Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray Review
It’s impossible to ignore the influence George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has had in pop culture, inspiring a plethora of walking dead gut munchers over the past few decades. The taut opening pulls us into a chaotic TV newsroom, Romero effortlessly creating a palpable environment of fear and confusion, as it becomes clear that a horrific plague is sweeping the country. The dead are coming back to attack the living, society is breaking down and the hosts argue heatedly over how best to deal with an unfolding crisis. In the ensuing panic, employee Stephen (David Emge) plans his escape with girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross) by stealing the station's traffic helicopter. It’s a scene that grabs hold, even before we’ve even clapped eyes on a zombie.
Elsewhere a SWAT team force their way into a rundown housing block and, in an explosive confrontation, are forced to take on the infected inhabitants. Down in a dingy basement, sharpshooters Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) make a grisly discover and witness the gravity of the situation. It’s clearly time to get out of this perilous neighbourhood and luckily Roger knows reporter Stephen - just the guy who can fly them both miles away to safety.
The film follows the four survivors as they hole up in a sprawling shopping mall, barricading themselves in a high-level storeroom, as hordes of flesh-eating zombies roam freely around the premises and surrounding parking lot. It is here that Romero gets to employ his sly critique on rampant consumerism. The walking dead are instinctively drawn to the bright store facades, staring inanely at merchandise through glass doors, or shuffling awkwardly down aisles like they have been hard-wired to shop for must-have accessories. As Stephen observes, “this was an important place in their lives.” Likewise, our protagonists realise that everything they want is just there for the taking - bundles of cash, expensive furs, designer watches and plentiful other luxuries. They ponder whether there is any immediate need for them to leave this rich sanctuary – providing they can rid the place of its lurking deadly menace.
The pace is spot on and, despite bursts of bloody action, Romero's script takes time to develop characters and explore themes such as abortion. In the process the director gains remarkable performances from his principal cast, who all had little acting experience. With the casting of Foree as Peter, the film provides a heroic pivotal Black character at a time when there were precious few on the screen, especially in the horror genre. Similarly, Fran makes for a welcome strong female character, defiantly making it clear from the outset that she will not be treated any differently, asserting “I'm not gonna be den mother for you guys.” Ross later revealed that she refused to scream when required, considering it not in Fran's nature.
The lumbering undead are by turns made to look pitiful, goofy and revolting. They may be capable of tearing chunks out of their victims, but more often are easily outrun or outwitted. Ironically, it is the living who pose a bigger threat, fuelled by greed and hatred, with some all too willing to bear arms and murder others. Later in the film, when heavily armed motorcycle raiders smash their way into the mall, rather than flee our heroes are compelled to defend what they now regard as their kingdom.
In the frenetic melee that follows, zombies and bikers are dispatched in all manner of violent ways. Amidst the carnage, the film is laced with many comedic touches – like the fate of a raider who decides to get his blood pressure checked. Away from the ominous score by Goblin - used sparingly in the theatrical cut - the quirky stock music that plays regularly over scenes may sound hopelessly dated, but it complements the tone perfectly.
While some of the film's successors have not been without merit, few have come close to matching the richness of Romero’s masterpiece. With its deft blend of tension, dark humour and social commentary this delivers on many levels. Lest we forget Tom Savini’s consistently inventive, hideously gory make-up FX – which helped to both launch his career and make this an enduring favourite among horror fans.
Dawn of the Dead is released by Second Sight Films as both a magnificent limited edition Blu-ray (6,000 units) and 4k UHD (12,000 units). Both editions include 3 cuts of the film, all produced from brand new 4K scans (the UHD release presents the theatrical & extended cut in HDR10+). The Blu-ray discs (provided for review) are all region “B” locked.
The US theatrical cut (1978, 127 mins) is Romero’s preferred version, with a soundtrack that blends both library music and an effective score by rock group Goblin. By contrast, the extended version (1979, 137 mins) - incorrectly referred to previously as the “Director’s Cut”– has slightly more character development and utilizes mainly stock music. Argento's cut – bearing the on-screen title “Zombi” - is edited to play down humour and amp up the horror, with a leaner running time (120 mins) that foolishly omits a famous gory sequence. This time Goblin features predominately on the soundtrack.
The theatrical cut has been painstakingly restored from the OCN, with the work supervised and approved by DoP Michael Gornick. The results are simply stunning, with bold colours and plenty of fine detail – for instance it’s possible to clearly read notes pinned to a wall, or notice subtleties in performance like Peter shedding a tear during an early scene. The splashy gore looks brighter than ever - Savini always regretted using 3M stage blood as he felt it didn't photograph realistically, but it's perfectly in keeping with the film's comic book tone. The image retains some filmic grain throughout, with no evidence of any troublesome DNR. Levels of contrast are outstanding, ably demonstrated in a scene where Stephen wanders around in a shadowy generator room. Having seen the film on several different formats over the years, from a faded theatrical print on the big screen to Arrow’s 2010 BD, this is easily the best it has ever looked in my opinion. The Argento Cut is sourced from a 4K scan of the interpositive and, while still very good, is noticeably softer and doesn’t quite match the theatrical version in terms of image quality.
The soundtrack options are: mono 1.0, stereo 2.0 and surround 5.1 (theatrical and Argento cuts). The extended cut comes only with DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono. All variants are free from any imperfections, with dialogue distinct throughout and key scenes suitably punchy – for example the thunderous gunshots during the opening SWAT raid and those roaring motorcycle engines during the climatic mall invasion all come through with great vitality.
Commentary options are: George Romero, Tom Savini & Christine Forrest (theatrical cut), Travis Crawford (theatrical, newly recorded), producer Richard P Rubinstein (extended cut), Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross and David Emge (Argento cut).
New optional English subtitles are provided for all 3 cuts of the film.
Extras (region "B" locked Blu-ray - both editions)
This release boasts the most astounding array of extras I have ever seen devoted to a single title.
- Zombies and Bikers (2020, 58:30) - with John Amplas, Roy Frumkes, Tom Savini, Christine Forrest, Tom Dubensky, Tony Buba, Taso Stavrakis and a whole host of zombies and bikers!
- Memories of Monroeville (2020, 34:24) - A tour of the mall used in the film, with Michael Gornick, Tom Savini, Tom Dubensky and Taso Stavrakis.
- Raising the Dead: The Production Logistics (2020, 25:03) - new interviews with Michael Gornick, Christine Forrest, John Amplas and Tom Dubensky.
- The FX of Dawn with Tom Savini (2020, 12:56) - the make-up genius talks about his work.
- Dummies! Dummies! (2020,12:20) - An interview with playwright Richard France, who famously played an eye patch wearing scientist in the film.
- The Lost Romero Dawn Interview (20:28): a previously unreleased archive interview.
- Super 8 Mall Footage (13 mins) - by zombie extra Ralph Langer with option of archive commentary by Robert Langer and new commentary by Ralph Langer
- Document of the Dead: The Original Cut (1980, 1:31:36) - Shot during Dawn's production, this fascinating feature was originally intended as a teaching tool, offering copious behind the scenes footage and in-depth interviews with principal cast and crew members. The director talks about his style of film making and influences - which include Orson Welles and Howard Hawks. Also covered is the challenges of shooting in a shopping mall, transforming hordes of extras into zombies, the post-production process and distribution.
- Document of the Dead: The Definitive Cut (2012, 1:42:12) - with optional commentary by Roy Frumkes. The original feature has been expanded twice over the years, with this later version including more recent interviews and behind the scenes footage from films such as Land of the Dead (2005) and Diary of the Dead (2007). It's jam packed with fun contributions from an assortment of stars and directors, including Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Danny Boyle. Shame that too much time is wasted on the set of Two Evil Eyes (1990), arguably one of Romero's weaker efforts.
- The Dead Will Walk (2014, 1:15:02) - this insightful documentary looks back at Romero's early career from the days when he was making commercials in the 60s for companies like Calgon, followed by guerilla film making in a farmhouse for a year to bring Night of The Living Dead to the screen and later scraping money together to make further independent features. Dawn of the Dead is discussed, covering the writing and casting process, along with creating the inventive FX. All the principal cast members are interviewed and fans will enjoy contributions from Jim Krut ("Helicopter Zombie") and John Harrison ("Screwdriver Zombie").
- Trailers, TV and Radio Spots (18:37)
Limited Edition Contents (not available for review)
- Audio CD DISC 1: The Goblin Soundtrack – 17 tracks including Alternate and Bonus Tracks
- Audio CD DISC 2: Dawn of the Dead: A De Wolfe Library Compilation Part 1
- Audio CD DISC 3: Dawn of the Dead: A De Wolfe Library Compilation Part 2
- Rigid box with lid featuring the original iconic artwork
- 2 inner digipaks
- 160 page hardback book featuring 17 new essays, archive article and George A Romero interview and plus original marketing, artwork and merchandise images, and behind-the-scenes stills
- Dawn of the Dead: The novelisation book by George A Romero and Susanna Sparrow with exclusive artwork
Dawn of the Dead is available now directly from Second Sight Films, and other retailers from November 16.