Extended version; commentary with producer Richard P. Rubinstein; Monroeville Mall commercial; behind-the-scenes photo gallery; memorabilia gallery; production stills; mono soundtrack

Disc 3: European version; audio commentary with actors David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross; international trailers; UK TV spots; international lobby card gallery; international poster/ad gallery; international pressbook gallery; video and soundtrack artwork; Dario Argento bio; 5.1 surround, 2.0 surround, original mono soundtracks

Disc 4: The Dead Will Walk all-new documentary; Roy Frumkes’ Document Of The Dead original production documentary; on-set home movies and commentary from zombie extra Robert Langer; Monroeville Mall tour with Ken Foree

5 out of 5 Mugs O’ Blood

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Johnny Butane