Most studios scrambled to find the most mediocre, disposal movies in their catalogs when they made the leap into these high-definition formats. With their first wave of Blu-ray discs, Anchor Bay has done the complete opposite, jumping into the fray with four of the highest profile titles in their extensive library.
George Romero's Dawn of the Dead opens with tensions strained in a Pittsburgh newsroom as civilization is in tatters. The recently dead walk, feasting upon the living and adding to their ravenous, undead numbers. Helicopter pilot Steven (David Emge), seeing no hope in sight, convinces his lover Fran (Gaylen Ross) to take off with him in the station's chopper. They don't have any particular destination in mind, just hoping to find some sort of refuge. With a pair of SWAT officers -- cool, collected Peter (Ken Foree) and an impulsive firecracker named Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) -- in tow, they eventually stumble upon the ideal place to hole up: the Monroeville Mall. The undead gravitate towards the mall, seemingly out of some flicker of recognition from their consumeristic days among the living. Their numbers aren't all that overwhelming, and the undead move slowly enough for the four survivors to be able to clean them out and secure the mall into a virtual fortress. The Monroeville Mall is stocked with everything they need to live comfortably, regardless of whether or not any sort of help ever arrives. The zombies may not be able to break through the shatter-proof glass, but the survivors soon learn it's not the undead that they have to worry about...
Anchor Bay last issued Dawn of the Dead on DVD as a lavish four disc set that included several different cuts of the movie. This initial release of the film on Blu-ray just features the American theatrical version, and at least for my money, it's by far the best of the three. The workprint cut screened at Cannes meanders far too much, bogged down by pointless scenes and cringingly bad lines of dialogue like Fran asking Peter if he'd lost "Real brothers or street brothers?" in the chaos. On the other end of the spectrum, Dario Argento's Zombi cut gutted out virtually every trace of characterization, preferring instead to focus on the bloody, violent zombie attacks and not much of anything else.
To my eyes, Dawn of the Dead approaches perfection. Even though its runtime breaks the two hour mark, Romero keeps the film moving at a fast enough clip that it never seems dull or bloated. As brutal and near-legendary as so many of the zombie attacks are, Dawn of the Dead's greatest strength is its characterization. It's willing to take the time to let the audience get to know these four characters. Romero is aware it's that sort of color that makes the movie what it is, regardless of whether or not it advances the story. Too many horror movies haphazardly throw in characters just because they need someone to butcher, but Dawn of the Dead has a true affection for them. Its characters are remarkably well-realized, with distinct personalities, wants, desires, fears, and flaws, and I really felt as if I got to know them throughout the course of the film.
Despite the inexperience of some of the actors, the performances are rather strong. It helps that the dialogue has such an effortlessly natural quality to it; there aren't any overwrought monologues or clunky exposition to bog things down. Because of the strength of these characters, my favorite part of Dawn of the Dead is its second act -- clearing out the mall and shaping it into their own personal stronghold -- and that's the least savage stretch of the movie. Romero makes the audience practically forget that there even is an apocalypse outside its brick and mortar walls until a tennis ball bounces off the roof into a horde of the undead.
Dawn of the Dead is astonishingly ambitious, and part of Romero's genius is how he's able to convey that epic scope with such a lean budget. Dawn of the Dead functions brilliantly as a horror film, but the satirical streak and comedic edge that run throughout are equally strong, and there's even a sense of adventure. The way these four survivors swoop in and seize the mall almost seems like something out of a Western -- taming a hostile, hopelessly isolated land teeming with emotionless savages -- and the way they defend their fort from invaders could be a third act culled from one of John Ford's films. It's also intriguing how the zombies are treated more as an obstacle than an outright menace. They kill, yes, but they're borderline-mindless creatures driven by pure instinct. The zombies aren't constantly hissing and snarling like the ones in Zack Snyder's remake; they seem harmless and docile until they come across someone to devour, and as has been the case throughout Romero's films, the living are much of a threat than the undead.
Even if Romero is more fascinated with using zombies as a metaphor rather than a persistent menace, they're still the centerpiece of Dawn of the Dead's most memorable scenes. Even if the general look of the zombies hasn't aged all that well in the decades since, many of the more brutal effects are still effective and keep me cringing no matter how many times I've seen them: exploding heads, a screwdriver lobotomy, an oversized forehead lopped off by whirring helicopter blades, bikers ripped limb from limb, disembowelment... Tom Savini established himself as the industry's premiere goresmith with his tremendous work here, and he's given particularly free reign as Dawn of the Dead draws to a close, with his effects taking center stage during the film's devastatingly vicious third act.
Some of the cast and crew laugh uncomfortably in the disc's extras at the idea of Dawn of the Dead being a life changing experience, but that's exactly what it was for me. Dawn of the Dead is the movie that made me love movies...that transformed cinema from a way to kill a couple of hours on the weekend into a flat-out obsession. Even having seen it at least once a year for the past 15 or 16 years, I still find myself completely engaged by Dawn of the Dead each and every time. The film's deliberate pace and grayish-blue zombie make-up may not appeal all that much to younger viewers weaned on more visceral fare, but it's their loss. Even nearly thirty years later, Dawn of the Dead remains one of the most inventive and compelling films the genre has ever produced and is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in horror.
Video: I have to admit that at first glance, this 1080p presentation of Dawn of the Dead didn't particularly impress. Clarity and fine detail are both okay but didn't really strike me as that big a step up over a well-mastered DVD. Sure, Dawn of the Dead is a low budget horror movie whose thirtieth anniversary is quickly approaching, and there have to be some allowances made for that, but the middling detail and occasional smearing in motion leave me thinking that Anchor Bay may have filtered the image more than they probably should have. Speckling is exceptionally rare, and there's barely any trace of film grain outside of a couple scattered shots, but it looks as if that sparklingly clean image comes at a cost.
I didn't really think all that much of this Blu-ray release until I dropped in the first DVD from Anchor Bay's four-disc Ultimate Edition from a few years back. The difference between this 1080p presentation and the upscaled Divimax release is dramatic. The flourescent hues of the stage blood leap off the screen, and the image is drastically crisper and far better defined than any previous release. The edge enhancement that crept into the DVD is largely wiped away, and the very healthy bitrate of the AVC encoding helps stave off any sign of compression artifacting.
I'd bet most kneejerk reactions to this Blu-ray release of Dawn of the Dead are going to range anywhere from indifferent to hesitantly positive. Taken purely on its own, the movie just looks alright in high definition, not managing to impress or disappoint to any great extent. Still, a direct comparison reveals a very substantial improvement over the most recent DVD release. I believe there's room for even further improvement if Anchor Bay were to retransfer the film for another special edition down the road, but as long as Dawn of the Dead's rabid legion of fans go in with reasonable expectations, I think most of them will walk away pleased.
Audio: Despite what some early specs indicated, this Blu-ray release of Dawn of the Dead does include the movie's original monaural soundtrack, although the 192Kbps audio is fairly muffled. Also, despite the fact that the DTS emblem is printed on the disc itself, there isn't a DTS track anywhere on here.
A six channel remix is offered in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and uncompressed PCM, but it can't manage to escape the age of the movie either. The dialogue often sounds somewhat harsh and strained, and there are a couple of spots early on where a few lines get buried in the mix. As a remix, it's fairly tame. Some of the gunplay takes advantage of the other speakers on-hand -- particularly the bullets ricocheting around the boiler room -- but overall, the sound design doesn't get all that gimmicky, instead preferring to anchor the bulk of the action in the front channels. Ambiance is kept fairly light, steering clear of immersing the room in the moans of the undead. Many of the sound effects have a hollow quality to them, and although they lack much of a low-frequency kick, the pounding, rhythmic electronic score serves up a decent amount of bass.
Dawn of the Dead is serviceable, but the audio doesn't really rank any higher than that.
Extras: Exclusive to this Blu-ray release is a set of 'Fast Film Facts', a subtitle stream that periodically drops a sentence or two in over the movie. They really don't pop up that often, though, and fans who've devoured the other extras on the disc and scoured Wikipedia and the IMDb will already know much of this. Some of the notes include where certain shots were filmed and how those locations have aged over the years, a bit of background information on the cast, crew, and Romero's zombie mythology, and random facts like the exact model of Flyboy's helicopter, where the idea to toss in a pie fight came from, using actual U.S. currency in the bank, and pointing out how few undead extras there really were. It's worth putting on for viewers who ritualistically watch the movie once or twice a year anyway, but I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to check out these facts.
The only of the disc's extras to be presented in high-def is a promotional reel for this first wave of Blu-ray releases from Anchor Bay. The other extras are selections from each of the four discs in their Ultimate Edition DVD set, all of which are offered again in standard definition. Some of the trailers and "The Dead Will Walk" documentary are enhanced for widescreen displays, and the remaining extras are presented at 4x3.
First up is an audio commentary with writer/director George Romero, assistant director Chris Romero, and makeup effects artist Tom Savini. Moderated by Perry Martin, it's a chatty, animated commentary, both a hell of a lot of fun to listen to as well as covering just about every conceivable angle of production. There's really not much that isn't discussed, tackling everything from getting barrel drums of stage blood from 3M, Romero's response to the glut of zombie movies that have followed in the wake of his success, Savini's response to CGI, Romero's personal politics that bleed into his films, Chris' distaste for the pie fight in the climax, and Romero's joy the first time he saw Dawn of the Dead with an audience. Romero speaks at length about his approach to the direction in Dawn..., noting the quick setups, limited lighting, a general lack of dailies, and how he dealt with the zombie extras. He also touches on some of what he didn't think worked so well, such as the rushed boiler room sequence. The personalities involved are the greatest strength of this audio commentary, and I particularly enjoyed hearing all of the comments about struggling with financing for the as of then still-pending Land of the Dead. This is essential listening for any fan of the film.
The main menu labels "The Dead Will Walk" as a featurette, but clocking in at nearly 75 minutes, it's actually a feature-length documentary. Like the disc's audio commentary, the enthusiasm of the people involved is infectious, as much a light, fun retrospective as it is a remarkably comphrehensive look at the making of the movie. The list of interviewees is sprawling: George Romero and his wife Chris, Tom Savini, all four of the lead actors, Dario Argento and his younger brother Claudio, director of photography Michael Gornick, Goblin's Claudio Simonetti, production manager Zilla Clinton, a slew of the more prominent zombies, and probably a few other people I'm forgetting. "The Dead Will Walk" touches on just about everything related to the movie in chronological order. It opens with a look at the dawn of Romero's career making commercials in Pittsburgh, noting how Night of the Living Dead came about, the string of financial disappointments that followed, and an invitation to Italy by Dario Argento to pen the undead follow-up.
"The Dead Will Walk" isn't just another rote making-of piece, and the score of interviewees do a fantastic job giving viewers a sense of the collaborative, improvisational, almost Halloween-like tone of the set. They're also honest about some of its shortcomings, from their own inexperience to a boy's club dynamic that continually frustrated Gaylen Ross. In fact, as engaging as all of the interviewees are, Ross stands out as one of the best, telling a great story about bringing the violent, outlandish script to her dainty, wizened Russian acting coach as well as noting her determination to make Fran a strong female lead.
There are quite a few thoughtful responses to the screenplay, and Romero comments on his view of Dawn of the Dead as not being much of a horror movie in the usual sense. "The Dead Will Walk" is littered with notes about Tom Savini's legendary effects work for the film, with practically every standout moment covered in great detail along with a discussion about how they approached hammering out a legion of zombies for so little time and money. Most of the documentary's emphasis is on the actual shoot, but post-production is touched on briefly as well, particularly Argento's interest in shaping his own leaner, more brutal cut of the movie for European audiences and Romero's struggles with distribution and promotion stateside for his unrated version. Other highlights include comments about the quick and dirty photography, the local reception to the undead, the astonishingly free reign they had while shooting in the mall, working with so many zealous zombie extras, and a discussion of the unrelentingly bleak ending for the movie that was originally scripted. "The Dead Will Walk" is a fantastic documentary and well worth setting aside the time to watch.
Bob Langer narrates thirteen and a half minute of Super 8 home movies he shot of himself and his brother Ralph during their stint as zombies in Dawn of the Dead. He captured a tremendous amount of great stuff, including Romero's reaction to accidentally shattering some enormous windows in the mall, Tom Savini and his make-up effects crew hard at work, a slew of candid footage caught between shots, and even Romero blowing out birthday candles and whacking a zombie dummy with a mace. This home movie is definitely one of my favorite extras on the disc, and it's a welcomed change of pace to get the perspective of someone who's somewhat on the periphery like this.
Makeup effects wizard Greg Nicotero shot a home movie a few years back of Ken Foree taking a throng of fans on a tour of the Monroeville Mall. Although the mall obviously looks quite a bit different all these years later, Foree points out where some of the movie's most memorable shots were filmed throughout the eleven and a half minute tour montage and fields questions from the couple dozen fans in tow. Although the camerawork and editing are both pretty choppy, it's still a neat feature, including some mock-zombie shambling on escalators and appearances from some of the more prominent flesh-eaters from the original movie. A vintage 30 second TV spot for the mall is also included, and a promotional gallery -- five U.S. and international trailers, five domestic and British TV spots, and a set of radio promos -- rounds out the extras.
Most of the extras from the Ultimate Edition DVD set made their way onto this Blu-ray disc, but there are a few bells and whistles missing. The most glaring of the omissions is Roy Frumkes' Document of the Dead, and hopefully that Romero documentary will soon be issued in high-def by Synapse Films as mentioned a couple of years ago on their website. Also missing are several still galleries, a Romero biography, a handful of Easter eggs, the booklet and mini-comic, and, of course, the other cuts of the movie and their accompanying audio commentaries.
The menus are nicely designed, but those who haven't seen the movie before might not be thrilled to have the fate of one of the lead characters -- something that's not revealed until Dawn of the Dead's final moments -- immediately splashed across the screen.
Conclusion: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead defined the template for what a zombie movie is. Even close to thirty years later, it not only remains the best of the undead films but is easily among the best horror as a whole has to offer. Epic, ambitious, frightening, thrilling, and hopelessly engaging, Dawn of the Dead has long been one of my favorite films of any genre, and I'm floored that Anchor Bay saw fit to issue it as part of their first wave of high definition releases. My unending enthusiasm for the movie doesn't quite carry over to this Blu-ray disc, though, thanks to its passable but uninspired video and audio. Still, this high definition release is a dramatic improvement over previous DVDs, enough to warrant an upgrade for fans of the movie as well as marking a great starting point for those who haven't had a chance to see it before. Highly Recommended.