Dawn of the Dead (1978) [DVD]
Director : George A. Romero
Screenplay : George A. Romero
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1978
Stars : David Emge (Stephen Andrews), Ken Foree (Peter Washington), Scott H. Reiniger (Roger DeMarco), Gaylen Ross (Francine Parker), David Crawford (Dr. Foster), David Early (Mr. Berman), Richard France (Dr. Milliard Rausch), Howard Smith (TV Commentator)
Ten years after he reinvented the American horror film with the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968), George A. Romero returned to his story of the world being taken over by zombies in Dawn of the Dead, a film that is every bit as shocking, inventive, intelligent, and influential as the original. Yet, by making Dawn a completely different film, one that resonated as strongly with its time and place as Night did with its, he avoided the trap of repeating himself and instead wound up with the zombie film to which all other zombie films are invariably compared.
Whereas Night of the Living Dead was shot in black and white on 16mm, giving it a grainy, pseudo-documentary aesthetic that made its fantastical story of the dead returning to life seem very nearly "real," Dawn of the Dead was shot in Technicolor on 35mm, giving it a bold, brash look, not unlike that of the EC horror comic books that fed Romero's imagination as a child (he would take this aesthetic to its logical extreme in 1982's EC-inspired Creepshow). The garish violence of Dawn of the Dead-exploding heads, ripped-off limbs, zombies tearing chunks out of people's flesh, a grisly disembowelment-is wickedly over the top, yet never quite as disgusting as it would seem because of the film's comic overtones (the bright red blood, which make-up effects designer Tom Savini has likened to melted crayons, helps lighten the visceral impact of the gore, as well).
In fact, what makes Dawn of the Dead such an evocative and memorable film is not any one element, but the seemingly impossibly tap dance Romero pulls off in skipping from one tone to the next. After all, this is a film that, within a span of about five minutes, goes from a parodic slapstick sequence in which marauding bikers smack zombies in the face with custard pies to the same bikers being graphically torn apart and disemboweled without missing a beat. In any other movie, such a drastic shift would elicit a puzzled "Huh?," but here it is par for the course. The tonal breadth of Dawn is the polar opposite of the relentless despair in every frame of Night of the Living Dead. Romero's comic-colored vision of the world falling to the zombies is at times harrowing, hilarious, and sad. This is also reflected in his depiction of the zombies themselves, which at any given point are terrifying, funny, or even pathetic.
There is a stunning moment in the middle of the film when one of the human survivors finds herself starring through a window at a zombie still dressed in his local softball uniform, and there is a nonverbal exchange that subverts any desire to view the zombies as simple monsters. Granted, they certainly fulfill the film's monstrous desires, particularly when they swarm characters and tear them limb from limb, but Romero constantly reminds us that their external resemblance to human beings will always make them sympathetic, particularly in isolation. The zombies are, to use Robin Wood's phrase from his seminal essay "The American Horror Film," a "divided monster," one that constantly challenges the audience's identification by refusing the simple good/evil binary.
Romero's most brilliant move, though, was his decision to set the film inside a shopping mall, which in the mid-1970s was still a relatively new phenomenon. The shopping mall then, as it is now, is the apotheosis of American consumerism-a self-contained, isolated world of pure consumerism that offers no distractions from the drive to purchase. Even though the world is descending into a zombie hell, the doors of the mall can be sealed off, leaving a fantasyland of both necessary sustenance and excess consumption. By showing the ashen-faced zombies shuffling around the shiny, marbled hallways of the mall, lumbering past neon-lit name-brand stores, Romero strikes home a potently satirical image of consumerist stupor.
Thus, just as Night of the Living Dead was a crucial film of its time in the way it reflected America's embittered and unpopular involvement in Vietnam and the increasing social strains on the home front, particularly the dissolution of the nuclear family, Dawn of the Dead is very much a film of its time. In its own bizarre way, Dawn reflects the late-1970s lurch toward what would become the Reaganite '80s, which spawned mass consumerism on a level never before seen. On a satirical level, it was arguably ahead of its time, and the fact that its satire remains so trenchant reminds us that little has changed socially and economically in the more than 25 years since its release.
Beyond the social and intellectual levels, Dawn of the Dead also works incredibly well as drama. Unlike so many horror directors, Romero understands that characters are important. Horror is at its most effective when we care about the characters who are being terrorized, and Romero supplies us with four protagonists who are all believable individuals. These include two SWAT team members, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), a helicopter pilot named Steve (David Emge), and his news director girlfriend, Fran (Gaylen Ross). Despite both being soldiers, Peter and Roger are completely different, with Peter being a reserved and somewhat quiet, yet effective leader, and Roger being a wise-cracking cowboy whose enthusiasm for his abilities and belief in his ability to survive become his tragic downfall. Steve is not a soldier, but he aspires to match the machismo of his SWAT team comrades, which often leads him to make foolhardy decisions. And, while Fran is originally depicted as somewhat weak and reliant on the three men, a dim reflection of the hysterical and eventually catatonic Barbara from Night of the Living Dead, she eventually develops an inner strength and resolve that turns her into a resourceful and resilient heroine who paved the way for such female action heroes as Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the Alien franchise.
The combination of visceral gore, satire, and believable characters made Dawn of the Dead a worldwide hit, once again putting Romero on the cinematic map beyond cult status. Most U.S. distributors shied away from it because of the graphic violence, which meant that the film would have to be released without a rating (the MPAA would have rated it X, making it synonymous with pornography). Yet, the film eventually found distribution and became a significant hit, earning more than $55 million worldwide on a budget of about $1.5 million, making it one of the most profitable independent films of all time. Over the decades, it has remained extremely popular, finding new audiences with each generation who recognize Romero's low-budget artistry and willingness to use an often derrided genre to make salient social commentary without every resorting to obvious preaching. It is the zombie movie to end all zombie movies.
|Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition DVD|
|This four-disc set contains three different versions of Dawn of the Dead: The 127-minute U.S. theatrical versions, the 139-minute extended cut that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978, and the 118-minute European version edited by Dario Argento.|
|Supplements|| Disc One |
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 7, 2004|
|All three versions of Dawn of the Dead included in this mammoth four-disc set have been given new, high-definition anamorphic DiviMax transfers. The transfer of the U.S. theatrical version has already been seen in the previously available single-disc DiviMax release. It is a beautifully clean, relatively sharp transfer that maintains the look of Michael Gornick's bright, slightly flat cinematography. The spurting blood looks approopriately like red Tempra paint, and the detail throughout the film is very strong. Some of the darkest sequences betray some graininess, but that is due to the original elements. The extended version (which had been previously released as a single-disc edition) and the European version (which is making its DVD debut) both look excellent, as well, although the European version seemed a tad darker than the other two.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks were also previously available on the single-disc DiviMax release. Both newly mixed soundtracks are crystal clear and do a nice job of opening up the original monaural. The Goblins' bombastic musical score is given more breadth and depth, and the limited surround effects are nicely rendered without drawing too much attention to themselves. For purists, the original monaural soundtrack is also included, as is a two-channel stereo mix. The extended version only has its original monaural mix.|
| Anchor Bay has done it again. Let's face it: With the exception of the Criterion Collection, there is simply no other DVD label out there that treats its best products as well as Anchor Bay. And I also continue to appreciate the way they make everything on their discs anamorphic. |
Billed as "The Ultimate Edition," this DVD release of Dawn of the Dead certainly pulls out all the stops, combining previously seen supplements with a lot of new stuff that is nicely spaced out across all four platters. Each version of the film gets its own audio commentary: The U.S. theatrical version has a commentary by writer/director George Romero, make-up effects creator Tom Savini, and assistant director Chris Romero, which is moderated by DVD producer Perry Martin. The extended version has a commentary by producer Richard Rubenstein, again moderated by Martin. And the European version features a raucous commentary with the four main stars, David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross. Each track has its own merits and charms; if you're looking for straight-up information about how the film came to be, Rubenstein's is probably the most informative, although he does go off on some tangents, such as the issue of video piracy. The actor track is the most laid back, with the four reunited stars obviously have a great time reminiscing about their experience making the film (it's also funny to listen to them saying "Oh, that's gross" every time there's a gory effect). Romero has a history of doing lively, interesting, and informative commentaries (I loved his track on Elite's Night of the Living Dead Millennium Edition DVD), and this one is no different. The give and take among him, Savini, and his wife has all the energy one would expect from people who have known each other and worked together as long as they have.
Spread out throughout the discs are an assortment of trailers, both domestic and foreign under the film's various titles: Zombie, Zombies, and Zombie: Dawn of the Dead. There are two German trailers and an Italian trailer, as well as a pair of British TV spots. There are also numerous stills galleries with scores of production stills, lobby cards, behind-the-scenes photos, and (my favorite) domestic and international one-sheet posters, video art, and soundtrack covers. There is also a stills gallery of various memorabilia and an interesting TV commercial advertising the Monroeville Mall, where the film was shot.
The fourth disc in the set is devoted entirely to documentaries and featurettes. It includes two feature-length documentaries, the brand-new The Dead Will Walk and the 1989 documentary Document of the Dead, which has been previously released as a stand-along DVD. The Dead Will Walk features all-new interviews with virtually everyone associated with the film, including Romero, Savini, Rubenstein, the four principal actors, and several people who played zombies. Document of the Dead is an intriguing, if somewhat uneven, film that began as a student project. Its primary asset is the fact that much of it was shot at the Monroeville Mall during the film's production, thus we get some great behind-the-scenes footage of the filmming. Unfortunately, it has a grade-school didactism that assumes its audience doesn't know the difference between pre- and postproduction. It also shifts abruptly in the middle to chronicle Romero on the set of 1990's Two Evil Eyes. Be sure to watch through the end credits because it includes another 10 minutes of deleted footage. Also on this fourth disc are 13 minutes of 8mm home-movie footage shot by a couple of zombie extras during the film's production and an 11-minute video recording of Ken Foree leading a tourist group through the Monroeville Mall as part of the film's 25th anniversay (an amusing aspect of this is the fact that the fans are infinitely more knowledgeable about the film than Foree is, which leads one to wonder why he is even needed as a tour guide).
All in all, this is a fantastic set that is certainly worthy of the title "Ultimate Edition."
Copyright 2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright Anchor Bay Home Entertainment