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DAWN OF THE DEAD
Ultimate Edition

 

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  David Emge, Ken Foree, Schott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Director:  George A. Romero
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes (theatrical), 139 Minutes (extended), 118 Minutes (European)
Release Date:  September 7, 2004

“When there’s no more room in hell…the dead will walk the earth.”

Film ****

Horror films have always been a quiet, guilty pleasure of mine.  But everybody’s got to have a favorite.  For me, by far, that favorite is Dawn of the Dead. So needless to say, it's a happy day the ultimate horror flick for me has been given the Ultimate Edition treatment by the studio that continues to be the horror fan's best friend, Anchor Bay.  This four disc set includes the theatrical, extended, and little seen in this country European releases of the film, plus one disc of solid extras.  But more on that further down.

When writer/director George A. Romero first unleashed Night of the Living Dead on audiences in 1968, it instantly became a landmark scare flick.  With very little budget but endless imagination, he took a simple setting, a handful of characters, and one fantastically frightening premise to their apex, becoming a box office hit and creating an entirely new vocabulary for zombie movies in the process…one that still gets referenced today.

But ten years later, he would reach back into the grave and resurrect his terrifying dead creations to mold a much darker, much grislier, and more apocalyptic vision of mankind reaching the end of the line.  Dawn of the Dead was a true shocker, from the uncompromising (yet undeniably original) depictions of gore to the ultimate bleakness of its portrayal of mankind imploding upon itself in the microcosm of a shopping mall.

The setup for Dawn of the Dead has always been absolutely brilliant to me, because…well, because there IS no setup.  The camera pans from a blood red wall down to a blonde woman sleeping.  Her muffled cries indicate she is not sleeping well.  She awakes with a start, but into a real nightmare; one that has obviously been in progress for some time.

We’re in a newsroom that’s collapsing into chaos.  Through bits of dialogue from what they’re attempting to broadcast, we get the full scope of the picture:  Romero did not give us a slow revelation into the crisis as he did in his first film.  Rather, he jumped right into the middle of a world gone mad.  We’re not at the beginning.  If anything, we’re near the conclusion.

The woman Fran (Ross) and her helicopter pilot boyfriend Steven (Emge) are planning to make their break that night.  Joining them are two cop friends, Roger (Reiniger) and Peter (Foree), who recently took part in a raid on some projects that turned into a gruesome bloodbath thanks to the dead.  (It’s in that sequence that we get our first real taste of what we’re in for with this movie…and I do mean ‘taste’ in the literal sense.)

With humanity in panic as the dead start walking the earth in greater and greater numbers, the foursome take to the only safe place left them:  the skies.  But they can’t stay in the air forever, and soon, they land atop a big indoor shopping mall (not quite as common a sight in those days).

At first, they see it as a great place to relax and reload with supplies.  The adventure begins, however, when the men start to realize what a good thing they could have with that place.  They’ll have to clear it of zombies first, and make sure that no more can get in; a risky undertaking with more than a fair share of suspense.

Imagine having a whole empty mall all to yourselves, where everything is yours for the taking.  It’s a commercialized dream come true, and it has an effect on our protagonists, who entertain themselves by picking out clothes they can never wear anywhere, grabbing a television set and keeping it on long after broadcasts have ceased, or playing poker with huge wads of cash they can’t really spend.  The juxtaposition is unsettling…the foursome live a materialistic fantasy in a shoppers paradise that is really nothing more than a shiny prison, while the nightmare still exists just on the outside, desperately clawing to get in.

The climax comes not really in form of living vs. dead, but man vs. man, as a team of raiders burst through and an all out war breaks out.  The humans each want to stake a claim.  The undead simply want to feast.  That’s the point I always contemplate the true nature of the film’s horror:  the zombies are fearsome, but they are what they are:  motorized instinct, single minded, and pure.  They don’t change.  The humans do, but not for the better…they de-evolve right before our eyes, which is what helps make the final bloodbath such a stark scene.

This film is brilliant on multiple levels.  It works as sly social commentary of a different sort:  it’s not about racism or religion, it’s not about borders or ideology.  It’s about how our society has descended into such a rut of commercialism and materialism that here, even when faced with a sinister extinction, it’s the one urge that remains irrepressible over all.

It also works as a small scale adventure story.  It takes the heroes some time to secure the mall in a step by step process.  There’s plenty of action and suspense as a result…heck, much of it is just downright fun. 

But of course, most of all, it works as an exercise in pure, unapologetic terror.  This isn’t the kind of horror film you walk away from relieved and giggling.  This one will haunt you and make you think about it for a long time afterwards.  And, if you’re like me, you’re going to want to experience it again as soon as possible.  It’s rare to have such a dark natured film be so compelling as to make you want to go back and back and back, but that’s what Romero has crafted here.

“What have we done to ourselves?” one character ponders at a peculiarly still moment in the film.  I think Romero’s final shots, with its campy mall music and all, is one answer to that question.  

More than one viewing of this film is in order, and with this Ultimate Edition set, you can enjoy the movie three ways.  The original theatrical version is George Romero's preferred version, though some fans like myself actually like the extended version a little more.  That was the version shown at Cannes; it had extra scenes establishing the characters' growing sense of isolation in the mall, plus an extra choice bit of gore or two that Romero inexplicably cut before full release.  The score by the Italian band Goblin wasn't completed before this initial showing, so there are extra bits of stock music utilized as well.

A third version was prepared for European release with the help of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento.  Trimmed of some of the lighter moments and with more focus on the violence and gruesome aspects, it was called Zombie: Dawn of the Dead and was hard to come by for most curious American audiences.  Now, at last, all three versions of Romero's masterpiece are included in one amazing set.  Fans can now decide for themselves which is the definitive version.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Tom Savini, the brilliant makeup artist who gave the film its gleeful gore, appears as the biker with the mustache comb.  He even does many of the film's big stunts!

Video ****

Anchor Bay remains the supreme king of DVD producing studios when it comes to classic cult and horror titles.  I personally wouldn’t want anyone else touching my all time favorite horror flick!  And with their Divimax series, they continue to impress.  I’ve seen many incarnations of Dawn of the Dead on home video before, and this is the best it’s ever looked.  Colors and tones have been refreshed to what I assume to be near original glory.  Nothing seems faded or washed out.  Detail level is strong, and images are sharp and clear with very little inherent grain.  A spot or speck here and there will remind you of the print’s age, but it’s nothing serious.  Fans of the flick are bound to be very happy, indeed.

The extended version is cleaned up better than ever as well...if you have the studio's original out-of-print edition of it, you can retire it with confidence.  A new anamorphic transfer has improved the image fourscore.

The European version looks slightly less clean and shows a bit more of its age and wear, but considering how hard it's been to come by in this country, I have no complaints.

Audio ****

Anchor Bay is also the top studio when it comes to remixing old soundtracks for new technology.  For the theatrical version, you can listen to the original mono offering if you’re a purist, but if you feel adventurous, you should check out either the Dolby Digital or DTS remixes.  The music sounds better than ever, the subwoofer adds a menacing bottom end, and the surrounds help some of the more active sequences come to life.  Dialogue is clean and clear, and the spoken words, music and sound effects are all well balanced.

The European version also sounds terrific, with a new 5.1 remix...the extended version is in original mono.

Features ****

Four discs' worth of goodies?  I know I'm gonna accidentally overlook something, so I apologize in advance...but here goes my best shot.

Disc One (theatrical version) contains a terrific commentary by George Romero, Tom Savini, and assistant director (and spouse) Chris Romero.  There are also numerous trailers, TV and radio spots, a poster and ad gallery, a bio on Romero, and a preview of the Dawn of the Dead comic book.

Disc Two (extended version) has commentary with producer Richard P. Rubenstein, an original Monroeville Mall commercial, a behind the scenes photo gallery, and production stills.

Disc Three (European version) has a new commentary with the quartet of stars: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross...it's one of the most fun and enjoyable listens I've heard all year, like eavesdropping on a cast reunion party!  There are also international trailers and TV spots, plus international poster, ad, lobby card and pressbook galleries, home video and soundtrack artwork, and a bio for producer Dario Argento.

That alone is worth the price of admission, friends, but Anchor Bay isn't done yet...a bonus fourth disc will have you delightfully OD'ing with extras.  There is a new 75 minute documentary on the movie, featuring all new cast and crew interviews, plus the original documentary filmed during the making of the film, on-set home movies with commentary by zombie extra Robert Langer, and a tour of the Monroeville Mall with actors Ken Foree, David Emge, and some of the zombies!

Rounding out the package is a copy of the aforementioned previewed comic book...extra cool!

Summary:

By nature, Dawn of the Dead isn’t going to please everyone, but I truly believe it to be the best, most original, most compelling and most imaginative of all horror films.  It will shock you and horrify you, but that’s only the beginning of what it has to offer.  This four disc Ultimate Edition from Anchor Bay will bring all three versions of the film into your living room, looking and sounding better than ever, and with enough features to keep you busy for days, if not weeks.  This is the DVD release of the year so far.

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