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Zombi (Dario Argento's Edit of Dawn of the Dead)
With the arrival of the DVD, and the subsequent special editions featuring the previously foreign concept of the "director's cut", editing has suddenly started to matter. For individuals interested in what material had been taken out of their favorite film, the digital format allows for insight into the incising process. Today, few modern movies make it to home theater without footage restored, filmmaker's fancy acknowledged and presented and/or entire revamps being created and offered. More times than not, they are merely extensions of the previous creator's intent. But on rare occasions, the redux can completely change a film.
One such example is the European cut of Dawn of the Dead, masterminded by none other than Dario Argento (who was instrumental in getting the movie made for friend George Romero). Previously available as part of the Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition, and now being released as a stand-alone offering, the Italian director excised about 16 minutes out of the film, focusing on action rather than social commentary or gore. As a result, a different experience emerges, one that is almost antithetical to the reason behind the critically acclaimed sequel to Romero's Night-mare original.
If you don't know the story by now, its time to break the lease on the big-ass boulder you've been living under and get some much needed cinematic perspective. TV station employee Francine sees the writing on the wall. A plague of undead flesh eaters is taking over the world, and she plots with helicopter pilot pal Stephen to make an escape. They pick up one of Steve's allies, a cop named Roger and, along with a newly acquired buddy named Peter, all four head off into the Pennsylvania countryside. With supplies limited and hope even less likely, the gang decides to stop over at a suburban shopping mall. Realizing it would be the perfect place to hole up for a while, they start the systematic removal of the itinerant zombie population. Once the building has been purged of every last cannibal corpse, they can get down to the business of rebuilding their lives...that is, until a local gang of angry bikers decides that the shopping center should be there's as well.
The first thing that has to be said about the Dario Argento edit of Dawn of the Dead is that it sure isn't the version Romero gave to American audiences in 1978. Indeed, anyone who saw the original when it finally hit theaters in the late 70s will probably wonder why there are so many differing versions of the film in existence. Romero himself has released at least three different variations on his living dead theme, from theatrical cuts to extended director's edits. Each one is unique, emphasizing a singular facet of the film (action, angst, atrocities) while trying to stay true to the initial offering. Sad to say, Romero would probably not enjoy this Argento-helmed hobbling of his masterwork. Where once Dawn was a decisive look at the social order gone sour, the siren song of lifeless mall mentality calling even the dead into its city killing conceits, Zombi is just a plain old Italian horror film. Scuttling the satire, remove much of the gore, and turning the zombies into an ancillary aspect of the film, Argento certainly stays within the parameters of his Mediterranean mindset. But his reconfiguration is not frightening, just frustrating.
The zombies get the biggest screw job here. In the original, they were "characters" elements of fear that were necessary to the many nuances of the plot. Though they didn't appear often, their presence was part of the terror, the omnipresence of evil that exists in this fictional world gone wrong. But in Argento's hands they become minor, and as a result, meaningless. Such familiar fright faces as "the nurse", "the swimsuit man" and "the nun" are now nearly nonexistent, viewed in glimpses that completely rob them of their raison d'etra. Without the threat of blackened teeth, without the disturbing human disconnect of these flesh-eating fiends, the movie seems kind of pointless. Instead, it's an exercise in search and destroy, with the machinations of the survivalist quartet taking front and center to every other aspect of the film. For a country - Italy - that loves its goopy, gore-spattered monsters, this version is bizarre. It literally leaves the title entities on the cutting room floor.
And along with them, the blood. Before films like The Evil Dead, The Thing and Dead Alive came along to rob it of its title, Dawn of the Dead was the grossest of all original geek cinema. It was a sublime exercise in sickening special effects, all masterminded with autopsy-like attention to detail. But from bites to bullet wounds, a well-remembered zombie decapitation to a basement body bonanza, Argento trims the carnage. He lets us see some of the movie's more memorable bits, but unlike Romero, who lingered over the grue, Dario cuts up the butchery, interweaving it in between action scenes and other elements of the overall chaos clamoring around the characters. No place is this more true than in the biker finale. In the original, the gang came in and tried to take over. A few bullets from members of the mall crew and suddenly, they were zombie fodder. Romero staged the whole thing like a holocaust, individual bad guys meeting their maker in ever more excruciating ways.
Now, it's all a jumbled collection of cut up and re-assembled sequences, trying to play out like a powerful final showdown between man and corpse. It doesn't work. Indeed, it seems to suggest a more potent, more powerful and undefeatable living dead horde, which destroys Romero's "creeping corpse" dynamic. This brings up the whole argument regarding running/walking zombies. There is a single fright factor that is always missing whenever anyone discusses physically agile monsters, and that is hope. Movies ask you to envision yourself in the place of the hero/heroine. They ask you to step into their shoes and run the narrative with them. If the enemy they are fighting is virtually unstoppable, without a single flaw allowing for a belief in your effectiveness against them, the point of the zombie is lost. Those who argue that the fiends in 28 Days Later are not living dead are correct - in more ways than just what Danny Boyle's story uses as a set up. They are highly athletic killers. Indeed, the Dawn remake suffers from a similar fast-acting fate.
Without hope, there is no tension. Instead, like freefalling from the top of a building into a pile of swords, you're eventual demise is predetermined. Sure, there can be some sort of suspense in waiting to see how your end pans out, but with its certainty, a whole undercurrent of creepiness is missing. Romero's original Dawn had this factor, this "we just might make it" mindset that not only got you rooting for the mall people, but panicked when their plans start falling apart. He amplified the fear with the use of gore (why Argento would want to excise or mess up the bloodletting is very strange indeed) and made the threat both inhuman and human. The European cut is merely mindless action, devoid of any dimension that gets us involved. Like watching an actor battle a throng of CGI robots, it is visually thrilling, but emotionally empty.
Indeed, a lot of Zombi plays like the heart and head of Romero's original have been ripped out. He is a filmmaker who doesn't make plain, straight ahead horror. Instead, his movies have layers and facets, issues that extend beyond the body count and help the film transcend basic terror. Argento frustrates all that, and merely goes for the basics. What we end up with is a fascinating exercise in failed reconfiguration. The Italian maestro may be a master when it comes to his own cinematic extravaganzas, but he can sure mangle someone else's movie when he wants (or needs) to. Zombi is not a total disgrace, since it comes from origins that are too worthy to end up creating a complete waste. But unless you are interested in how random cutting can turn a classic into a corruption, or have a special place in your heart for ANYTHING touched by Argento and Romero, then you may want to avoid this version. As a stand-alone title, it can't hold a candle to its inspiration. It's fascinating, but deeply flawed.
Anchor Bay usually does a pretty good job with Romero reissues, and Zombi is really no different. You can tell that a less than perfect source print was used in the mastering, since colors are faded and details are sketchy in several scenes. Especially toward the end, where the carnage is intercut with the biker gang goofiness, the screen is muddy and occasionally washed out. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is otherwise acceptable, with no noticeable digital defects to speak of.
Boasting a brand new Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 Surround sound mix, Zombi does sound pretty good. Individuals in love with the film's original score, however, will notice the final flaw in Argento's revision. The joke-like mall music has been replaced by some slightly tribal rhythms, and the score now has less of an electronic, and more of a rock and roll oriented feel. It's still Goblin, but its not as good. The 5.1 is fine (the original Mono and a 2.0 stereo track are included) but it is not the "head blasting" experience the DVD package promises. Certainly the louder elements get the subwoofer started, but this is otherwise a very flat, light on atmosphere offering.
While not exactly overflowing with bonus material, there is one stellar added feature on this disc that makes the package worthwhile. Brought together for the first time in several years, the original cast of the film - David Enge (Stephen/"Flyboy"), Ken Forre (Peter), Scott H. Reiniger (Roger) and Gaylen Ross (Francine) - sit down for a full length audio commentary that is a joy to experience. These people really appreciate the chance to revisit their work, and marvel at the many changes Argento made. They provide anecdotes for the shoot (especially how cold it was most of the time) issues with initial characterization and hilarious confrontations with confused mall walkers after all night shoots. They even have some choice words for the 2004 remake, and opinions on slow vs. fast zombies (guess which one THEY prefer?) It's a pleasure to experience the movie along with them, and this extra makes the Zombi DVD well worth picking up. The rest of the content - trailers, TV Spots, galleries and stills are intriguing (they really play up the Argento factor) - is merely ancillary to the entire experience.
As of the date of this review (October 2005) there is a clever little film clip making the rounds on Internet message boards that proves, conclusively, that editing can completely unmake a movie. It's called Shining, and takes Stanley Kurbrick's questionable adaptation of Stephen King's classic novel and turns it into a feel-good family picture. No scenes have been altered, not footage reformatted. Lines of dialogue are interwoven with an ultra-perky narrator and a healthy dose of peppy Peter Gabriel music. And it works. It turns a dark, brooding exploration of inherent evil into a smile happy lark of parent and child bonding. It is perfect confirmation that cutting can create a totally different tone and temperament for your film. While not quite as drastic - this is still a horror movie, after all - the outright macabre George Romero was striving for in Dawn of the Dead is now reassembled and reimagined as a straight ahead action film called Zombi. The difference may seem minor, but when viewed outright, it truly undermines everything that came before. Romero's Dawn is a masterpiece. Argento's attempt is a journeyman example of the genre's lesser elements.
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