Many of you have grown up with this film. Even younger readers who encountered Zack Snyder's modern remake first, will almost certainly have had a look at George A. Romero's original by now. Therefore, I don't need to waste much time on a synopsis. You all know this one. And lets face it, the 'subtext' was never exactly deeply hidden to begin with!
The flesh-eating dead now walk the earth and civilisation is in the rapid process of collapsing completely. Fleeing the carnage in Pittsburgh, a pretty TV producer (Gaylen Ross) and her helicopter pilot boyfriend (David Emge), join up with a couple of Special Forces cops (Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger) and fly off looking for refuge elsewhere, which they eventually find within the monolithic confines of a shopping mall (this was back in innocent days when it apparently wasn't ridiculous for Romero to have one of his characters ask, "what the hell is this?" as they fly overhead). Soon, they begin to realise that they have this sprawling temple to consumerism all to themselves and act accordingly; they clear out the remaining zombies (who totter and slouch as their dispossessed grey-blue faces press despondently against the mall's sliding doors), seal off the upstairs storeroom -- a living space which they quickly turn into a lavishly furnished shrine to late-'70s suburban decor -- and set out to shop, shop, shop while the world around their compound gets ever-more threatening and violent and, eventually, intent on taking some of this ill-gotten wealth back for itself.
George Romero's follow up to "Night of the Living Dead" is a sprawling mess of satire, gory action and wry comedy that looked like it should never really even have worked, but has (rightly) become the quintessential recipe for millions of blood-splattered gory zombie action flicks the world over. Romero's distinctive rapid-fire editing style initially offers up a confusing chain of sequences: a chaotic TV studio, a police attack on a housing project full of illegal zombie tenants, the protagonists' night-time escape via helicopter -- all scored with a random mix of cheesy library cues and Italian progressive rock, which Romero seems to plaster all over the soundtrack with little rhyme or reason behind any of it. This soon settles down, though, into a high concept action-fest, full of Tom Savini's comic book bright-red splatter. What was originally specifically a comment on the burgeoning consumerism of the seventies now seems even more apposite and has only resonated more as the decades have gone by. The attractiveness of the consumer-led lifestyle and the way it insulates the protagonists from the true horrors of the zombie plague seems to work just as well today as a modern metaphor for the current global environmental crisis; while the false and wafer-thin protection this shallow lifestyle really offers is only too believable after last year’s financial market meltdown threatened to leave us all with our clammy faces pressed up against those mall windows. Which is maybe why Romero has never quite succeeded in generating another entry in the series with quite the same power and seeming depth to it as this -- a little film, made back in 1978, which continues to feel as relevant as it ever has.
This three-disc U.K. set from Arrow Video takes its cue from Anchor Bay's lavish four-disc U.S. "Dawn of the Dead" DVD box set from several years ago, while also providing us with the film's U.K. debut on Blu-ray. What we have here are all three cuts of the film with most of the extras from the old Anchor Bay set included -- plus, over a hundred minutes of extra material. This time the whole caboodle is easily fitted onto three discs (one Blu-ray and two standard DVD discs) with the theatrical cut getting the 1080p High Definition treatment on Blu-ray (with DTS HD and stereo audio options) and the Director's Cut and Dario Argento's European Cut getting very respectable treatment on the two follow-up DVD discs.
Anyone who has seen Anchor Bay's magnificent high definition transfer on DVD will know already just how amazing it looks in all three versions, so since this is a thirty-year-old film, made for a paltry $640.000, it was unlikely to look significantly different on Blu-ray when compared with that original, already-pristine DVD transfer. But the Blu-ray treatment simply offers just that tiny bit of extra clarity for the theatrical cut, that really does enhance the overall viewing experience.
The main advantage of the Blu-ray format comes from the fact that a large amount of extra material can be fitted on to just three discs. Although a few bits and pieces from the old Anchor Bay set are not here (the most notable omission is the cast commentary from the European cut, but although this was an entertaining listen, it didn't provide any information that isn't also available elsewhere on the documentary extras), everything that is significant remains -- and Arrow Video have found some other interesting and quite lengthy extras that the old Anchor Bay set didn't have at all! Retailing for about the price of a standard Blu-ray disc (online retailers will almost certainly bring the price down further) this set offers major value for money!
The Blu-ray Disc Extras
The Blu-ray disc offers up a lot of the extra material. Roy Frumkes 1989 documentary "Document of the Dead" is included, an 84 minute film primarily made up of material shot onset over one weekend during the making of "Dawn of the Dead" but which also includes behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Romero's second collaboration with Dario Argento, "Two Evil Eyes", mainly detailing the filming of one of Savini's effects. Mostly though it's a detailed look at independent film making, in particular George Romero's directorial and editing style, and has the general tone of an educational film intended for young film makers or students, although the voice-over does tend to get slightly verbose at times! There is some rare footage of Romero in the editing suite that reveals the amazingly DIY nature of his working methods at the time, even on a film that eventually became an unexpected world-wide blockbuster.
As an adjunct to the main documentary, the disc also includes (accessed separately) an alternative end credit sequence for Frumkes' film, and extended versions of some of its interviews, plus a twenty minute feature entitled The Lost Interview, that includes a previously unseen interview conducted with "Two Evil Eyes" actress Adrienne Barbeau, as well as footage of an interview with Romero that wasn't included in the finished film. Barbeau seems a very sweet and very likeable person, but one who doesn't really have too much interest in the horror genre in general or Romero's Dead series, and certainly not a lot to say about either of those things (which is probably why the interview never made it to the finished cut!); Romero provides a depressing but believable anecdote about himself and Stephen King enduring a frozen walk through terrible blizzard conditions to see some potential investors, only to be presented with a derisory offer.
Fan of the Dead Documentary
A charming curio is this, and exclusive to this set: a fifty minute documentary by a young, French "Dawn of the Dead" fan with a very bad haircut -- a chap by the name of Nicolas Garreau, who displays such a crazy, childlike, fan's sense of wonder that you can't help but join him in his excitement as he gets to travel around Pennsylvania on his holidays, seeking out all the major locations used in Romero's Dead trilogy.
This mini documentary plays just like someone's video of their summer holidays -- which is what it really is; but in what other holiday video do you get to see the original cellar in which the protagonists take refuge during the original "Night of the Living Dead", or Ken Foree and David Emge conducting a tour of Dawn of the Dead's primary location, the Monroeville Mall. Garreau and his likeable bunch of geeky friends (who fill in down time between tours gleefully practising zombie walks and moans in their hotel room. Ahhh bless!) visit Pittsburgh's Comicon where they meet up with the film's stars and various zombie extras, as well as visit sites such as the underground bunker from "Day of the Dead" and the cemetery from the opening scene of "Night ...". It's amazing how little many of these locations have changed in the intervening years. The cellar (really the cellar of Romero's production offices) still looks exactly the same as it did in the 1968 movie, as do many of the sites used in the shopping mall, which is virtually a museum to the film, its colour scheme and general layout remaining pretty much how we see it in the movie. It's fairly impressive and maybe a little scary that Garreau has actually managed to track down damn near every location from all three movies, and rather touching how proud to relate their tales of involvement in the three film shoots many of the extras they encounter who played zombies back then still are (is there anyone over a certain age still living in Pittsburgh who hasn't been a zombie in a George A. Romero film?). Many of them can still be found today on the convention circuit, despite having only seconds of screen time in the actual movie. This documentary may not be essential viewing but it is certainly a worthy testament to the power and longevity (not to mention obsessiveness) of fandom, and it makes a nice supplement to the rest of the materials included here.
The Commentary Tracks
The set features two commentary tracks, both of which were originally available on the lavish Anchor Bay four-disc special edition. Here, they are both accessible from the Blu-ray disc's set-up page (which therefore means they are both attached to the theatrical cut rather than divided between the theatrical and the director's cuts), allowing viewers to toggle between them if they so wish. The first track features George A. Romero and his wife, assistant director on "Dawn", Chris Romero, with make-up artist and amateur stunt man on the film, Tom Savini. DVD producer Perry Martin from Anchor Bay Entertainment provides intelligent moderation, ensuring the track never falls silent too long during the film's two hours-plus running time. Mostly the participants need little encouragement to keep talking though, both Chris and Savini proving particularly enthusiastic and voluble throughout. George is a little more reserved but is still able to recall a lot of interesting anecdotes about the screenplay's genesis (relating to how it was written in Dario Argento's house in Italy) and the making of the film, as well as the amazing audience response it received as soon as it was screened at a special sneak preview arranged by producer Rubinstein. Both this and the second commentary are to some degree out of date, of course, since at the time they were recorded for Anchor Bay, neither of George's subsequent follow-ups ("Land of the Dead" and "Diary of the Dead") had yet been shot or released, and neither had Richard P. Rubinstein's "Dawn of the Dead" remake, for that matter. Rubinstein (again also helped along by occasional questioning from Perry Martin) offers a far more technical account of the film's financing, and a frank appraisal of Romero's talents as well as perceived business shortcomings: the director was apparently in dire financial straits at the time, having failed to establish copyright on "Night of the Living Dead". Rubinstein does offer up the occasional on-set anecdotal nugget though (mostly he stayed away from set, finding the process too boring), and gives a touching account of Dario Argento's visit to the mall set, during which he expressed admiration for Romero's rate of work and amazement at his speed in setting up shots.
The Director's Cut DVD
This to me is the definitive version of the film, and luckily it still looks good on DVD, with a beautiful transfer that's almost as clear and vivid as the colourful Blu-ray treatment. The disc also includes Anchor Bay Entertainment's magnificent DVD documentary "The Dead Will Walk". AB have always been at the forefront of the art of producing these very thorough and informative DVD documentaries and this is one of their very best -- a feature length, beautifully produced film that interviews just about everybody from the cast and crew, and assembles their views and anecdotes into a chronology that details everything that's worth knowing about the film, from the moment it was first conceived as a project, right up to its general release. Essential viewing.
The Argento Cut DVD
I always enjoy giving this mad European cut a spin from time-to-time. "Dawn of the Dead" is almost a test case, where you get to compare the differences in sensibility between the Italian school of Horror and its more sober North American counterpart, circa 1979. Argento cuts the film down to the bone in terms of narrative, and concentrates on the action and the gore. The satire seems of no interest to him whatsoever! The film proves well able to survive this bowdlerization though and its always great to kick back from time-to-time and enjoy this brutal, crazed version of the film.
This disc also includes the Fangoria Film series tribute to Tom Savini, "Scream Greats": a fifty minute biography that's crammed-full of clips from throughout Savini's career, interviews with his colleagues (many of whom have since gone on to become equally as important in the effects industry) and, of course, with Romero, who's feature "Martin" provided Savini with his first big break. It's a great documentary and amusingly revealing of Savini's almost childlike enthusiasm for the job -- who else would get such pleasure from practising bloody bullet hole squibs on his wife!
Also included on this last digs is a Publicity Vault' section that contains the film's U.S. trailer, a cheesy German trailer for "Zombies" (the film's title in many European markets) and various TV and radio spots as well as the text of several contemporary reviews, one of them a rave review by Stephen King from Rolling Stone magazine. Finally there are trailers for the films in Arrow Video's Master of Gialli series: "Sleepless", "Macabre" and "The House by the Cemetery".
Arrow have packaged the whole thing up in an attractive set that includes four alternative sleeve designs (the original "Zombie Head" design plus a red and black variation on it; the rare "Gas Mask" poster and a design showcasing the painting by Rick Melton which is also available with the set as a fold-out double-sided poster -- the other side being a display of the original UK theatrical "Zombies" artwork. Finally, a nicely written essay by Calum Waddell, "For Every Night There is a Dawn", is included in full-colour booklet form. This set is about as good as it gets. If you've resisted previous editions of this classic film, now might be the time to succumb!