Wednesday, October 31, 2012

DVD Spotlight: Dawn of the Dead (Ultimate Edition).

Dawn of the Dead (Ultimate Edition) (1978)
DVD Release Year: 2004.
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Region: 1.
Starring: Ken Foree; Gaylen Ross; Scott H. Reiniger; David Emge; Richard France; Jese Del Gre; James A. Baffico; Rudy Ricci; Tom Savini.
Directed by: George A. Romero.
Colour/127 Minutes/NR (US Theatrical Version); Colour/139 Minutes/NR (Extended Version); Colour/118 Minutes/NR (European Version)

Years after the initial outbreaks of the dead coming back to eat the flesh of the living, society is now quickly breaking down. The media is failing. Marshall law has been declared and the population has been ordered to leave the big cities and go to shelters. Fran (Gaylen Ross), a television-executive, and her traffic reporter boyfriend Stephen (David Emge), conspire to escape the chaos in a news helicopter with their friend Roger, a member of the Philadelphia police SWAT team. Along for the ride is Peter (Ken Foree), also a SWAT team member, whom Roger has just befriended after Peter was forced to kill a fellow team member who had gone nuts. As they make their escape the reality of limited fuel and food, and an immediate need for shelter hangs over their heads. They set down on the roof of a large mall. They discover that it's still with power and containing everything they need to survive. The only catch is that they need to clean it out of the resident zombies (former shoppers returning from the dead and back to their half-remembered daily routines) and to secure it from any other zombies, or less than honourable survivors, trying to get in and take the mall for their own.

After both The Crazies (1973) and Martin (1977), while good films, failed to really draw, Romero decided to do go full-on towards a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, which he had been planning to do for years anyway. Unable to get the funds from investors domestically, Italian film maker Dario Argento managed to find the project investors in exchange for international distribution and editing rights. With a $1,500,000 budget to work with Romero decided to go bigger and bolder than he had previously done in Night. Still, even back then, this was not really a big budget film, and like most of Romero's films, you see a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the finished project.

Bigger and bolder was indeed where Romero went. The film is very much intended to be both a rip-roaring, gory, comic book action picture, but it also expands on the themes explored in Night. The plot is actually pretty much the same, just on a grander scale. The farmhouse in Night is traded up for the mall. The internal conflicts between the survivors in Night are played out this time more so between our heroes and a gang of savage bikers who have been surviving on the road, pillaging for what they need. Racism rears its ugly heard early on as cheap housing in the poor parts of the cities, mostly occupied by Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities are raided by the police and national guard, trying to enforce martial law -- which in turn has given some bigots the idea that they have free reign to bust some heads to get the job done. Romero expanded his reach in this film, also taking on consumerism at its worst excesses. The zombies walking comically around their old stomping grounds in the mall is such an obvious visual metaphor that he might as well be hitting you over the head with a club with the words: "today's spoiled consumer is no better than a zombie". The amorality of the media depicted here, and its never ending spiral towards becoming more and more like a big business than an unbiased way to inform the public and keep the government honest, is sadly prophetic. Romero has never been all that subtle about what he believes and has no problem showing it to you with even less subtle ways, such as depicting rotting corpses getting their heads blown off. I'll always love him for it.

And speaking of gore and grue, a then up-and-coming Tom Savini shines here in his debut. Tons of fluorescent fake blood (keeping with the comic book feel Romero wanted) splatters everywhere. Mostly simple but effective make-up jobs, with some stand-out appliances for special zombies, manage to work very well on-screen. The combo of both amature performances from non-professional extras in the zombie roles, and Savini's effects, create characters that stand-out despite the fact that the zombies don't have lines, and when it's all said and done, these were low budget effects. But who can forget the nurse, nun, or sweater zombies? The zombie that steals Roger's gun? The obese zombie? The flat-headed chopper zombie? The Hare Krishna zombie? They help with the black comic undertone the film has going on as well, and they are part of the memories people take away from the film as a whole.

There are so many great scenes to talk about. Every fan will have their own personal favourites. There are several for me. Take the moment they fly over a horde of rednecks and national guard, out hunting zombies, pretty much for sport. It seems like the aftermath of Night of the Living Dead is playing out down there in its final, grand scale. How about the opening where the mass media is in total chaos? There is a real sense of panic and despair. Fran is correct in saying "we're blowing it ourselves". Perhaps the one real true scene of total horror in the film is after Roger has died and the rest of the group wait for him to come back as a zombie. Nobody wants to face what must happen next. In the background on TV, the last remains of the media -- now just so-called "experts" yelling at each other and the audience -- rise to a fever pitch; a frenzy; a craze. Everyone including the viewer has been given the final verdict: it is all over, there's no going back to the old world. They can no longer pretend everything is going to be all okay. It builds so perfectly and it grips me every time.

The soundtrack, although quite different between different cuts of the film, is an iconic blend of library tracks, cues, and songs from Italian progressive rock band Goblin, hired on by Argento. What can you say about it that does it justice? The original music and library tracks range from the traditional spooky horror stuff to electronic rock, heartbeat-like pulses, and daffy elevator music, the latter used to great effect in the actual mall scenes. There are as many variations of the soundtrack out there, it seems, as there are versions of the film, in both official releases and fan-compiled projects. Much like Popol Vuh in Herzog's version of Nosferatu, Vangelis' score for Blade Runner, John Carpenter with Halloween, and just about everything Ennio Morricone has done, it's a soundtrack I grew up listening to. It's always with me, there in my head.

I said previously that the best performances, over all, in the original three Dead films were found in Day of the Dead. I stand by that, but for me the leads in Dawn are far more enjoyable. Here the main characters are painted in slightly broader strokes, and done so on purpose to better bluntly put forward Romero's ideas. Fran is a modern, independent woman. She takes her job seriously when co-workers are fine with keeping out-of-date rescue station information on the air just to keep people watching, even if it means people are going to be sent to their deaths. She is very much the moral center of the cast and the most humane. Also of note is how much she resents being treated like a weak link by her male companions. She's determined to be treated as an equal and to hold up her end, even with a looming pregnancy to deal with. A true feminist in the best sense of the word. Peter is a take-charge, no-nonsense man, who is practical and coldly logical about the situation they are in. He is smart, tough, and a survivor with a solid moral core of his own. He's the strength of the group. Roger is also much like Peter, but he's also irrational, impulsive, and he's quickly losing it. His overconfidence and reckless behaviour is his ultimate undoing, and it puts the rest of the group in a bad situation after he is bitten by zombies. Stephen is caught between being there for Fran and being one of the guys. Deep down he's unsure, incompetent, and like Roger, he puts the group in danger. In his case it's because he can not let go of the mall when the bikers break in. Fran and Peter ultimately survive the mall because they can let go of it in the end. The "good life" the mall provided them is a dream; a falsehood; a trap, better left to the dead.

If one still finds oneself wanting after picking up this box set, I'd suggest inventing a time machine and going back to play a zombie extra in the original shoot. There is really no base not covered in the discs you get here. Much like Night of the Living Dead, this film has a long history of various mangled VHS cuts and some dodgy fly-by-night DVD releases. What we get in the three different cuts here will most likely interest and satisfy everyone. The US theatrical version is just that. This was previously released in a single-disc edition by Anchor Bay and retains all the same extras. The commentary, like most of Romero's, is casual, informative and fun over all. Love, affection and pride shine through from all involved. It, or something close to it is the cut most of us probably first watched and fell in love with. Still fairly epic in length, it better balances action and slow moments. The "extended version" is sometimes considered the "director's cut", which is false. Romero's preferred cut is the theatrical cut of the film. This cut is over ten minutes longer and was put together for the Cannes Film Festival. Romero has said that an even longer version once existed (over three hours!). Here the film has more of everything. More media chaos, more zombies, more mall footage, and generally just a lot more padding. As much of a treasure trove this is for rabid fans like myself, I can still honestly say the theatrical cut is superior. The extended cut takes a long time to get going and establish the main cast, and there are bigger lulls in action. Also of note is how much more library music is put in here instead of the Goblin soundtrack. However, one scene here -- an extension of the scene where our heroes encounter fleeing police officers while they try and steal a helicopter -- really should have been left in the theatrical version. The commentary with this version (producer Richard Rubinstein) is a tad dry and follows nothing going on on-screen, but it covers so much about the production and marketing, that's worth at least one listen through. The European version is very different in tone and length from the other versions. Called Zombi overseas and edited for the Euro market, this is Dario Argento's 118 minute cut, that guts the film of most of its humor, character development, and social commentary in favour of more action and a much faster pace. Here, most of the library music Romero used is dumped for more Goblin. However this is not an abomination, as many of the action scenes were extended, and other scenes used alternate edits, so for completests, this is a gem -- even if it's a bit of a tarnished one. Still, even if the film loses most of its impact in this cut, one can see how it directly influenced the Euro zombie horror craze (and mostly bettered every film to come from it). The actor commentary here is fun and light-hearted. Even more amusing is the confusion they sometimes have watching this cut, at first not realizing scenes they mention having fond memories of have been shortened or dropped altogether.

The documentaries disc is worth a separate review all its own (really, all the discs here could be separate reviews if I had the time). The Dead Will Walk is a new doc, seventy-five minutes long, and brings back the principles from the cast and production. A lot of this stuff is already covered in the commentaries, but this doc is a quicker way to absorb all of it, as well as the ton of extra info presented. It's a bit of an information overload, but a fantastic one, and no doubt Anchor Bay's best in-house produced doc. Roy Frumkes' Document of the Dead, a student film from 1989, is feature length, and much more about Romero and how he makes his films. It does not exclusively focus on Dawn of the Dead. In fact Martin and Two Evil Eyes pretty much get equal time here. Not as strong as The Dead Will Walk, but it's interesting and worth having. The on-set home videos is a rough, behind the scenes look at the production of Dawn, but it's a lot of fun and has commentary to guide you through what you're seeing in this 16mm footage. The Monroeville Mall Tour is a brief Greg Nicotero-shot film of Ken Foree and other cast members giving a tour of the famous mall, where the majority of the film is set and was shot, to fans. Fun stuff, and a nice book-end to one of the best DVD box sets ever produced, for one of the best films ever made.

DVD Information:

Disc One: US Theatrical Version
Video: 1.85:1.
Audio: DTS 5.1; Dolby Digital 5.1; DD 2.0 Surround; DD 2.0 Mono.
Subtitles: English.
--Commentary by George Romero, Tom Savini and Cris Romero.
--2 theatrical trailers.
--3 TV spots.
--9 radio spots.
--Posters, lobby cards and advertising gallery.
--Romero bio.

Disc Two: Extended Version
Video: 1.85:1.
Audio: Dolby digital 2.0.
Subtitles: English.
--Commentary by producer Richard Rubinstein.
--Monroeville Mall commercial spot.
--Production/behind the scenes/memorabilia stills.

Disc Three: European Version
Video: 1.85:1.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; DD 2.0 Surround; DD 2.0 Mono.
Subtitles: English.
--Commentary by actors Emge, Foree, Reiniger and Ross.
--1 Italian and 2 German trailers.
--2 UK TV spots.
--Poster & still galleries.
--Argento bio.

 Disc Four: Documentaries
--The Dead Will Walk (1:15:04).
--Document of the Dead (1:31:37).
--On-set home videos (with Audio Commentary from Zombie Extra Robert Langer) (13:25).
--Monroeville Mall Tour (11:28).


Kev D. said...

It's really interesting to see the Euro version, and it's amazing what a difference those cuts make.

The Goblin soundtrack is always awesome though.

Lee said...

Yeah, if Dawn had never existed and we only had Zombi I wonder if it would be rated as high.

You can't beat that soundtrack, although I'd both the Goblin and the library stuff is what make sit work perfectly.

Thrill Fiction said...

You finally did it.

This is sterling work. It certainly wets my mouth for the boxset. I'm curious about the Argento version. Even if I have seen it before (Channel 4 or BBC 2) I've forgotten all about it. The documentaries alone sound worth the time and pennies.

'The "good life" the mall provided them is a dream; a falsehood; a trap, better left to the dead.'

This is horror, no?


Lee said...

Thanks, AJaye. I'm pretty happy with it. As long as it is I ended up cutting a lot out (mostly more on my favourite scenes). Maybe that should be a future post down the road.

On the surface it doesn't look like a traditional horror. More gore and action than real scares. But under that it is scary. To see society break down so easy, zombies or no zombies. Could be a virus, germ attack, whatever. It's just so plausible. and to see these people try and escape and reestablish their past lives and comforts only to discover, some too late, that it was always a snowflake hanging over a fire. Chills. The suspense in that scene with Roger coming back. Can't get enough of it.

Get this set, man. Must be cheap as hell by now. Bluray now even, I think? The Argento version is drastically different.

DrunkethWizerd said...

I know it's been a while (except on youtube as of late). I don't know what happened with Blogger, but a lot of the blogs I've joined in the past don't seem to show up anymore on my page. So they just disappear, and later when I take a link to a link and see myself in the followers, I wonder why I don't see this shit. Maybe I'm doing something wrong, but it's been happening a lot.

What in the hell is your DVDAF account name again!?

Lee said...

Drunketh>> I've never had a DVDAF account as far as I can recall.:)

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