Dawn of the Dead (1978) Review

“When the dead walk, senor, it is time to stop the killing or lose the war !”

George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was, is and always will be one of the most brilliantly original horror films ever made. Whether as a gruesome comic strip, a close-up examination of the way small groups behave under pressure or as a scathing satirical comment on the consumer society, it works so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly be better. Perhaps it’s a touch too long and paced a little too leisurely, but it’s so rare to see a genre film taking time over context and characterisation that both faults are easy to forgive.

It’s worth mentioning how I came to my present opinion about this film. For a long time, I railed against Dawn, thinking it was overrated, way too long, over-indulgent and a little bit boring. I’m not entirely sure why I felt this way but it may simply have been a reaction against the praise lavished on it. I adored the grim, cynical Day of the Dead when it came out in 1986 and felt that it was being grossly underrated while its predecessor was being hyped out of proportion. But as time went by, I kept coming back to bits of Dawn, especially once I obtained an uncut copy of Argento’s Italian edit of the film. When I watched that shorter, faster version I began to realise that what I liked about it wasn’t the action or the gore, it was the interplay between the characters and the comments on American society in extremis – so I watched the cut UK version of the ‘Director’s Cut’ and, for some reason, absolutely loved it despite most of the gore being cut out. So here I am, an unrepentant convert to Romero’s 1978 vision. I don’t think it’s better or worse than Night or Day. It’s a very different film from the others and it stands very well on its own merits.

I’m not going to write too much about this film for two reasons. Firstly, I will start drooling like the newly converted fanboy I am. Secondly, there’s not a lot I can say which my colleague D. J. Nock hasn’t already covered in his excellent review of the American 4-Disc set from Anchor Bay. I refer you to that piece as a comprehensive review of the film.

However, I do want to consider why this film is so original in its approach. Firstly, it’s the first serious modern horror film – by which I mean to exclude the likes of Lewis and Milligan - to lay on the blood and entrails in a manner which is simultaneously over the top and, relatively speaking, completely realistic. Even one of the more extreme zombie films of the early seventies such as The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue is reasonably restrained for much of its length until the show-stopping scene where the nurse meets her grisly end. Dawn makes no concessions to the squeamish. There’s a stunningly achieved exploding head, courtesy of Tom Savini, in the first ten minutes and a subsequent zombie munch-out which is enough to make some viewers decide against proceeding further. But the gore has an ulterior motive. On the one hand, it has an impact which is genuinely disturbing, especially if you’re not used to horror movies. On the other, it references Romero’s key antecedent – the William Gaines EC Comics of the 1950s which showed body parts strewn about with alacrity. The sequence in which Tom Savini’s biker is devoured in glorious detail is like a frame from those comics come to life. This is the film which made Savini’s reputation, leading to his work on Friday The 13th and many other significant genre films.

Secondly, Romero has the wit to play around with audience sympathies, much as he did in the first film. In Night Of The Living Dead, the zombies shift from being an unstoppable menace to being slightly pathetic creatures being picked off by brainless rednecks. In Dawn, the zombies similarly begin as terrifyingly weird blue faced monsters who have to be picked off by a SWAT team. Then, they once more become helpless targets of an impromptu picnic for gun-toting halfwits. But once the action moves to the mall, the zombies are somehow made simultaneously menacing and oddly touching, shambling around in the clothes which defined them as human beings and having nothing to do except mindlessly wander in search of more food. By the time the bikers move in, the zombies have become as much victims as aggressors, slapstick stooges to be mowed down as violently as possible. When they finally catch one of their leather-clad tormentors, we’re not entirely unsympathetic to them. It’s this kind of turnaround which makes Romero a far more significant film artist within the genre than one of his Italian imitators such as Fulci in Zombie Flesh Eaters.

Another innovation is the satire of American society. As Romero has said, this is hardly subtle and, to be honest, it has the finesse of a sledgehammer. But it’s so apposite and wittily played out that it works very well. Romero’s points are quite simple. The first is his customary anti-authoritarianism, seen most explicitly in his interesting 1973 film The Crazies. By the beginning of Dawn, the establishment has completely failed to address the problem and it is growing out of control. A SWAT team manages to do little except get most of its members killed. The gung-ho soldier Roger finds his enthusiastic bravado is exactly what sends him prematurely to his maker. Given the chance to assist the authorities, gun-owning rednecks immediately begin getting ready for a good old fashioned mass lynching. Only by co-operating between themselves do two of the heroes find a way to make it out alive and find some cautious hope for the future. The second innovation is the black joke on consumerism. Society is falling apart, zombies are beginning to take over, there’s no way out and four people get excited about being in a mall with the chance to slobber over possessions which are now virtually useless. The zombies assemble at the mall because it was a place which was particularly important to them. Perhaps the mall, a huge testament to mankind’s ability to find things to do with money they don’t really need, is as good a place as any to wait for the end of the world.

Dawn of the Dead is the work of a master filmmaker and makes it even more bizarre that Romero has found it so hard to keep his career going during the intervening 25 years. His own explanation is that the majors consider him to be a maverick but it can surely only have been bad luck that he found himself with a deal at Orion when it was going belly-up. But Day Of The Dead was a great film and Monkey Shines is often quite remarkable. I sincerely hope that his plans for Land of the Dead come off and that his artistry is back on our cinema screens sooner rather than later.

The Disc

If you’re a big fan of Dawn of the Dead then you will either already have or be intending to buy the Anchor Bay US release which has three cuts of the film and more extra features. However, Arrow’s new UK release is a very fine DVD indeed and anyone who wants to see the film for the first time or simply wants a decent copy of the theatrical version in their collection is likely to be more than happy with what is on offer. Once again, please note that this is the uncut theatrical version which is George Romero’s preferred ‘directors cut’ of the film.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is the first time that Dawn has been released in the UK in widescreen format and it’s a delight to see it in a good uncut PAL transfer. This is a very nice picture indeed with plenty of detail, strong colours and contrast and no serious problems with artifacting. It’s not a pristine transfer. There is a little aliasing in places and some of the blacks are not quite as solid as they should be. No noticeable print damage though, which is very surprising.

Two soundtracks are on offer. One is a very serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 track which delivers the dialogue clearly and is well balanced between sound effects and music. The other is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix which is a little redundant and sounds a bit too artificial to my ears. Not much discrete surround activity and hardly any input from the sub-woofer.

The extras are limited but most are excellent and I am happy to offer my oft-repeated mantra that quality is far preferable to quantity, particularly for this kind of film. There are two audio commentaries, both drawn from the Anchor Bay set. The first is an excellent, detail-packed track from George Romero, his wife Chris Romero, Tom Savini and moderator Perry Martin. This is a model of a good, chatty commentary and even casual admirers of the film are likely to find it fascinating stuff. The second, featuring Martin and producer Richard Rubinstein, is a little dry and not quite as informative but it’s still worth a listen – although it’s amusing to note that some of his comments directly contradict those made by Romero and Savini.

Equally fascinating is the documentary “The Dead Will Walk”, a 75 minute romp through the history of the film which I found totally riveting. This goes from Romero’s early career right through to the release of the film and beyond and it’s marvellous stuff. Everyone connected to the film of any note is included, with the notable exception of Richard Rubinstein. Loads of clips and good stories here, some of which are repeated in the commentary tracks. Sadly, the older documentary “Document of the Dead” is not included on this release.

There’s a photo gallery/montage which is presented with an extract from the wonderful Goblin soundtrack. This runs a little over 2 minutes. We also get biographies for the four principles and Romero. Two theatrical trailers are included – the US one and a very odd one from Germany – as are some creepy radio spots and reproductions of original reviews which you’ll have to zoom in on as they’re very small. I couldn’t read some of them sadly and I think that it might have been a better idea to simply quote them.

The film is divided into 24 chapter stops and there are some very effective – and grisly – animated menus. Sadly, no subtitles at all are included and this is a serious omission.

Dawn Of The Dead is a wonderful horror movie which has been endlessly influential and still packs quite a punch. Although Arrow’s R2 release isn’t a match for the comprehensive Anchor Bay R1 Ultimate Edition in terms of exhaustive content, it’s a fine DVD which deserves to be very successful.

Dawn of the Dead is released to buy from Arrow Films on the 25th October.

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