Dawn of the Dead (Dutch 2-disc) Review

The Film
Dawn of the Dead is the second part of a horror trilogy that took George Romero 17 years to complete. This time round the film has a bigger budget, over ten times more than the original film (yet still a rather paltry $1.5 million). There have been many versions of the film, but the main three are: the 117-minute cut for Europe done by Dario Argento; the 126-minute U.S. theatrical cut; and finally the 139-minute “director’s” cut. The so-called directors cut is in fact the first cut that was put together to be shown at Cannes film festival. From my research I have also found a 156-minute (!) German cut. Apparently it contains every scene from all three versions. It would be interesting to see, but it does sound like a complete mess.

On the discs, and under discussion here, are the European Dario Argento version and the director’s cut. The U.S. theatrical cut has been reviewed on DVDTimes here. Having seen this version as well I will be using it as a reference point.

This film could be held up as a textbook example of the three-act structure. It opens with two sections that depict society crumbling; firstly a TV studio attempting to continue its broadcasts, and then a police assault on a housing project. After this the four main protagonists escape the city and end up holed up in a shopping mall (full of zombies). From here the characters struggle with the zombies and with each other. The film has a far broader story than the claustrophobic Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead. Despite this, the film maintains a strong character led story. In a similar way to the first film the main characters end up barricaded inside a small living area (this time the top floor of a mall). They have access to the rest of the mall but it’s still a prison. Again the film is dialogue heavy (at least two of the versions are) and this more than anything typifies George Romero’s “Dead” trilogy.

Despite the fact the third film had a bigger budget and better special effects, this second film stands out as being the best of the “Dead” trilogy. The acting is surprisingly good given the fact that none of the main actors had much experience before this film (and in most cases very little after). The film also makes pertinent comments on consumerism and on society in general. The zombies in the shopping mall remind me of many a trip to the local shopping centre (with less gore). The black humour and satire in the film are well realised and well played, especially the pie fight and muzak accompanied sequences. For the most part the effects on this film are gory and effective. A lot of time and money has obviously been spent on certain set pieces and zombies, but as a result the rest of the zombie sequences are just a bunch of extras wearing blue/grey makeup. Also the use of “lead” zombies who appear in a lot of the scenes seems a little contrived. If I see that nurse zombie or middle aged man zombie again I may scream.

As previously stated, there are two of the three main versions available here. Everyone has their favourite version and it’s all a matter of personal preference. My favourite version isn’t present on this 2-disc set. I prefer the theatrical version as, apart from one scene (the police dock), the cuts made improve the film. The theatrical version feels tighter, and as a result the director’s cut seems flabby and unfinished in comparison. The theatrical version also has more of Romero’s trademark fast cutting. As I say, there is only one scene which loses something (and that’s only because as a result of the cuts a policeman seems to appear from nowhere). I still have a soft spot for the director’s cut, but the theatrical version wins here. I haven’t mentioned the Argento cut yet, mainly because I’m not sure I can say anything good about it. As far as I can see, Argento didn’t understand what Romero was trying to achieve. As a result the film is reduced to being a simple action film. A lot of the dialogue scenes are trimmed so that the film jumps from action scene to action scene. In the process he loses the claustrophobic feeling of their living conditions that is pretty much essential. In addition to this, certain scenes make far less sense now (the truck blocking scene) and leave you wondering why they are doing certain things. Also Argento insisted on using the Goblin soundtrack throughout. This would be fine except there isn’t enough of it. It is looped and repeated all over the place so that it begins to grate. If you only want to own one version, the theatrical version may be enough for you. Romero fans and “Dead” film completists like myself will want to own all three versions.

The Disc(s)
This seems to be a good special edition on the surface. Two versions of the film, along with the Document of the Dead documentary, and other bits and pieces. The menus are well presented static images and are easy to navigate. Both versions of the film have the same number of chapter stops (9) which is positively stingy given the film’s running time.

The films are presented in two different aspect ratios, which is fitting as no one can seem to decide which is the best ratio. Romero allegedly prefers 4:3 but it was shown in the U.S. in 1.85:1. The director’s cut is presented as a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. It’s a reasonable transfer but far from brilliant. Digital artefacts are minimal and for the most part not really noticeable. There is not too much print damage, which is also a pleasure. The main problems are the softness of the print and the lack of colour depth. Black level is quite poor and shadow detail is adequate but far from being reference quality. As for the Argento cut, it’s pretty awful all round. It is presented in 4:3 non-anamorphic full-screen. The film starts out dark and soft with a lot of print damage. Although it does improve it’s still fairly bad. It’s watchable and it’s better than VHS, but that’s about it. I imagine there aren’t too many decent quality prints around of this version (being the least favoured of the three cuts) but even so they could have done some cleaning up of the print.

I wasn’t expecting too many surprises soundwise. Both films carry a DD mono soundtrack. In both cases the dialogue can be heard easily and the sound effects are good and punchy for the most part. The music tends to be a little muted and/or wobbly in places.

The extras are spread across both discs, and on the whole they are better than the extras on the U.S. theatrical version (but still lack an audio commentary). The only disc to have a commentary is the UK R2 release of the director’s cut. But this is censored and the commentary is by Tom Savini, not Romero.

The first disc contains a selection of seven trailers and a radio spot, which are pretty bog standard. Also on this disc are 27 stills of production photos and posters. There are a lot of posters here and they are probably the most interesting part of this section. The difference between the marketing in the U.S. and Europe is quite pronounced. A short spot about the Monroeville Mall is not present despite being mentioned on the back of the case. People who own the Anchor Bay disc will tell you that you are missing nothing.

Disc two has a further three trailers for the European version, these are interesting as they contain almost every decent action moment in the film. This makes it quite obvious where Argento was heading with his cut. They also have multiple plot spoilers so avoid them if you haven’t seen the film yet. It has a trailer for Night of The Living Dead and Day of the Dead, again nothing special. Next up are talent files for Romero, Savini and Argento. Text only, nicely laid out but I doubt you will learn anything new from them.

So far so average, but here the disc rescues itself by including the Document Of The Dead. This documentary runs for 60 minutes, and was shot over a long weekend during filming at the Monroeville Mall. Contributions are heard from the main cast and crew, including Romero and Savini. References are made to Romero’s previous films (Martin and Night of The Living Dead) and clips are shown as well as script segments. During these segments Romero’s style is examined and, to a certain extent, dissected. Savini is shown at work applying makeup and doing stunts. This is a great documentary full of behind the scenes shots and interview segments. It gives a wonderful insight into the filming and into Romero’s distinctive style and history. This is a must for any fan of the film or of Romero himself.

Addendum - Please note that the Document of the Dead feature runs for 60-minutes. The full version is 84-minutes and is available on a separate DVD called Document of the Dead (it also has a commentary on it). My comments above stand for the 60-minute version as I still feel it is a fabulous extra.

The film is of course excellent and deserves a high place on any horror fan’s list. As for the disc, it seems we are going to have to wait a little bit longer for the definitive Dawn of The Dead package. This set lacks the U.S. theatrical cut and a commentary. Otherwise it does have a very good package of extras. Dutch Filmworks have put together a good 2-disc set here, and at the moment I would recommend it to fans of Dawn of the Dead without hesitation. Casual admirers may wish to go for the Anchor Bay disc. There are rumours that all three versions will appear in a future Anchor Bay edition, lets hope it’s anamorphic and has the documentary and a commentary. Then maybe this film will have the release it deserves. Until then this will do nicely for the completists among us.

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out of 10

Last updated: 26/06/2018 04:25:03

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