❉ Second Sight truly have spoiled DotD fans with this luxurious, show-stopping Blu-ray set!
“Dawn of the Dead is a genuine bona-fide classic worthy of such a release. It is a classic that exists in many forms, and has much to explore within the various versions of the work itself as well as all the supplements surrounding it… Dawn of the Dead is not only an endlessly interesting film but also an endlessly interesting making of a film. What they accomplished with a low budget and a lot of fun and enthusiasm is deeply inspiring.”
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen Dawn of the Dead. Of course, I’m in the same boat as many other horror fans and cinephiles in general. It is one of those classics that lives with you and becomes part of the fabric of cultural life in general. Endlessly referenced, endlessly imitated (in art and, ahem, life), but never bettered. I first saw it late one night on BBC2 with my little brother when I was very young. We videoed it and wore the tape out. When I finally found a legit copy on video – even though it ran at a whopping 120 minutes I was dismayed to find it was severely cut. Most of the violence, gone! Chunks of scenes, gone! BBC2 gave me such a better deal. I then subsequently fell down the rabbit hole of learning of endless versions of the film.
I’m still confused to this day. The Beeb must have shown what was known as the extended ‘Cannes cut’ which was also mistakenly marketed as the director’s cut on home video but it doesn’t appear to be as simple as that – there are same versions but with different title cards, slightly different edits, longer cuts, shorter cuts, so many different versions and even so many different releases! I’d quite like to see every known release of Dawn of the Dead on physical media together in a photo. There are hardcore fans out there with them all so let’s see them! There are three defining versions on this luxurious, show-stopping Blu-ray set from Second Sight that is, quite frankly the last name in Dawn of the Dead retail releases from a sea of endless re-releases. Sure, Anchor Bay released a deluxe four-disc Ultimate Edition on DVD back in 2004 but THIS is the ultimate, ultimate edition, and boy is it worth it!
Disc 1 – The Theatrical cut (127 minutes)
One of the many astonishing things about Dawn Of The Dead is that you get such different experiences out of it every time you see it. The sprawling nature of the film has you noticing things you’ve never seen before, but more than that the whole vibe of the film changes with you as you mature. When we first saw the film my brother and I used to find it goofy, cheesy and hilarious. That didn’t detract from the more shocking moments of the film, or indeed our proceeding obsession with it, but overall the use of the dopey library music, which seemed quite archaic even for a film that looked really dated anyway – in particular The Gonk – mixed with the buffoonery of the zombies had us howling. I think the low-budget nature of the film had a lot to do with this too. I don’t think we were quite ready for such a shamelessly anarchic, blood and gore- soaked satirical zombie epic which wore its shoestring budget on its sleeve but we loved it anyway!
I’m not going to go into the film’s plot or allegory here as, let’s face it, what hasn’t been written about Dawn of the Dead before? One thing that I will say though is that I found the tenement raid sequence so outrageous that I can’t believe Romero got away with it! Granted, the exploding head was snipped out of most cuts for years but what a hard-hitting and disturbing bit of imagery that is. The ultra-violence and concerns regarding race on display in this part of the film is quite gobsmacking and pulls out the old adage that they really don’t make ’em like this anymore.
I think the difference in experience this time round though has to be down to the crisp, crystal-clear picture quality. It has to be said – I’ve never seen the film look this good. There is certainly something to be said for these 4K scan restorations and while I don’t think they are always necessary – it really is nice to see the film look it’s best. There are even still the odd scratch or two which pleases me to no end as I am of the camp that a film’s genuine dust and scratches becomes part of its character and to completely rid the piece of them is a terrible shame. Same too goes with the sound – thanks to the squeaky-clean restoration to original OCN optical and presented in mono, 1.0 Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 I was able to pick out things I hadn’t heard before and differentiate the variants in score between the cuts, and it has been fascinating doing so. I feel this cut has the best mixed use of library tracks and Goblin score. Romero really punctuates certain shock moments with cues that are missing in other cuts.
Overall this is the tightest cut of Dawn there is. Contrary to the extended ‘Cannes cut’ being labelled the ‘director’s cut’ in the past – this theatrical cut is actually closest to the director’s vision and therefore should be seen as the director’s cut. The editing is really snappy and tight without losing sense of the character developments and the action. It is worth noting that a good few of the blood and gore gags are left out here in favour of snappier edits. There are other chunks missing in order to move the film along too – the scene at the police docks in particular is substantially cut down.
This disc comes with two commentary tracks; a warm and informative chat between Romero, Tom Savini and Christine Forrest-Romero which appeared on the earlier Anchor Bay Ultimate Edition (among others) – and a new commentary track from film writer Travis Crawford who discusses Romero and his films at length.
Disc 2 – The Extended ‘Cannes’ cut – (139 mins)
Being such a fan of the film; enjoying the characters, situation and environment so much that it triggers such what-if scenarios in the imagination – I find I never usually want it to end, so as you can imagine when I received the set for review I jumped straight into the extended cut first. This is actually the one I am more accustomed to after initially seeing it on the Beeb (I believe) – I am used to all extra bits that I always found a natural part of the flow. There are actually even longer unofficial ‘fan edits’ of the film lasting around 155 minutes but officially this has always been the go-to cut for me. I don’t think the use of score and cues is as effective as it is in the theatrical cut and it barely utilises the Goblin score, in favour for the vast range of library music Romero had to play with. Even some of the edits aren’t as effective here but it isn’t so different as to change the film’s DNA.
Once again the picture is as clean as you’re going to get it and was a particular wow factor when initially laying my eyes on the film. As mentioned in the theatrical cut – this version contains more gory gags than before though none of them outshine any of the ones Romero used in his refined cut, in fact were probably not effective enough for him to cut them out. This is the only version on the set where you see the extended scene on the police docks featuring Joe Pilato who would go on to play the truly evil ‘Rhodes’ in Romero’s Day of the Dead. That is probably one of the only scenes that is explicitly longer – most of the added runtime is made up of extra shots, extended shots or added lines to existing scenes.
I think a first time viewer of Dawn of the Dead would do better to start with the theatrical cut but for those who want more Dawn for their dime – this is the one for you! What amazes me is with the current crop of horror films with run-times that are far too long and overblown – one can never have that complaint with DotD as it really makes great use of its space and ideas. That alone is proof of solid filmmaking!
This disc includes a commentary with producer Richard Rubinstein; again returning from the Anchor Bay Ultimate edition.
Disc 3 – The Argento cut (120mins)
I’d only seen the Argento cut (aka ‘The European cut’) once before as part of the Starz/Anchor Bay Ultimate Edition. As somebody who has seen Dawn in its most well-known and complete version countless times, it was quite a buzz to see it reinterpreted quite substantially – even seeing it titled ZOMBI for a start. It has to be said it is mostly inferior to Romero’s original vision but it is not without its merits. One of which are the many slithers of shots or extended shots that were left out of the other versions. In some cases the Argento cut even boasts better editing in certain scenes. How the raid of the tenement building is played out for instance shows more coherence in certain aspects, and lets shots breathe more – even if the frantic nature of the situation may sometimes be lost – which, lets face it, goes against Romero’s intention. The same can be said for the biker gang’s looting of the mall later in the film. We see more of certain bits and come to understand how they initially played out before Romero spliced it apart. Most extra moments however, aren’t essential and therefore just curios for the film nerds like myself.
Another interesting aspect I enjoyed was how the film was intricately Foleyed, like all Italian pictures were back then. It certainly brandishes the film with an Italian identity and we hear more gory squelches, blood spurts, foot-steps and the like that either wouldn’t have had any attention in Romero’s versions – or lowered insignificantly in the mix. The dialogue mix is a point of interest too. A lot of the delivery is from alternate takes or are mixed at different levels. When you get to the point of practically running the film through your head warts and all – the difference in delivery jumps straight out at you. Again, one for the nerds!
Argento completely re-contextualised the film with his choice of score too. There is more overt use of the Goblin score – in fact most of the score IS the Goblin score, and you can’t blame Argento for that; it is great music and they are his pals, but the mall music and other scenes that were heavily reliant on the DeWolfe library music are completely replaced with other pieces of Argento’s choice. This was mainly to remove all traces of goofy muzak that were originally used to satirical effect. Don’t expect The Gonk here folks!
This brings us to the fundamental problem of Argento’s cut. He cut his version as a straight-up actioner – Romero’s statement on braindead consumerism takes more of a backseat in favour for hitting those gory notes and getting to the next set-piece as quick as it can. All traces of comedy or comedic irony are either completely cut, re-scored or re-edited to the point of losing their meaning. The helicopter zombie is even missing this time round which is odd as the emphasis is on the onslaught of grue on offer, but is presumedly because Argento may have found it too funny. It isn’t the light-hearted moments that suffer either – Argento’s repeated use of the Goblin score in many cases kill the sense of mounting tension or jeopardy from many of the scenes. The scene with the BP trucks, the mall-basement zombie attack, the nail-biting finale – all rendered quite emotionless. The character development takes a hit, too. The emotional turmoil and strained relationships of the characters are of course hinted at but mostly skimmed in favour of moving the film along to the action.
I’m sure it has its fans but I personally wouldn’t sit down and watch this with someone who wanted to see Dawn of the Dead in all its glory. For the completists though it’s wonderful to see it in such high quality and for its alternative sound and score mix. In the end though, it is what it is; and that is a curio. It was, however, so successful in Italy that it spurned their own other master of horror Lucio Fulci to make his own unofficial sequel Zombi 2 a.k.a. Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) which was legendary in its own right.
Features on this disc are practically the same from the Anchor Bay ultimate edition set. The commentary from the main cast Ken Foree, Scott Reininger, Gaylen Ross and David Emge returns and is, of course, well worth your time if commentaries are your thing. The European trailers that were on the Anchor Bay disc 3 though, are moved over to the crammed disc 4.
Disc 4 – Special Features
Second Sight truly have spoiled DotD fans with the extras that are loaded onto disc four. Dawn of the Dead is not only an endlessly interesting film but also an endlessly interesting making of a film. What they accomplished with a low budget and a lot of fun and enthusiasm is deeply inspiring. There are three CDs alone crammed with both the complete Goblin score and the vast array of De Wolfe library music tracks that were used.
Among the hoards of extra features, we have the brand new documentary ‘Zombies and Bikers‘ which is a warm and fascinating retrospective of making the film mostly from the perspective of the peripheral cast and crew – namely the featured zombies and biker players. It is a nice angle to get their sides of the story as it really does highlight the film’s local-film-done-good roots as the community aspect of their involvement stems from growing up or studying with each other, or even living locally to Romero. The sense of fun and enjoyment in making the film really shines in this documentary and you feel get the feeling of something special had indeed been created. The liberal use of the mall that they had through-out the night – they would never get away with doing in this corporate day and age. Romero always came across as a gentle, encouraging and illuminating creative and that is confirmed here.
We have a brand-new tour around Monroeville Mall with cinematographer Michael Gornick, Tom Savini, Tom Dubensky and Taso Stavrakis which adds new perspectives to the tour of the mall we had with Ken Foree back on the Anchor Bay Ultimate Edition.
There is an extensive interview with Richard France; who played the eye-patched scientist. He tells us of the great joy and unity that Romero created with his film, its lasting impact on his life and how he never even intended to be an actor. Romero simply cast him from director’s intuition and because he wanted somebody with an actual PhD to play his scientist! I was amused to discover the eyepatch was simply to differentiate the character he played in Dawn compared to the similar one he played in Romero’s The Crazies (1973)!
We are treated with a 13-minute presentation of the special effects utilised in Dawn of the Dead coutesty of Tom Savini. The effects are of course crude and more simplistic compared to what Savini later achieved with Day of the Dead and beyond, but they have their own unique charm that I wouldn’t change for the world.
Returning from the Ultimate Edition is the feature length 2004 documentary The Dead Will Walk which is an exhaustive making of account with talking heads from everybody from the main cast, crew and even featured zombies that was essential viewing before and remains so here.
Second Sight have also treated us to TWO versions of Roy Frumkes’ amazing contemporaneous documentary film Document of the Dead; an on-set behind the scenes account of making the film with interviews with the cast, crew and candid footage of the film being made. We see Frumkes himself get made up into a zombie (he became one of the ones who had a custard pie to the face!) We get a real sense of what it was like to work on the film here. We see Romero laughing with glee at some of the gags and stunts that have been pulled off before his (and our) eyes. We get a sense of how hard everyone worked on the film as much as the fun they had. There is a definitive cut of 100 minutes here complete with optional commentary by Roy Frumkes himself as well as the 66-minute cut I had seen before.
Physical media today exists in a market that has largely pushed it out of the game. This means boutique and specialist labels such as Second Sight and Arrow really have to up the ante to really make their output worth owning. It has seen overblown deluxe editions of films which at times, quite frankly, weren’t even that good in the first place, let alone essential. I completely understand the need to survive by buying up rights for older films and offering these irresistible editions, and hardcore collectors themselves cannot resist the extra treats or insight offered within them. Dawn of the Dead, however, is a genuine bona-fide classic worthy of such a release. It is a classic that exists in many forms, and has much to explore within the various versions of the work itself as well as all the supplements surrounding it. To anybody who seeks to study the art of film-making and it’s potential for alternative interpretations in post-production – then Dawn is a great subject. Second Sight have pulled out the stops here and have given us the ultimate, ULTIMATE representation of a timeless horror classic.
❉ Second Sight Films presents Dawn Of The Dead Limited Edition 4K UHD (2NDBR412) and Dawn Of The Dead Limited Edition Blu-ray (2NDBR412) on 16 November 2020. Pre-order here: bit.ly/Dawn4KUHD | bit.ly/DawnBluRay (includes 4 exclusive artcards only from secondsightfilms.co.uk)
❉ Check out Second Sight Films’ website for new release info and for consumers to buy direct at www.secondsightfilms.co.uk
❉ Thomas Lee Rutter is a director and editor, and creator of Carnie Films’ folk horror short Bella InThe Wych Elm (2017), acid western Day of the Stranger (2019) and upcoming feature The Pocket Film of Superstitions (2021).