Savant sort of gave up on gore horror movies after reviewing a pair of Lucio Fulci gut-rippers back in 2000. Like I always say, If ya see one set of internal organs ripped out of a screaming victim, you've seen 'em all. But I did give George Romero's third zombie opus Day of the Dead a spin last year and found it to be much better than I thought it would be. But there was still Romero's first sequel to the original Night of the Living Dead, one of those top horror titles I never caught up with.
Now Anchor Bay has brought out the latest in a long line of Dawn of the Dead releases, an 'ultimate edition' that combines all three versions of the film into one four-disc zombie marathon. The impressively mounted set provides the most thorough analysis of the film possible, with several full length commentaries and two docus, each of feature length.
As for the film, it certainly earns its crown as the king of the zombie flicks. Romero's taut screenplay has a logical development and the no-star cast are people we actually like and care about. The outrageous gore no longer seems as drastic as it once did, allowing us a chance to admire Romero's storytelling skills. With people to root for and something to sell beyond a nihilistic gorefest, Dawn of the Dead is an entertaining show.
George Romero pulls off a neat trick in Dawn of the Dead; he creates a convincing post-zombie apocalypse engulfing the whole country, without really showing more than a few isolated details. Unlike other 'panic in year zero' scenarios like No Blade of Grass, every citizen does not turn into a murdering psycho survivalist the moment that law and order breaks down. Dawn goes against the universal misanthropy of other zombie pix when the cops understand and sympathize with the reactions of the poor blacks in the housing project. When two groups of deserting police converge on a helicopter that represents one of the few remaining escape routes from the city, there's no battle for control as we'd expect to see in Miracle Mile or 28 Days Later. The second group of cops elect to commandeer a boat instead.
Romero has his four refugees pick a giant shopping mall as their best hope of survival, a brilliant narrative move. The mall is sort of like a castle in that the feeble-minded zombies outside can be simply locked out. When the horde already inside are disposed of, our heroes live in a consumer paradise with every store open for free 'shopping,' including a supermarket. They wisely secrete themselves in a custom-fitted set of rooms at the very top, stocked with emergency rations and furniture brought up from below. And they even construct a fake wall to fool outside invaders who may invade their domain, while they hide out in hopes of a better moment to fly their helicopter elsewhere.
As in Night of the Living Dead, Romero makes his characters unpredictably human. Without name stars, we there is no way to predict who will survive and who won't. The ones who don't become zombie food by losing perspective on their situation and taking unnecessary chances or making illogical moves. The 'man of action' pilot shows himself to have a weak constitution when it comes to a protracted siege against the zombie horde. The two SWAT commandos are perfectly adapted to the nasty job of dealing with the zombies, but one's cockiness turns into a foolhardy euphoria. The semi-catatonic, I-can't-deal-with-this female character from the first film returns, but this time turns into a take-charge type, learning to think in a crisis and even how to fly her boyfriend's helicopter.
Romero keeps the dialogue basic and to the point, which makes things easy for his (mostly very good) actors, who score points for credibility and personality. There's also a lot to identify with here. Part of the appeal of doomsday-type movies is the fantasy that YOU might be one of the lucky survivors to embark on a great adventure, prevailing when most of the rest of humanity has been wiped out. Dawn of the Dead combines that with the Shopping Mall fantasy of being able to walk into stores and take whatever one wants. When Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) invade a gun store and reap a bonanza of weapons and ammo, a prime adolescent fantasy unfolds before our eyes. Superimposed over all those associations is the satirical notion that our society is based on consumer goods; our four gunmen of the apocalypse are defending their own petty kingdom of department stores. Clever dialogue establishes that the zombies must be gravitating to the mall out of habit - they're no longer human but they do have faint memories of life. The next film Day of the Dead extends that satirical notion by studying zombies in captivity.
But we're still looking at a basic survival story and Romero rings down the third act by bringing in a mob of scavenging bikers, a sensational development that's usually poorly handled, as in the old doomsday film No Blade of Grass. Here it's close to brilliant, with the bikers smashing the mall's doors and letting in the zombies while they conduct an orgy of pillage and violence.
That brings us to the violence and the gore effects, which twenty-six years later are still effective. Once the first heads are blown off and the first zombie teeth tear out huge chunks of human flesh, the rest is just icing on the corpse, so to speak. There are inherent limitations in trying to make art out of a genre that by definition has to have regular commercial injections of stomach-turning gore, and the only strain on Dawn of the Dead is that by the 2/3 mark we're more interested in seeing the plot and characters play out than we are witnessing 101 more cinematic ways to chop up, shoot, and rip people asunder. Suffering is suffering, and anybody with enough life experience to know what real physical trauma is is not going to really need this particular cheap thrill. But in exceptional cases almost anything is acceptable in a movie, and Dawn of the Dead is exploitation with just enough ambition and artistry to get by the B.S. meter.
Anchor Bay's four-disc set of the Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition comes in a fancy folding package made with the kind of care given top-rank product like Lord of the Rings. True Romero-philes already know all about the various versions, but the three transfers here are as follows: The U.S. Theatrical Cut, which has a full set of audio choices (see below), the shorter European cut supervised and re-tracked with Goblin music by coproducer Dario Argento, and the extra-long Extended Version, which was I believe adapted from an early film festival version and has a mix of music cues.
The full list of extras are below. Not mentioned are two booklets, one a sampling of a horror-comic version of the film, and the other a fancy (very fancy) booklet containing just one Roger Ebert review and a lot of still photos. Other incidental goodies include an old ad for the Monroeville Mall and a recent cast reunion there taped with a DVCam. It's obvious that Romero's main impetus for the movie must have been the access to an entire mall of stores for a month of late-night filming. 1
Disc extras producer Perry Martin conducts two marathon commentaries, a friendly and open track with Romero and his top collaborators, and a second with producer Richard Rubinstein, which has an entirely different feeling - not hostile, exactly, but certainly on a different pitch. A third commentary with the actors is also a recent recording. Again, the full list of extras is below.
One of the docus is an older career piece on Romero done with plenty of behind-the scenes footage, but Anchor Bay's Martin has pieced together an exhaustive 72 minute piece with intimate interviews with the director, all the actors, the cameraman and the charismatic gore effects-meister Tom Savini, who long ago attained godly status among gore fans. Most production aspects are addressed, and there are even some Italian-language interview clips with Dario Argento.
But the personal stories of the lead actors - all still alive, all looking chipper - provide most of the fun. Ken Foree talks about not believing anyone would ever let such graphic gore be shown on a screen; and the personable Gaylen Ross talks about having to explain to her classically-trained Russian acting coach what zombie movies are all about, when all the other students are working on The Seagull. Dawn of the Dead looks to be one of those labors of love where nobody earned a nickel but were happy to work for George Romero, reportedly a sweetheart of a guy who inspired great loyalty. Ah, but things have changed, now that the lowliest of beginning directors demand to be treated like God's gift ...
The Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition will be God's gift to the George Romero cult. Now, with the Elite Millenium DVD version of the original Night of the Living Dead, Romero's trilogy is completely serviced on DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dawn of the Dead rates:
1. How'd he do that? What lunatic store
owner would allow their premises to be used for an unrated gore movie? How'd they feature things like the Penney's
logo prominently in shots? Nowadays, everything has to be a pre-arranged deal. And in many scenes it looks like big
sections of the mall are trashed or splattered with debris and fake blood. Did they have a frantic clean-up
every dawn before going home? Inquiring minds want to know. Perhaps these issues are all covered in the
commentaries, which Savant only sampled.