Back Add a Comment Share:

Feature


In January 1879, arrogant officials of the British colony of Natal, Africa issued a list of unauthorized ultimatums to the Zulu Nation. When the Zulu King refused their demands, the Empire declared war. And in a series of grave tactical blunders, a garrison of 1,500 British soldiers faced an army of 25,000 enraged Zulu warriors in what would become the most horrifying disaster in British military history. (From Severin’s official synopsis)

Zulu Dawn
Anyone could be forgiven for confusing Cy Endfield’s Zulu with Douglas Hickox’s Zulu Dawn. Those that are still confused as to which of the two films they saw ‘that one time on late night TV’ are probably thinking of Endfield’s film, which is the much more popular and famous film. It’s definitely the one I had seen. Because I initially knew so little about Hickox’s movie, I just assumed it was a random and forgotten cash-in, but the film’s actual genealogy is an amusing and, I believe, unique entry in the annals of random and forgotten cash-in history. Those already familiar with the film will probably find this next bit boring.

Zulu Dawn is actually a prequel to Zulu (hence the ‘Dawn’ in the title). But here’s the rub – Zulu Dawn isn’t really about the historical/political processes that led to the events of Zulu. There are scenes contextualizing the mindset of both the British and Zulu forces, but this film only goes as far back as about a day before the events of the original film. The context doesn’t extend to the process of colonizing Africa or anything similar. The bulk of Zulu Dawn is all about the other giant battle that took place on the same day as the events of the Zulu. I don’t know if there are any movie prequels that take place almost entirely within the span of the same 48-hour period of the movie they are chronologically preceding. Zulu Dawn was also made an unusually long time after Zulu; 15 years, to be exact. The only prequel I can think of that was released further away from the last film in a series was the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, which was released 16 years after Return of the Jedi.

Zulu Dawn
Zulu Dawn wasn’t very popular when released and isn’t as good as Zulu by any stretch of the imagination, but it scores some points for attempting to paint the Zulu people as human beings, rather than a mass of death. This approach served the original movie well, but it seems necessary to give the whole conflict proper context, especially since the film covers the early lead-up to a story most audience members already know. The first act is devoted entirely to setting up the two sides of the conflict and juxtaposing the mostly evil, bourgeoisie Brits with the proud, earthy, and brutal Zulu. The definitions are oversimplified and trope-ridden (the Zulu are noble savages of the highest order), but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. The scenes of natives being forced to do all the heavy lifting as the army works its way across the savanna certainly do their job in painting the Brits as slave-driving imperialist assholes. By the time they’re killing Zulu scouts for sport, there’s basically no way to root in their favour (which is probably good, since anyone with any knowledge of the real event or the original film knows they are going to lose spectacularly). Again, it’s heavy-handed, but it’s also probably pretty accurate and more interesting in contrast to the rag-tag Brits of the original film, who are left in the path of destruction created by their less than reputable counterparts.

Zulu Dawn did have a sizably bigger budget than Zulu and the bigger budget (along with 15 years of technical improvements) also shows in terms of a more lavish look and epic scale. Director Douglas Hickox (father of late ‘80s/early ‘90s horror-comedy mainstay, Anthony Hickox) was mostly known for smaller scale horror movies ( Theater of Blood) and crime films ( Brannigan), but had worked his way up to the classic hang-glider-sploitation movie, Sky Riders. Zulu Dawn ended up being his final film as a feature director before he retired to television. It’s certainly not his best film (that would be Theater of Blood), but it’s something of an apex for his skills as a director. His work with the widescreen frame is never as ostentatious as Sergio Leone’s or as majestic as David Lean, but Hickox’s work in gothic horror gives the nighttime sequences a nice boost of style otherwise missing from similar productions. It’s hard to place any of the film’s shortcomings at the director’s feet, aside from an overall tonal dryness. The final act’s extended battle is a bit numbing in its constant barrage of action, but Hickox is sure to break things down into smaller vignettes between his epic crowd shots (said epic crowd shots feature plenty of dynamic depth between planes). The budget also afforded Hickox an impressive cast. Not to downplay the long, prosperous careers of Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, James Booth, and Nigel Green, but really, Michael Caine is the only international star that compares to the likes of Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, and Bob Hoskins. Unfortunately, the British characters are so bloody unlikable and their pre-battle dialogue proves so unwieldy that even the pros can’t really sell it. O’Toole wisely remains menacingly quiet throughout the introductions.

Zulu Dawn

Video


For the most part, Severin Films’ HD releases have been pretty natural. Even their weaker transfers appear filmic. Signs of digital manipulation didn’t really start to appear until their last major release, Ashanti. This 1080p, 2.35:1 Zulu Dawn transfer marks the first time I’ve noticed major manipulation and digital artefacts on a Severin release. Things look off from the opening titles, where a gorgeous sunrise marred by some pretty extensive banding effects; some severe enough to recall compressed animated gifs. From here, the digital noise gets a bit blotchy and soft. Beyond the banding is quite a bit of CRT machine noise around the highlighted edges. Having never seen the film before, I’m not sure if the occasional softness was intended by Hickox and cinematographer Ousama Rawi (some of it is clearly an issue of focal length limitations), but the blotchy bits of background and over-smoothed textures tell me DNR was liberally applied over the entire image, likely in an effort to disguise further CRT noise, rather than the film grain (which still appears in a much more mushy manner). The DNR also covers an excess of tracking lines. The Technicolor hues are strong, natural and relatively vibrant, including nicely differentiated highlight colours and blazing red British uniforms. Of course, the hue separation is far too sharp in many cases, as apparent in those banding effects, but there aren’t really any notable issues with blocking or jaggies. Contrast is keyed very high, which is nice for the deep blacks, but a lot of detail is crushed and the brighter sequences have issues with blowing out. It should be noted, however, despite these problems, this is still, by far the best Zulu Dawn has ever looked on North American home video. The only other digital release is cropped from 2.35:1 to 1.75:1 and non-anamorphic.

Audio


Severin continues their tradition of not including uncompressed tracks on their Blu-ray releases. In the past, this hasn’t been a huge problem, since they’ve made decent efforts to preserve the original mono soundtracks of the films they release without unnecessary remixing. This disc represents the studio’s first lossy DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack since their Stunt Man release and the upgrade over the included Dolby Digital track (which the disc defaults to, so beware) is sizeable. The problem here is that both tracks are mono – the DTS-HD track is 1.0, the DD track is 2.0 – and specs state the film was originally mixed using Dolby stereo. I’m sure this was a case of available materials. The dialogue on the DD track is, at times, indiscernible, because it is so muffled and flat. The DTS-HD track is much clearer, but still has minor issues with volume and clarity consistency during the dialogue-heavy first act. Incidental sound effects are pretty limited, as one would expect from a 1979 release, but the battle sequences feature deep layers of sound that definitely would’ve benefited from stereo enhancement. Zulu had a spectacular score from the late great John Barry; a hard act to follow. Zulu Dawn met expectations with the late great Elmer Bernstein. I’m sure there’s a great debate on which composer is ‘better’ out there somewhere. Bernstein’s music is, in fact, awesome, but is another victim of this track’s occasionally muffled nature. A stereo boost would certainly be welcome, as would some warmer element separation and maybe a punchier bass representation.

Zulu Dawn

Extras


The extras begin with The History of the Zulu Wars (24:40, HD), a look at the true story surrounding the two Zulu movies with author/expert Ian Knight. Knight speaks a little fast and is further sped-up by quick editing, so the sheer quantity of information barreling at the viewer is a little intense. Still, the facts are valuable, covering the war from both sides, complete with pertinent sequences from the film and historical photographs/paintings. Recreating the War (20:20, SD) covers the process of making the film historically accurate (at least more accurate than Zulu, which is apparently inaccurate) with historical advisor Midge Carter. Carter is a sort of snotty fellow, as many professional historians are, but, when he’s not complaining about Hickox’s personality (he credits second unit director David Tomblin with everything good in the film and questions Hickox’s sexuality), he is a fountain of information. A Visit to the Battlefield (16:50, SD) features further historical information from Ian Knight, who speaks from the actual Isandlwana battlefield (the wind on the microphone makes it difficult to understand him). The disc also features an outtake reel (12:10, SD) and a trailer.

Zulu Dawn

Overall


Once again, I’m intrigued by Severin Films’ sudden interest in releasing a series of late ‘70s, British-produced adventure films. I’m sure the explanation is something as simple as gaining the rights to one movie also involved purchasing the others, but it’s no less interesting that a former peddler of classy ‘70s Euro-smut has moved on to obscure Euro-horror and now these films – a growing collection that includes Andrew V. McLaglen’s Wild Geese, Richard Fleischer’s Ashanti, and this film. Wild Geese is generally well-liked, but Ashanti and Zulu Dawn carry some real critical stigma and all three films are somewhat connected as over-priced exploitation movies. This release is the strongest of the three in terms of audio quality (lossless!) and extras, but I’m very disappointed by this digital-looking transfer and hope it isn’t a sign of things to come from the usually dependable studio. Still, fans should know that this is easily the best version of the film available in North America (I have no information about the quality of the French Blu-ray release).

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality


Links: