Document of the Dead Review

The Film

First of all I have to thank a forum member for drawing my attention to this disc. In my review of Dawn of the Dead 2-Disc I noted that the Document of the Dead extra was an excellent addition. It has since been pointed out that this edition did not contain the full version the documentary (it is 60-minutes and the documentary is 84-minutes). After a modest amount of research I discovered this disc and as an avid collector of “Dead” discs I had to have it.

Document of the Dead is a documentary of two halves. The first 60-minutes is an in depth study into the making of Dawn of the Dead. The documentary makers had access to Romero, Savini et al for a long weekend whilst they were shooting at the Monroeville Mall. This section gives a complete history of the film from pre-production through to the cutting process. This involves interviews with everyone from the Producer through to the lighting men, the actors (the three lead men anyway), Tom Savini and last but not least Romero himself. It also includes clips from “Dawn” including shots that don’t appear in any cut of the film. Unfortunately it doesn’t contain the original ending to the film and the reason behind this is infuriating (it is explained on the commentary) especially when you hear that the ending is probably lost forever.

This section of the documentary is undoubtedly the best by far. It covers Romero’s style during his previous films (Martin and NOTLD but not The Crazies) and covers Dawn of the Dead from script through storyboards to the shooting and editing. His fast cutting style is dissected, as is his love of long scripts. Pretty much everything you would want to know about the film is here presented in a very simple no-nonsense style. If the documentary ended here then it would have been a very satisfying experience despite its length (In fact this is all you get on the Dutch 2-disc edition).

The second part which covers the remaining 24-minutes is shot ten years later on the set of Two Evil Eyes where Romero directed one of the short stories. The tone of the piece is very different and the interviews and focus is definitely geared towards Romero rather than the production as a whole. The main onset footage here is of a complex effects shot, which is overseen by Tom Savini. Apart from that there are some fascinating interviews with Romero showing how ten years has changed his attitude.

It is a shame to say it, but the second half of the documentary is slightly depressing after the fairly upbeat first half. During the Dawn shoot everyone seemed enthusiastic and nothing could stop them. Romero himself seemed optimistic and of the opinion that he could achieve pretty much anything. Ten years later he is rather more realistic and sees that the independent film market is smaller and in danger of being crushed by Hollywood. Seeing how he was treated during the intervening years (especially with Day of the Dead) it is not difficult to see why he has such a negative view of Hollywood.

Overall the documentary is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde. The transition between the first and second segments is jarring to say the least (The second half even looks different as it was shot on video rather than 16mm). There are a million ways they could have provided a smoother transition between the pieces and the fact they didn’t bother is the only major flaw in this documentary. The style and progression through the production process may seem a little forced and stilted, but it certainly makes things very easy to follow. Even though the camerawork, lighting and voiceover seem amateurish I think this adds to the charm of the documentary (as it does in Vivian Kubrick’s piece on The Shining).

This film obviously has limited appeal so I would think very carefully before forking out for it. I am an avid fan of Romero and the “Dead” films so when I knew this disc was available I had to have it. Other fans maybe perfectly happy with the shorter version on the 2-disc edition as the extra 24-minutes could be considered as a bit of a downer for a Romero fan. As for the non-fan, I would think very carefully indeed. This documentary is a great guide to the filmmaking process, but if you don’t like Romero or the “Dead” films then there may not be much for you here.

The Disc(s)
The presentation of this package is a little stark to say the least. There is no chapter insert and the disc has a rather dull black and white pattern on it. The disc itself has static functional menus that consist of stills from the film. The main feature has 24 chapter stops, which is fairly generous.

The documentary is presented in its original aspect ratio of 4:3. I’m afraid it is mostly bad news when it comes to print quality with this release. The picture is soft and grainy with very little shadow detail and an awful black level in places. The print damage is noticeable throughout and it is obvious that no one has even attempted to clean it up. The problems are all to do with the source, which I imagine wasn’t too great. The last 20 minutes are noticeably better as the footage is obviously newer (and on video tape). This makes the transition between segments even more jarring due to the change in print quality and format. The transfer is adequate and it doesn’t look like any more damage has been done to the source with artifacting. The picture is probably the best it can be given the fact no one is likely to pay a huge amount of money for restoration. This doesn’t change the fact that this would look just as good on VHS as it does here on DVD. It is watchable but it is going to get a suitably low mark here. As a footnote I should say that the documentary looks just as bad on the Dutch 2-disc.

The sound track is an adequate mono track. Occasionally there is some distortion on the voices and the track is a little hissy in places but for the most part it does its job. Fortunately documentaries don’t usually need a fantastic soundtrack. As with the picture, the sound is presented here in its best possible light.

The extras are a pleasant surprise on this disc. Given its low budget origins and the low budget look and feel of the DVD I wasn’t expecting much in the way of extras. However I was pleasantly surprised with an excellent selection of extra material.

First up is a director’s commentary. Actually even though the packaging doesn’t mention it there are appearances on this commentary from the Director of Photography and from Nicole Potter who narrated the last 24 minutes of the film. This commentary is much more interesting than I thought it would be. Frumkes covers a lot of ground here giving us extensive information about himself, the way the film developed (it was meant to be a 25-minute short originally) and about Romero himself. The evolution of the film is a fascinating subject in itself as the filming was started in 1978 and never released until 1989 after the additional 24 minutes were added. His anecdotes regarding the recovery of missing footage is interesting and explains why certain parts of the film look much worse than others. He obviously loves Romero and his work and it shines through in this commentary. His delivery maybe a little dry in places but he never stops talking and has done quite a bit of research before doing the commentary.

When Frumkes cut the documentary in 1978 it was 66-minutes long and when he went back to it in 1989 for the final cut he trimmed 6-minutes from the first section. These 6-minutes are available in the deleted scenes area. They aren’t earth shattering but they are certainly nice to have.

Also available in the deleted scenes section is some extra interview footage shot on the set of Two Evil Eyes. There is a 5-minute interview with Adrienne Barbeau (who starred in Romero’s part of Two Evil Eyes). Her interview is probably the worst of the three as she sometimes struggles with the questions and to be honest some of the questions from Frumkes aren’t that great. The best part of the deleted scenes is a 10-minute interview with Romero. This could easily have been included as it discusses his problems and struggles with the independent film industry. This section, if added, would have made the ending even more downbeat than it is now. The final additional interview is 5-minutes with Tom Savini. Again this is a very interesting interview as it mostly covers his upcoming remake of Night of the Living Dead.

Finally there is a filmography of Frumkes himself. This is a bare text section and is about as interesting as these things usually are.

The documentary is a must have for any fan of Romero’s work. Its appeal outside of the fan base is probably limited despite the fact it gives an excellent overview of independent filmmaking and the production process in general. The disc is probably as good as it could be. The picture is pretty dreadful in places as is the sound, but they do the job. The extras are outstanding for such a low budget production. The commentary is informative and the 27 minutes of deleted footage is as good as anything in the documentary. There is always the possibility that this package maybe licensed and included in the much-anticipated 3-Disc Anchor Bay edition. Personally I doubt it will include the deleted footage, the commentary and it may not even contain the full version. For the completists among us, like me, this is an essential purchase; others may have to think more carefully.

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