In an uncommon move for a film shot long before the era of home video and DVD (it may be the first ever making-of documentary of an independent feature), filmmaker Roy Frumkes was allowed onto the set and into the editing bay of George A. Romero's landmark zombie film Dawn of the Dead, to interview the cast and crew about making a follow-up to the hugely successful Night of the Living Dead, and to discuss Romero's directorial style. The completed 83 minute feature, Document of the Dead, was released in 1983 to positive reviews, just a couple of years before Romero's third Dead film was made. Now, encouraged by other filmmakers like Eli Roth and with plenty of help from Romero himself, Frumkes has recut Document with another 20 minutes of footage from the sets of subsequent projects, including Two Evil Eyes, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead.
Frankly, The Definitive Document of the Dead is not a particularly cohesive experience. Not to slight the material that Frumkes has assembled over more than 30 years, which is frequently very entertaining and will be fun to see for Romero fans, but the film had clear purpose and subject in being about Dawn of the Dead. Most of the Document of the Dead footage is presented here intact, rather than completely re-edited to clarify the altered focus of the Definitive version.
Document, true to its name, was originally almost intended as an educational film; Frumkes was a film teacher and the idea was to use the finished film to help teach his students how to make a film. That slightly sterile nature remains in the original 1978 footage, emphasizing technical information, techniques, motifs, and mechanics of organizing and juggling the film and its demands. There's not much about the atmosphere of the set or footage of the cast and crew goofing off, and any discussion of Romero's other works is not historical but solely to help define him as a filmmaker.
When the movie jumps to the set of Two Evil Eyes, Frumkes has to seem even less of a plan. Definitive Document spends quite a long time on the shooting of a single effect from the film, without really enhancing or describing the explanation of Romero's style from before. The one advance in this segment is that the interviews get a little more personal, particularly Christine Romero talking about her role and whether she thought she was going to get it. Other material in this segment involves the training of monkeys.
Finally, the film jumps to present day, picking up a loose, friendlier style that feels like a homecoming, and sort of a tradition. One of the clever things Frumkes does is repeat some of the same visual cues, like he and Romero walking and talking. However, the focus of the footage gets even more vague, with Frumkes asking Romero about tangentially related topics, like his opinion of Shaun of the Dead and other knock-offs (footage from what I'm presuming is a porn film appears), and seemingly random snippets from the Land and Diary sets. At almost the last minute, Frumkes jumps on a topic that could easily have been pulled from the footage he had at his disposal: the story of George Romero the man, found in Romero's daughter Tina telling a hilarious, wonderful Christmas story. But it's too little, too late -- either Frumkes needed to rebuild his film from the ground up to incorporate the movie's new focus, or left it as three different pieces from three distinctly different eras.
Document of the Dead arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray via Synapse films with funny, clever Wes Bescoter artwork depicting the zombie king having his film-strip bowels torn out. The disc comes in a plastic-conserving plastic case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
As Definitive Document was recorded over the course of four decades, the quality and aspect ratio of the footage varies wildly, from 16mm to 35mm to modern digital. Footage from the original Document is pleasingly grainy, dark, and rich. Modern footage is harshly digital and features aliasing and maybe some faint banding. Sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, which gains a little bit of aural nuance as sound recording techniques jump forward technologically, but the whole film is a pretty no-frills experience. I'm pretty sure viewers know what they're in for and don't expect a demo disc, so despite the issues, no complaints.
Only one extra is included: an audio commentary by director/writer/producer Roy Frumkes. He's a very intelligent speaker, and even admits that the three parts of Document don't go together so well. He likens his choices to Michael Apted's 7 Up documentary series. It's an interesting, well-spoken commentary, even if it doesn't really help my opinion of the final product.
There are fans who will enjoy this new cut of Document of the Dead, because it contains plenty of worthwhile footage of Romero at work, and interesting interviews from many of his collaborators and colleagues. As a film, though, it's an uneven stack of material that would be better as individual pieces than a single feature. Rent it.
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