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Way back in April of 2002 Anchor Bay Entertainment announced the release of an ‘Ultimate Edition’ of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I was overjoyed. I marked the date on my calendar. I made my friends mark the date on their calendars, whether they wanted to or not. I was going to throw a party to celebrate a cleaner transfer, crisp sound, numerous documentaries, and commentaries. Most of all I was going to celebrate never having to flip the DVD halfway through the damn film ever again. Alas, the sands of time continued pouring through the hourglass, and no DVD appeared. After two long years of waiting I had all but given up hope for that Ultimate Dawn of the Dead DVD. I’d be stuck flipping that DVD for the rest of my life. Then, in September of 2004, Anchor Bay finally made good on their promise, and I got my Ultimate Edition of Dawn of the Dead. But was it worth the agony of waiting for more than two years?

Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition
Film
The horrible events of The Night of the Living Dead continue. Every dead body that is not properly disposed of gets up and kills. The people they kill get up and kill. The zombie plague has pushed the public into a state of Marshal Law, and it doesn’t look like things are getting better any time soon. The dead will walk the earth, and the living can do nothing but run and hide. Four survivors —Steven (a helicopter pilot/traffic reporter), Fran (a local news producer), Peter and Roger (newly acquainted SWAT members)— commandeer a helicopter and escape the big city where the living dead congregate in the thousands. They search in vain for someplace safe; someplace the epidemic hasn’t yet spread. They end up in an abandoned shopping mall. At first it’s just a stop for supplies, but soon the travellers find themselves seduced by a consumer paradise where all they could ever need is theirs for the taking.

The real beauty of Dawn of the Dead is how many levels it works on. It’s fun enough to entertain, while its messages are compelling enough to maintain interest in even the most jaded cineaste. It’s a horror film, a comedy, a social commentary, and a melodrama. It’s violent, scary, funny, heartbreaking, and mind blowing. The only thing that keeps Dawn from perfection is its small budget and dated look. Special effects that looked impeccable in 1978 don’t quite convince a modern audience, and the first sign of a zombie sporting an Afro and bellbottoms can turn off a first time viewer very quickly. This shouldn’t dismiss the film from classic status, merely taken into consideration during a critical response. Please, allow me to elaborate on my love for this movie.

As a pure horror film, Dawn of the Dead succeeds on its basic premise: the living dead, which is just about the scariest thing ever when you stop to think about it. A zombie is not just a monster, but a former person, a dead person moving on its own —not a sexy, regal vampire or an animalistic werewolf, but a decomposing mess of ex-human being. Death and decomposition are pretty mortifying concepts to the average person. This is then coupled with the fact that these ex-people want to consume us. They want to tear us open with their bare hands and eat our insides, our most private parts. Human beings have a built-in, primordial fear of death and the threat of being eaten, with good reason. While being eaten by a sabre-toothed cat is scary, being eaten by your dear Aunt Alicia, whom you love and cherish, is downright nerve shattering.

On top of these spooky goings on is the underlying doom of the human race. We are witness to the slow and gory extermination of every man, woman and child. Dawn of the Dead is an apocalypse movie without the bomb, the fast cars, or any of the fun. Sure, there are roving motorcycle gangs, but they are as inept as children when it comes to any semblance of teamwork, and end up being mostly offed by a solitary ex-SWAT member and some very slow moving zombies.

The Mad Max films bore witness to dusty landscapes, where all traces of society had been blown to ruins and humanity had started over as a new, improved, more exiting breed of animal. There were no real laws, police, or governments, just rugged survival and a Darwinian battle for supremacy. This is a rather (admittedly skewed) romantic rendition of the apocalypse. Dawn of the Dead, in contrast, just rots. It shows us Judgement Day in flux, not the action packed after-effects. Before 1978, there hadn’t been many horror films (sci-fi perhaps) that presented such an epic scope of horror. Our four protagonists represent a very small portion of the goings on in this morbid universe, but we as an audience know that this kind of thing is happening everywhere. In every part of the world there are people struggling to survive this Judgement Day, slowly losing their humanity through escalating acts of violence against each other. Like many great horror stories, the line between humanity and monster perpetually blurs until there’s nothing left.

Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition
Then there’s the humour. Some of it is rather subtle, like when the cast exit JC Penny’s wearing fur coats out of sheer boredom. Some of it isn’t so subtle, like the zombie vs. biker pie fight that seems to come out of nowhere (where did those pies come from?). A really jaded and/or morbid viewer could actually see the film as purely comedic, where even the graphic violence is so over the top that it has to be funny. ‘Look, that man just had his guts pulled out and eaten by a bunch of moaning, groping ghouls. Hilarious!’ The humour is there, no mater how ghoulish the viewer’s outlook. According to the commentary, Romero really wanted to make a romp (he uses that word a lot), a more light-hearted answer to the utterly nihilistic Night of the Living Dead.

Personally, however, it’s the drama and the message that make Dawn of the Dead a classic for me. On the surface, there is the obvious metaphor of mass consumerism creating zombies of humanity. Under this there’s a metaphor carried over from Night of the Living Dead, of the third world and poor consuming the wealthy and the ignorant. This is abundantly clear in the opening sequences where the Marshal Law government enters a project-housing complex to exterminate their dead. They are over run, and suffer heavy casualties.  The casualties get up and kill them, making more casualties, and so on. It’s fascinating that in the world of zombies, alliances can change with a single bite.

There are yet more parallels to be drawn from the not-so-subtle base plot, especially in current political times, where seemingly intelligent people refuse to listen to reason or compromise, both necessities to a functioning government. The zombie plague evolves beyond the point of no return because people can’t agree on how to deal with the problem. Religious beliefs, grief, and love all lead to more death, and more zombies. Essentially, to reiterate the main point, the people that have inherited this zombie holocaust must lose their humanity in order to survive and solve the problem, but they just can’t do it.

‘When the dead walk, we must stop the killing, or we lose the war.’

The defining moment of genius in comes just past the halfway point. After being bitten, Roger is slowly dying. The others have kept him alive as long as they could, but everyone knows what’s going to happen sooner or later. Feebly, the former SWAT member asks Peter to ‘take care of him’ when it happens. He whimpers that he’ll protest the change, that he’s ‘gonna try not to come back.’ Fran and Steven watch television in another room, trying their best to ignore the inevitable. They watch a formally renowned scientist ramble on with possible solutions to the zombie problem. Just as he introduces the idea of dropping nuclear bombs on all the major cities to an angry studio audience there is a gunshot. Peter is forced to murder one of his friends, and now he only has two friends left. This is the essence of Dawn of the Dead.

Video
There are three versions of the film included in this four-disc set, and each one has been digitally re-mastered. The US Theatrical Cut (apparently Romero’s preferred version) had been released in a slightly less ‘ultimate’ edition earlier in the year to coincide with the release of Universal’s theatrical remake. This version has been cleaned up the most of the three, presented in its theatrical presentation ratio 1.85:1 in anamorphic widescreen, and is marked as part of Anchor Bay’s ‘Divamax’ series. It looks great. The colours are rich and bold, much nicer than the older discs that were mostly washed out. It appears that some of the colour has even been altered, particularly the blood red, which is great because it always looked a bit off in previous releases (kind of Pepto-Bismol pink). There is still some grain, particularly in darker shots, and sometimes an artefact or two will flicker onto the screen, but this is to be expected from a film made on a tight budget in the 1970s. Basically, this is the best Dawn of the Dead ever has, will, or should look.

Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition
The other two versions of the film, the Extended Cut and the European Cut are also presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. As an owner of the previous Extended Cut flipper DVD, I can promise that the print has been cleaned and the colours enhanced (or altered, I’m still not sure). Both alternate cuts look almost as perfect as the Theatrical Cut, and there really isn’t anything more to say. It’s interesting to note that the menu system for the European Cut labels it as a Divimax transfer. The Extended Cut is not and it just plays Anchor Bay’s normal logo at the top of the menu. If the European Cut were truly a finer transfer then the Extended Cut—and I really couldn’t tell much of a difference, even when specifically watching scenes only included in the Extended Cut— it would lead me to believe that a single disc version of the European Cut is scheduled for release sometime in the near future. This wouldn’t be surprising given Anchor Bay’s track record of releasing and re-releasing the same films over and over again. For those of you interested only in the European Cut, I’d recommend holding out for more information before plunking your money down for this four-disc set.

(update: Anchor Bay has indeed announced plans on a single disc release of the European cut sometime in late 2005)

Audio
The US Theatrical Cut is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS surround, along with Dolby Digital Stereo and Mono tracks. Like pretty much every DVD with DTS/Dolby Digital options the difference is negligible, but the DTS sounds a little louder. The surround channels aren’t particularly lively, but seriously, why would they be? Dawn of the Dead isn’t Star Wars and directional effects aren’t really necessary. In this cut the score, a mix of the Italian prog-rock group Goblin and Romero's collected library music, sounds spectacular. It’s always nice to hear Goblin’s music digitally mastered, in stereo, with deep bass. Other DVD releases haven’t been nearly this clear or crisp, and the bass has always been lacking. The only complaint is that the dialogue is sometimes muddled, but this is most likely unavoidable due to the condition of the original tracks. The Extended Cut is presented in Mono only, but it’s still quite serviceable and crisp, especially when compared with the previous release, which sounded like it was mastered in some guy’s tin plated garage. The European Cut, thankfully, is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, as it contains more Goblin score than the other two versions.

Extras
Technically, the presence of two alternate cuts of such a seminal film should be considered a special feature. Fans of the film can finally own all three versions without spending exorbitant amounts of money on region free websites. My personal favourite of the three cuts is, and always will be, the Extended Version. Even though it extracts quite a bit of the Goblin score, it still feels like the most complete film of the three, and its longer length allows the viewer to ponder the themes more thoroughly. Originally, when Anchor Bay released it on VHS and DVD they called this cut the Director’s Cut, but word has it that Romero considers the US Theatrical Cut his directors cut.

The European Cut was new to me, and is one of the most exciting features of this set. Dawn of the Dead was partially financed by Italians, and one of the producers happened to be Dario Argento. As part of the distribution deal, Argento got the right to final cut on the European release of the film. Incidentally, Dawn was a huge hit in the region. I am as much of an Argento fan as I am a Dawn of the Dead fan; I think his early work is truly incendiary, and I’ve wanted to get my hands on this cut for a very long time. I was expecting a faster pace and louder music, but I wasn’t prepared for the exorcising of so much of the humour. Some of my favourite bits were cut because Argento wanted to present a more sombre movie. At the same time there are some quick cuts and scenes that cannot be found in either of Romero’s cuts, and almost every one of them added something important to the tone of the film. Little things like lingering reaction shots really hammer down the more melancholy mood Argento wanted to project. In the end, I found myself wishing there was some kind of DVD technology that would allow the viewer to mix and match all three versions, but then, that would take away the filmmaker’s freedom of expression and intent. Oh well.

Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition
Each cut of the film also contains its own commentary track. Romero, his wife and assistant director Chris, effects artist/stuntman/actor Tom Savini, and DVD producer Perry Martin are featured on the US Theatrical Cut, and their commentary is the best. Romero and Savini are not quite as animated and informative as they were on the Day of the Dead track, but the factoids still pile up and a good time is had by all (except Chris Romero who still can’t take the gory bits). The Extended Cut features producer Richard Rubenstein, and unfortunately really isn’t much fun. Listening to one semi-informative guy after listening to very informative people really doesn’t compare. The European Cut features the principle cast of Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott Reiniger and Gaylen Ross. Now, in a perfect world this cut would feature Dario Argento, producer brother Claudio Argento, and the members of Goblin, and the cast would join Rubenstein on his track. Alas, this just didn’t happen, and though I liked to hear what the cast had to say, I found myself only wishing for what could have been. Ken Foree seems to be the only cast member to really take the film seriously, but the others enjoy themselves none-the-less (even though some of them can’t take the gory bits either).

Each disc in the set has its own set of extras ranging from still galleries to trailers, even a commercial for the Monroeville Mall. My personal favourites were the poster and video art galleries and the trailers, because it’s always fun to see how different territories use different images to advertise and display the same film. The Japanese really know how to sell a horror film in print. The European trailers are for the most part overlong and depend too much on film footage, and play just like any other European horror movie trailer. The US trailers on the other hand, use mostly text and the central poster image of a simplified zombie’s face dawning like the sun on the horizon. It gets to the point rather quicker. They convey a very dated image, but are representative of an era when advertising movies was becoming a true art form.

Finally, we arrive at the last disc, the disc with the real special features. Firstly, and most importantly, we have a brand new seventy-five minute documentary about the film, entitled ‘The Dead Will Walk’. This is the best documentary that Anchor Bay has ever produced. It is very in depth, entertaining, well shot and well edited. It’s not overlong or amateurish, and feels like a real film itself. This is the type of DVD documentary that even the casual viewer may pop in for a second or third viewing. I was most impressed with it, ranking it near John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing: Terror Takes Shape’, ‘The Hamster Factor’ (and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys), as one of the best DVD/Laserdisc documentaries ever produced.

Also included here is the original making of documentary, ‘Document of the Dead’. I had seen this one several times, but have never been wildly impressed with it. Given it was a student film, and it does have a very candid feel to it, but it’s not really the most interesting work to be done in the movie documentary field. It is, however, a welcome extra to this disc. The disc then completes itself with some home video, taken by FX Maestro Greg Nicotero (who as I understand it, did not work on Dawn, and is simply a fan). In it he takes a tour of the mall as hosted by several cast members (mostly featured zombies) including Ken Foree and David Emge. It’s a fun, if not overlong little romp, as are the On Set Home Movies. These kinds of ‘fan-made’ special features are usually a little laborious to sit through for me, but kudos to Anchor Bay for including everything they could get their hands on. It’s very hard not to be satisfied by this set.

Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition
Overall
Dawn of the Dead isn’t a movie for every taste, but that’s part of what makes it so special. You can’t cram it in a box and label it for future generations. They’ll just have to watch and figure it out for themselves. Those who take more than a passing interest could not find a better Dawn of the Dead lesson plan than this four disc set, though I’d recommend the leaner US Theatrical cut only DVD to the blind buyer or novice. This set was made for fans, by fans, and to me it’s amazing that we live in a world where such a thing as an all-inclusive DVD set of Dawn of the Dead exists on the shelf next to the latest Hollywood Blockbuster fluff. Here’s to more classic films getting classic DVD productions.


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