GORE IN THE STORE
DAWN OF THE DEAD *****
Directed by George A Romero.
Starring David Emge, Gaylen Ross, Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree, Tom Savini.
USA / Italy 1978 127 mins /. 137 mins / 120 mins. Certificate: 18
Released on Limited Edition UHD and Limited-Edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight Films on November 16th 2020
“Instinct…memory…what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives…”
For horror fans of a certain age, DAWN OF THE DEAD has always been an important thing in our lives, one to which we have returned out of instinct, (fond) memory and with an older, wiser (in theory) perspective on what we used to watch. It has been viewed on repeat via washed-out, censored “Video Nasty”-era VHS tapes or late-night BBC showings sneaked under the radar when Mary Whitehouse wasn’t looking. Once the stuff of endless missions to get the perfect exploding head freeze frame and subject of playground banter, it now has as great a reputation as any conventionally “respectable” piece of 1970s American cinema. Filmmakers including Jim Jarmusch, with THE DEAD DON’T DIE, have repeatedly repurposed its consumerist satire for different periods and alternate stylistic takes on similar material.
Meanwhile, the 21st century frequently reminds us of how we have become the stars of our own DAWN. TV news bulletins every year capture images of average shoppers turned into ravenous zombies thanks to the lure of Black Friday. 50-inch TVs sell for the price of a month’s nutrition for that selectively invisible, slowly rotting guy sitting in his own piss during a cold, wet November in the doorway of the long-closed Blockbuster from which you once rented zombie movies. In 2020, the world fails to agree on the true threat and origins presented by the pandemic, or a wholly satisfying escape route from its grip…but common ground is located via the need to buy all the pasta and toilet rolls from Asda while joining an endless, joyless queue in the rain for Primark and thus increasing everyone’s chances of getting infected. Why not? It’s what we used to do…
The best news in all of this? If you love DAWN OF THE DEAD, prepare to love it even more. Cinematographer Michael Gornick oversaw Second Sight’s 4k restoration of the uncut theatrical version, and it looks more beautiful than you might hope for a 42 year old horror movie largely shot on the fly for less than half a million. The vibrant colour of the chaotic newsroom in the first scene now heightens the stark contrast to its beloved monochrome predecessor. The 70s fashions (and cameoing Romero’s scarf!) now massage or stab the eyes depending on your sartorial viewpoint. The splashy gunshots and that exploding head during the still-harrowing tenement massacre are in a vastly different league from when we tried to see the craft via grainy VCR slo-mo. If the extras tell us that Tom Savini isn’t overly thrilled by how his stage blood photographed on film, his inventive array of colourful zombies and benchmark splatter have a glorious showcase here. Erasing memories of muffled dialogue and underwhelming renderings of Goblin’s great pulsing score, the soundtrack is vibrant and, as a bonus, there are three discs comprising the 17-track score and the full gamut of library music. (DAWN’s sturdy box also houses “Dissecting the Dead”, a hardback collection of new essays and archival articles, plus Romero’s original novelisation).
If you’re lucky (or, as the case may be, unlucky) enough to have more free time than any normal year, you can now fill it by wading through the set’s vast extras package. The “Cannes Cut” (137 mins) is taken from the same scan as Romero’s preferred theatrical version, with very minor shifts in visual splendour during the extra scenes. The “Argento Cut” (120 mins) is a 4k scan of the Interpositive by Rome’s Backlight Digital and not quite as rapturously colourful as the other two, but still a treat after 40 years of lesser transfers. All three incarnations boast at least one commentary – the warm, funny actors chat-track on the Argento is a particular treat.
Second Sight’s cavalcade of extras unleash new insights while breathing fresh life into familiar tales. “Memories of Monroeville” is just that, with lovely yarns of mall customers finding “zombie” pics in the photo booth post-filming and recollections of fooling around after hours. The hour-long “Zombies and Bikers” rounds up several bit-part players for a celebration of living “every kid’s fantasy” under the friendly, organised command of Romero (plus John Amplas apologising for playing a Hispanic in somewhat different times). “Raising the Dead” conveys George’s sheer determination to pull off the wildly ambitious sequel while his wife Christine – sharing poignant stories across the extras – reminds him he’s not MGM. The partnership with Argento, the change of heart with the ending and the ensemble of friends who worked “for a dollar and a bagged lunch” are other key topics. In “The FX of Dawn”, Savini waxes lyrical about Dick Smith, positions DAWN in his career path and talks movingly of missing George, while Richard France celebrates the director’s generosity in “Dummies! Dummies!” If it’s tempting to get melancholic about Romero not being around to join in with all this, compensation is available in the form of a lost 2004 interview in which he is typically humble remembering the DAWN shoot – though clearly moved by the acclaim he has received, he laughs of the idea of himself as “the cat who moved planets”.
The set ports over two stand-out documentaries from earlier releases. The 80 minute “The Dead Will Walk” is a thorough dissection of the DAWN shoot, with the benefit of featuring the four actors absent from the new features, plus Romero celebrating Emge’s remarkable, Chaney-like physical performance. The 100-minute “definitive cut” of Roy Frumke’s “Document of the Dead” is equally valuable. Conceived in 1978 as a teaching tool documenting the DAWN production, its final incarnation captures Frumke’s encounters with Romero over four decades. While intelligently examining his cinematic style and recurring preoccupations, DOCUMENT vividly captures distribution battles, unfulfilled projects and a dramatically changed marketplace whereby the movie business is hijacked by folks with no affection for movies. Via set visits to DAWN, TWO EVIL EYES, LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD, we see the chain-smoking Romero age but never lose his passion, grace or humour -and, all the time downplaying his personal impact on the genre. A comic highlight is a young Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright doing KINDERGARTEN COP impressions with an animatronic zombie – but the conclusion, involving Tina Romero’s memories of Christmas with her Dad, is about as lovely an end note as one could imagine.
DAWN OF THE DEAD remains a benchmark for zombie cinema, seamlessly veering between despair and laughter, childish fun and tragedy, from arcades and dressing up to watching your friends suffer a fate worse than death. This Second Sight package is the greatest possible celebration of its treasures at a time when, more than ever, we are all slaves to one mall or another, yearning for an enemy as straight forward as a Romero zombie. And, most of all, just wanting to kick back with a silly old custard pie fight.
Read our In Conversation article with DAWN OF THE DEAD stars Jim Krut and Scott Reiniger as they discuss the film and its enduring legacy with Tim Murray HERE.