How much do you love your favorite movie? Do you love it enough to obsess on it endlessly? To watch every format version of it possible, from original theatrical print down through VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and finally Blu-ray? How about blogging about it? Do you share your fascination with a like-minded group of readers hanging on your every evocative word? How about this - would you schedule a long delayed vacation to coincide with a local sci-fi/fantasy convention in another part of the world, a gathering where you can meet many of the stars that graced your filmic fetish as well as visit some of the prime locations used? Even better, would you investigate surrounding areas, creating a list of various settings that you had to visit in a scant three day period, all while dealing with issues like a language barrier, lack of familiarity with the country and its customs, and the ever pressing knowledge that you've got limited time to take it all in? Well, if you're Frenchman Nicolas Garreau and you adore George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, this is exactly what you do - and luckily, he brought along a friend and a handhelded video camera to capture it all as part of his Fan of the Dead "documentary." The results are interesting to say the least.
Really nothing more than a home movie given some added cinematic context, Nicolas Garreau's Fan of the Dead documents the three days he spent in Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs while taking in 2003's 25th Anniversary convention celebrating Romero's seminal Dawn. Using his knowledge of all the Dead movies up to this point (he does not deal with Land, Diary or Survival of the... naturally, but does include the Tom Savini remake of Night from 1990, and Creepshow), he traces the various productions' footsteps, finding the basement where Helen and Harry Cooper holed up, the missile silo and underground cavernous storage facility used for Day, as well as the cemetery where Johnny once chided Barbara about someone "coming to get" her. Along the way, Garreau attends a late night tour of the infamous Monroeville Mall which featured prominently in Romero's 1978 sequel, as well as chatting up such actors as Ken Forre and David Emge. By the end, our narrator has given us enough fanboy appreciation of the zombie epics to last a couple of lifetimes. Translated over from his native tongue to English, everything he discovers is "amazing", "wonderful", and "unbelievable". For the most part, he has a point.
As a work of Travel Channel like investigative "entertainment", Fan of the Dead is a pleasant if perfunctory tour through one of the genre's greatest triptychs. Limited in his use of clips from the various Romero films, while still capable of some convincing compare and contrast, Garreau begins by setting up his schedule, discussing his flight arrangements, and arriving in the US. Fast forward a few scenes, and we are smack dab in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh, where our guide somehow manages to sneak into the basement of the famous filmmaker's old production house. Sure enough, it's the cellar from the first Night, complete with workbenches and stairs that, today, lead to nowhere. Later, there's a convention sponsored trip out to an old airfield, a personal tour of the old salt mine that was used as the research facility/refuge for Dr. Logan and a bunch of angry army guys, and an eerie visit to the isolated manor used by Savini for his 1990 update. In true geek euphoria, Garreau marvels at everything. He is never nonplused or unmoved. Instead, he's like a pilgrim finally reaching his movieland Mecca, a land rich in every detail his good-natured passion for all things undead can provide.
However, that's all there is here. No additional information or outside commentary. Just Garreau, his itinerary and his ever present camera. While it would probably be too much to assume he could arrange one-on-one interviews with members of the cast and crew, the 'caught as part of a crowd' nature of some of the Q&A sequences is a tad irritating. As an explorer, Garreau also overstays his welcome. Clearly he is fascinated and fulfilled by everything he sees, so much so that he wants to drink it in as long as possible. Naturally, he assumes we feel the same way and languishes on minutia that even a dedicated "dead" head would find excessive. Imagine a Criterion like look at the various places where Romero shot his movies, removed of all journalistic objectivity and desire to enlighten and entertain and you get the idea. Luckily, the inherent fascination with the subject matter (who doesn't want to see where Bub and his rotting corpse buddies hung out?) as well as a few of the more telling anecdotes keep Fan of the Dead from being generic. Instead, much of Garreau's mania rubs off on his film, transporting us to a place, perhaps in our youth, where one particularly movie played over and over again - both in our technology of choice and in our mind.
Just don't go in expecting a Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky level of artistry and you'll be okay. This truly is a travelogue, caught as it happened and pasted together by the good people at Cheezy Flicks. Even though the DVD case argues for an hour running time, it's more like 50 minutes. Similarly, it would have been nice to know if Garreau did a follow-up. After all, Land of the Dead would hit theaters in 2005, two years after the documentary was made. Is he just as passionate about the latest installments of Romero's ongoing monster mythos? If so, why no second excursion to America? If not, why? One of the more intriguing aspects of his narrative is the information that some of the Dead films have been cut so radically for European release that Garreau has never seen them in their full, uncut form (or maybe this was just a poor job of translation on the part of the production - the voice over is often very literal and stilted when it comes to capturing the meaning of a particular moment). As a complement to the true fan of fright films and the zombie epics of George Romero in general, Fan of the Dead is fascinating. It may not work as a true documentary, but it's clearly a love letter to a man and his movies - and you can't really hate on such obvious enthusiasm.
While it has been tweaked a tad in post-production, this is a shot on available digital effort, no mistake about it. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer is actually pretty good - that is, when Garreau's filmmaking and the available lighting are good. When they are not, the entire experience turns into a frustrating diversion into darkness. Elsewhere, the quality of the camerawork itself is "shaky", if you get the inference. Still, for what it is - a home movie - Fan of the Dead looks fairly decent.
Captured on the internal microphone of the camera, most of the original "conversations" are thin and flat. No real resonance in the Dolby Digital Stereo remaster. Luckily, the voice over narration (including booming English voice) is very good, full bodied and easy to understand - if, as stated before, a tad too literal in what Garreau is trying to get across.
We are treated to a still photo gallery and a collection of Cheezy Flicks trailers. That's it.
Every year, thousands of travels take to the Memphis, Tennessee to visit Graceland and see where their favorite King of Rock and Roll once lived (and is now laid to rest). Currently, you can hop on a bus and traverse downtown Manhattan revisiting all the places where in the City Carrie and her matronly crew discovered Sex. Given their success, their universal appeal and identity, it's surprising that Pittsburgh hasn't come up with its own Zombie Tour package (perhaps they do - a Google of the concept turned up nothing). After all, George Romero has done more for the living dead than any other favored son filmmaker out there. Nicolas Garreau's Fan of the Dead is nothing more than a limited if heartfelt homage to the man who made many of his most potent nightmare possible. For its devotion and dedication, it easily earns a Recommended rating. But don't be fooled by the inference. There is little to this documentary beyond a good natured journey into one devotee's total geekdom. It's fascinating, if not quite definitive on the subject.
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