Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition (1978) Review
"These creatures are nothing more but pure, motorised instinct...”
Slow, weak, and clearly brain dead, zombies have been forever imprinted on the minds of cinema-goers; mainly thanks to the recent (and spectacular) resurgence. Nothing’s better than the sight of an entire group shuffling through deserted city streets, laying waste to anyone or anything in their path. It has slowly become a phenomenon, even a cliché. How many times have we seen this image trotted out by filmmakers? It succeeds, because the very idea is fascinating. As a race, we’re too aware of our own mortality. To see humans defeating “death”, and walking the earth, is a curious (and entirely macabre) notion. Why have they risen from the dead? It’s one of the many questions left unanswered by George A. Romero, the cult director whose status is almost God-like amongst genre fans. But the reason should remain dormant - terror, after all, is created by the unknown, and our latent fears about death are what give Dawn of the Dead its teeth.
After 1968, Romero’s reputation was set in stone. Night of the Living Dead wasn’t just an exceptional horror film, it was revolutionary too. A fine blueprint for low-budget filmmakers, it has influenced generation after generation. No wonder the marketplace is suddenly flooded with Romero rip-offs. Zach Snyder’s retread of Dawn is an acceptable genre picture in its own right, but it merely emphasises how potent and cutting-edge the original was. Naturally, something was lost in translation, and the remake is a very different beast to its predecessor. Today, the Dawn of 1978 is fondly remembered for its biting social satire, gruelling gore, and unique atmosphere. It’s a universe of despair, and no one has depicted social decline quite like Romero.
Famously shot on a shoestring, Romero and his crew had less than a million to film this sequel, but they managed to put the money on the screen. Like Night of the Living Dead, the director’s friends bent over backwards to help him with his vision. It may be ultra low-budget, but a sense of scale does seep through. With help from Italian auteur Dario Argento, Dawn got its financing. However, the eventual distribution deal would be split - Romero and producer Richard Rubinstein would handle English-speaking territories, while Argento would orchestrate the European rights. This has led to a flurry of different releases (the most well-known being Zombie: Dawn of the Dead). With several of these editions unleashed on videotape over the decades, it has been difficult for fans to see Romero’s preferred cut. Thanks to the digital medium, we can now sample all of them, rendering those treasured bootlegs obsolete.
“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!”
The time between Night and Dawn is uncertain, but despite being made 10 years apart, the two films are similar in many respects. In the original film, we followed a group of disparate individuals who took sanctuary in a deserted farmhouse, as the living dead surrounded them. As the tension grew, so did the anger of those confined - those alive were just as deadly as the ghouls outside; capable of deception, betrayal, even murder. When the survival instinct kicks-in, you can always rely on people to look after number 1. After the start of this weird phenomenon, the world is thrown into chaos, and Dawn of the Dead starts suddenly, throwing the viewer into the thick of it.
The opening news room sequence perfectly establishes Romero’s pessimistic view. Things are falling apart in every way possible. A reporter provides the only exposition we really need - that the living dead are roaming the streets; a shot in the head should kill them, and that these ghouls are eating the flesh of their victims. The country is placed on high alert, and survival of the fittest is the only rule of thumb. Dawn of the Dead really hits home this message in its opening quarter, and the first 20 minutes are non-stop in terms of action. Outside the station, the city of Philadelphia is crumbling. A SWAT team launch an attack on an apartment building; blasting through the dead with apparent glee. These sights really do pack a wallop, and legendary effects man Tom Savini is given full-reign with his balls-to-the-walls make-up. Heads explode in a shower of blood, people have chunks ripped from their flesh, and a horrified SWAT officer shoots himself - and this is all before the main story begins.
"Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."
Like the remake, Dawn’s ace is simple - the events are set in a shopping mall. It was a masterstroke then, and it’s a masterstroke now. Romero was really on to something here - he highlighted class/interracial tension in Night, and exposes the effects of consumerism in Dawn. Of course, the social themes don’t really need to be addressed - it couldn’t be any more blatant. Anyone watching the film should be able to pick up on its message, and notice the similarities between the marauding “mallrats” and our own shopping habits. Critics love to dissect this thread, yet I’ve always been more interested in the visceral violence and unflinching gore effects, which are given strength through characters.
Like the concluding chapter in the trilogy, Day of the Dead, the focus here is very much on the main characters, who have made the mall their home. Over the two hour-plus running time (truly an epic in this genre), we get to know each of them, and we mourn their loss when the dead come knocking. It’s a simple requirement, that many modern horror films skip altogether. Characterisation is key, and Romero renders each protagonist with care. Compare them to 2004’s version, and I know which group I’d rather spend time with.
The leader of the pack is Peter Washington (Ken Foree); a no-nonsense SWAT man who’ll protect his colleagues till the end. Without a doubt, he is the strongest force in the group, and even gets the films most famous line (those reading this page, will know which one I mean). Foree’s large build and imposing look really holds the screen, solidifying Romero’s reputation for providing African-American actors with prized roles. A good friend of the late Duane Jones, who played Night of the Living Dead’s hero Ben, Foree has remained in the genre throughout his career. His diverse credits include Leatherface and the up-coming Devil’s Rejects, but he has never backed away from the success of Dawn. When I happened to meet Foree at a memorabilia event, his enthusiasm for the picture was contagious. His love for the character is still in evidence, and he gave the movie some of its most memorable scenes.
Backing him up, is Roger DeMarco (Scott H. Reiniger), very much Romero’s source for comic relief. He may be cocky, but useful too. As the living dead swell in their numbers, it is obvious that one of the group will sustain injuries, and in Roger’s case, their bite is pretty lethal. The friendship developed between Reiniger and Foree gives the material an extra edge, and adds pathos to the on-going saga. Providing friction, is Stephen Andrews (David Emge), the helicopter pilot responsible for their current “home”. Like Peter, he longs to do things in an orderly fashion, yet is quick to reach for a weapon when his friends are in danger. With them, is Stephen’s girlfriend Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross), who we discover is pregnant. Very much a product of the 1970’s, Francine speaks for the women of her generation - she doesn’t want to be treated like a damsel in distress, and she won’t be their housewife (a neat spin on the comatose Barbara from the original film). Together, the group prepare themselves for the ever-worsening threat.
Francine: What the hell are they?
Peter: They're us, that's all, when there's no more room in hell.
Peter: Something my grand-dad used to tell us. You know Mucumba? Voodoo. My grand-dad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, "when there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."
And they do just that, thanks to Savini’s bravura prosthetics and appliances. The mall is overrun with these creatures, and the ways in which our intrepid survivors despatch them, is often inventive (though Savini’s work on Friday the 13th would become more iconic). The make-up artist had a real field day here, and no one ever complains about Dawn of the Dead’s bloody showmanship. The hundreds of head shots can become repetitive, but by the last act, Savini ups the ante in every way possible. They really do paint the mall red, with machete slicings, bullet wounds, gaping cuts and dismembered bodies. The tone is set early on, when a zombie has his head sliced off by helicopter propellers (a fan favourite for its jet-black humour). More squeamish though, is the sight of a man’s intestines being torn from his screaming body. It’s truly hideous; enough to put anyone off their tomato sauce.
Of course, Savini’s effects have a downside too. Today, some will laugh at their crude nature. The man himself was unhappy with how the effects photographed, with zombies looking blue or green in certain shots, and the blood taking on a fluorescent glow (similar to that of Argento’s Suspiria). In my opinion, it all adds to the comic book feel of Romero’s story. It wasn’t his aim to make a “scary” film. It’s a piece of grand guignol, and fortunately, the filmmaker has themes to back up the blood. If flaws do show up, they are all technical, though I’m shocked at how a low-budget film made 25 years ago, can still stand on its own merits. The story is so compelling, it’s difficult not to get pulled in.
“Now we’ve got a war!”
It’s everyone’s dream to be locked away in a shopping mall - everything you’ve ever wanted at your fingertips. The characters have tasted perfect lives inside this monument of consumerism, so its unsurprising that the last act has their happiness burned to the ground. Peter, Stephen and Francine are left at the mercy of a motorcycle gang, an army of gun-toting maniacs who have stumbled upon the mall, and feel obliged to take it over. Savini even shows up as “Blades”, doing his own stunts no less. Romero lets go of the steady pace he has constructed, and lets rip with the action. The end is most definitely nigh.
It is here, that the continuity within the Living Dead series rears its ugly head. The zombies aren’t the enemy. People are. Romero knows this all to well. We are deciding our own fate, and the motorcycle gang at the end of Dawn do more damage than those lumbering fiends ever do. It was true at the end of Night - our hero gunned down by accident - and the same in Day of the Dead too. It’s a grim, underlying theme that has always struck a chord with me. It is easy to forget that the dead were once people, stripped of emotion, remorse and intimacy. It is the single reason why Dawn has the edge over its remake; with its macabre message speaking volumes about the human condition.
Powerful and gut-wrenching, yet also enjoyable, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is still the classic film it has always been. This slice of pulp Americana is timeless. It might be flawed, but it remains the most influential picture of its respective genre. Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright and Zach Snyder all owe a debt to Romero, and their imitations confirm his genius. With horror at its best, Dawn of the Dead is here to stay...
What version will you choose?
Spread over the first three discs of this mammoth set, are the various different cuts that have circulated over the years. Naturally, the die-hard fans will be more interested in noting the differences, so for the casual viewer, here’s a brief rundown.
U.S. Theatrical Version (Disc One)
Labelled as the “original unrated edition”, this was the version released in American theatres back in 1979. It is George Romero’s Director’s Cut, and therefore, the one cut you should have in your collection. It’s the most widely seen, and the gore effects are intact - with the exception of those seconds Romero removed himself. Naturally, the print has been fully restored for this DVD release. Available for some time in the UK, Arrow will release a new disc this October, which includes the cut in question (look out for Mike Sutton’s review in the coming weeks).
Extended Version (Disc Two)
This is pretty notorious for causing various mix-ups with Dawn fans. It isn’t, as some sources would say, the “Director’s Cut”, but the version taken to the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. It is 12 minutes longer than the former cut, which comprises scene extensions, lost dialogue and some extra gore. By far the most useless edition (the film is already long enough), it is still worth seeing for rabid fans like myself. Anyone who caught the BBC2 screening several months ago, should recognise this edition.
European Version (Disc Three)
This is the most fabled edition for cult followers, thanks to the participation of that other living legend, Dario Argento. Romero’s film was re-cut for the European market by the auteur, making it a substantially different viewing experience. Clocking in at 118 minutes, Argento’s version features some discarded dialogue, cut footage, and also some deletions (the pace in this version is speeded up). And as you’d expect, we get to hear more from the Goblins, whose music is more of a driving force here. You’ll either love or hate it, but I’m thankful to see this edition in crystal-clear form. Hats off to Anchor Bay...again.
The Look and Sound
Proving their worth yet again, AB have painstakingly remastered the film, making it look better than ever. Being a fan with several ageing copies on his shelf, I know how good the new transfers look - these are first-rate. All three cuts of the film are given anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) treatment, which are, of course, enhanced for 16x9 TV’s. The “Theatrical Version” is probably the best, with a clear and sharp picture throughout (grain is very minimal, and there was no print damage to be found). There are a few specs and lines popping up in the “Extended Cut”, but even that edition is free of any serious problems. Same goes for the “European” option, which is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it. Some might express disappointment, since it won’t take the breath away, but they really have done wonders with these materials. Fans will be in Dawn heaven.
Low-budget 70’s films always get stick in the sound department, and while the options could be better, Anchor Bay continue to put forth every effort to make them enjoyable. Alongside the Original Mono tracks, each film also bags newly-created Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 options. All of them are good, and provide the film with a decent sound. Since the original materials were lacking surround activity, the 5.1 tracks seem a little redundant - as is the case with most of AB’s back catalogue (such as the Hills Have Eyes disc). But I was more than happy to have them in the set. To review the film, I chose the 2.0 option, which was surprisingly strong. The dialogue, sound effects, and the music by the Goblins are all well-transferred. In most respects, Dawn of the Dead has never looked or sounded better on the home format. Another triumph from the independent distributor...
Nicely designed, these are animated with skill. Mixing dark reds, blacks and creepy yellows, each disc of the set features an alternative design, and do their job well. They come close to the best menus AB have ever done, though they are still beaten hands down by their phenomenal work with the Last House on the Left set. Still, it is hard to find faults in their simple, yet pleasing look.
The Box Set
This surprised me with its overall beauty. Packaging has always been something that bugged me about AB (well, on this side of the pond at least), but this box set is a work of art. Black with the logo embossed in bright red, it really does draw the attention. The inside folds out into a digipack, with character faces on each side. You’ll also find some liner notes listing the materials, and a free sample from the new Dawn of the Dead comic book by Steve Niles. Now, that is class.
It only took me a day to watch the contents of this set - not because the materials are minimal, but due to their riveting nature. Anchor Bay have gone beyond the call of duty to make this as comprehensive as possible. Fascinating and illuminating in equal measure, the set fully deserves the “Ultimate” tag.
Audio Commentary with George A. Romero, Make-Up Effects Creator Tom Savini, Assistant Director Christine Romero, and DVD Producer Perry Martin
Those who bought the single disc Divimax release, will already have this commentary, though it’s a pretty enjoyable track. Martin moderates the proceedings, nudging the contributors for information, and analysing the film. There is a family air about the proceedings - Romero and his wife Christine love talking about their collaborations together, and Savini gets right into the details about his work. They cover a range of topics, from the troubled financing, to the production, and finally, to the prospect of a fourth Dead film. Fans should love this discussion.
Elsewhere on the disc, we get two original theatrical trailers, TV spots, radio spots, poster and advertising galleries, a Romero bio, and another preview for the comic book.
Audio Commentary by Producer Richard P. Rubinstein and Perry Martin
Understandably, this is a little dryer than the other track, but it remains engrossing. Martin once again tackles the questions we want answered, most of which get highly detailed replies from Rubinstein, who has just as much love for the film as Romero. He covers the different editions of the film well, and goes into a lot of depth about the financial and distribution areas, offering up many anecdotes about Argento in the process. Worth a listen.
Monroeville Mall Commercial
A real historical document, this is an original advert for the mall used during the shoot of Dawn. It’s fairly odd, and full of psychedelic colours. It’s certainly something I won’t forget.
This disc is completed by a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, memorabilia gallery, and some production stills.
Audio Commentary with Actors David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross
Light and breezy, this is the kind of group track you long for. It’s entertainment value is fairly high, though don’t expect a comprehensive look at the film. The actors are clearly having a blast for this reunion, and Foree spends a great deal of the time offering up anecdotes and his experiences. The group talk about their characters, working with George, and how the low-budget led to a tough shoot. Better than most cast commentaries.
Like the previous discs, we get international theatrical trailers, UK TV spots, international lobby card gallery, posters and the pressbook, and most interesting of all, the home video and soundtrack artwork. Believe me when I say, there are some memories attached to those. An Argento bio is thrown in too.
The remaining disc is composed entirely of documentaries.
“The Dead Will Walk”
Directed by Perry Martin, this 75-minute piece is a great contribution to the set. It features brand new “talking head” footage of the cast and crew, interspersed with film footage and behind the scenes snippets. The list of people involved is pretty impressive - Romero, Argento, Claudio Argento, Foree, Reiniger, Emge, Ross, Christine Romero, Savini, Claudio Simonetti, and Michael Gornick. If that weren’t enough, some of the most memorable zombies have stepped forward - Jim Krut, Leonard Lies, Clayton Hill and Sharon Ceccatti-Hill. With candid recollections and some humorous insight, this documentary flew by. Recommended viewing.
Roy Frumkes’ “Document of the Dead”
Fans of the film will know this piece. Filmed during the shoot of Dawn, documentary-maker Roy Frumkes walks around the mall, taking in the process of shooting a film, and the challenges involved. It is full of great footage, and interviews with Romero and the crew. Of course, it has been available on home video several times before, and Frumkes has developed a cult all of his own (as a side-note, he appears in the film as a zombie during the custard pie fight). I had the opportunity to talk with Frumkes earlier this year, and he told me that Synapse would be releasing a remastered copy of this feature-length doc. The print featured here is in very rough shape (Frumkes was a student at the time), so I don’t know how better it could look. Still, it’s an invaluable piece of history, and the set is all the better with its inclusion.
On-Set Home Movies, with Commentary by Zombie Extra Rob Langer
A fun piece. Old footage is given new life thanks to this disc, and the commentary adds some humour and insight. Another must for fans.
Last, but not least, we get --
“Monroeville Mall Tour”, with Actor Ken Foree
Shot recently by effects guru Greg Nicotero, we follow a group of lucky fans as they fumble around the modern day mall. Foree is good value as always, and just to see the mall after all these years is worth the watch.
Simply stunning. Anchor Bay have done wonders with this box set. Dawn of the Dead looks and sounds like it never has, and features extras that really do impress. Hopefully, fans won’t ever have to purchase it again, since the “Ultimate Edition” lives up to its name. Horror fans with multi-region players should buy this no questions asked. Dead-good.