“ Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy - Fantasy / Suitable for 18 years and over / Director: George A. Romero / Actors: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross ... / Blu-ray released 2010-03-01 at Arrow Films / Features of the Blu-ray: PAL „
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If George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead was the Godfather of zombie films, then this sequel, Dawn of the Dead, is a bit like Part II, picking up the tale from the first film, throwing in some colour and some more situational problems as a quartet of survivors try to find a way forward by hiding out in a shopping mall.
The film opens powerfully, with the national news showing nothing but stories about the zombie population taking over. There's a pointless effort by a newsroom producer trying to gain as many ratings as possible, as if they still matter with the country in zombified turmoil, before we see one news reporter, a helicopter pilot and two SWAT officers joining up and camping out at a shopping mall for safety.
There's a certain sense of despair, as you would expect, and this is present throughout the film, as the gravity of the situation and the future starts to affect the quartet holing out at the top of the mall. What makes things more tense is the necessity to hide and keep their hiding place a secret. The zombies possess a certain level of memory retention that allows them to remember where someone is - they're also rather adept at accessing it. The group's forays downstairs into the shops are fraught with near misses, and you realise that it just can't last.
Gradually, they get a bit stir crazy, with SWAT Roger losing it first, getting a bit daredevilish and taunting some of the zombies, testing their limitations and revelling in killing them. Romero retains a lot of the rules from Night of the Living Dead, with blows to the body, however powerful, having no effect on their existence. A shot to the head or their heads being bludgeoned seems to be the only way of ensuring they don't just get straight back up again, and there with Roger's gung ho attitude worrying the other three, there are some tense scenes where you wonder how close things are going to be.
During these sorts of scenes, and the opening scene as well, Romero ensures that no punches are pulled when it comes to the visual effects of a zombie being beaten to 'death', or even a person being attacked and infected, chunks of flesh being bitten off here and there, zombified and haunting features filling the screen here and there, along with some atmospheric music. A lot of influence would have come from Dario Argento, known as one of the best of his era for the visual effects a horror film can provide but also the musical influences that can add to the effects of a film. You can see Dario's love of the colour red throughout, as if it was Nic Roeg sitting there with them, and the bright almost non-blood red of some of the gruesome bits suspends belief just enough to allow you to remember this is a film.
Usually, I'd be a bit disappointed in this, as I wouldn't be able to descend into the film and become immersed in its running time. In this case though it allows you to appreciate it as a work of art, despite the special effects and makeup limitations that the 1970s posed for those responsible. Romero used what was available very well, including the abilities of the people acting as zombies, hundreds of them. He introduces some human danger as well, with a gang of bikers looking for a safe place later in the film, but this is really a catalyst and nothing more, serving to remind us that there are other places still in existence, not just this square block housing a bunch of shops. However, the zombies walking slowly with makeup all over them and scary and gormless expressions on their faces are what defines the film, and its power is shown by how years on Romero's films are still copied in part for anything zombie-like.
The latest TV series craze, The Walking Dead, takes full advantage of the makeup and special effects departments' progression in the last 30 years or so to give a more powerful zombified visual, but the basics are still fundamentally the same. Screaming at the screen at stupid actions doesn't change - we as the viewers always know best, and this form of enforced interaction is vital in such films. It's part of a director's skill that something can be created where we feel we understand it enough to intercede even though we know it's impossible and that it's just a film that has been made long before our eyes view it and we are able to comment.
But occasionally it's the look in the eyes of the cast where you just know they're going to be trouble that makes it just as magical. The four main cast members here, rising above a cast of hundreds of zombies, are unknowns, and this is what makes it work. The remake, a poor representation over 20 years later, features some known actors and this sort of detracts from the tale, which deserves and requires unmemorables to start with. The thing is though, I can still picture them all clearly in my mind, going through their mundane existence as they contemplate whether it's worth continuing or not, the pregnant lady in the group Francine the most needy, her husband helicopter pilot Stephen frantic and torn between doing things for the group and staying safe for their unborn child; while our two SWAT officers couldn't be more chalk and cheese if they tried. Peter is cool calm and collected, while Roger gets gung ho and puts them in constant danger.
Good casting and some good acting from our leads, made more powerful by their relative unknown statuses, this film's has its firm base in the unknown and original. Romero and Argento are a formidable combination, one that works excellently and becomes a work of art despite the limitations in special effects because of the era. The move from black and white to colour from Night of the Living Dead to this film is a statement of movement forwards in the saga, developments being taken where possible and a bit more money invested in giving us something original and improved.
I think this is the sort of film which gore lovers will revel in. There's no shying away from the violence and gore, the cameras determined to stay on what is going on even when it is less realistic, although there may be those who don't enjoy it quite so much because of the emphasis on the gore and the violence. The psychological scenes where we watch the quartet try some sort of existence is matched only by the carefree nature and humour of someone let loose in a shopping mall with no restrictions on rules, money or anything else - quite a refreshing change until the zombies appear in the picture and you get the reminder of the gravity of the situation.
Overall then, one for the zombie and gore lovers, and indeed anyone else even if they're not particular fans of the genre. This is horror genius at work - I loved it.
This boxset featuring one Blu-Ray and two DVDs is released by Arrow Films, and will set you back £10 on amazon.
The 1970s, as everyone knows, was the last golden age of American cinema. This applies as much to horror as to mainstream films. Horror became socially relevant, satirical, viciously downbeat, and extremely violent. Among the iconic American horror movies of the 70s, the one that stands above all others in terms of both critical acclaim and cult following, is Dawn of the Dead. It is very probably the greatest horror film ever made.
The dead have risen and are attacking the living, with an insatiable hunger for their succulent flesh. As society falls apart around their ears, four survivors - a TV producer, a helicopter pilot, and two members of a police SWAT team - hole up in a shopping mall, living in relative comfort while the zombies mass outside. But how long can their idyll last?
The film is a magnificent piece of work. The horror of the situation is brought home brilliantly in the very first scene, a gore-free sequence in the TV station where Fran, the heroine, works. The chaos of the situation is beautifully realised, and the dawning realisation that the old world is gone is probably the single most horrifying thing in the film. Already Romero's pessimism about human nature is in full flow, as security guards pedantically check meaningless security passes and a producer keeps out-of-date information on air because he doesn't want to lose ratings.
But although there's some cerebral horror to make you shudder, the film also throws in plenty of fine suspense sequences - such as when Stephen, the chopper pilot, is being stalked through a generator room by a zombie - and, of course, lots of gore. The famous early sequence in which a SWAT team invades a tenement full of zombies is viscerally unpleasant and has some genuinely frightening moments. The zombies are always there, an ever-present threat, their sheer numbers overwhelming.
The zombies themselves, while gruesome, are also used for comic relief. The zombie nun or the Hare Krishna zombie are pretty funny, and the way they lumber around the mall in a daze is played more for laughs than shivers. The final battle has a strong slapstick element, and also has the most excessive gore, the kind of thing you'd find in the less reputable 50s horror comics. Zombies blunder to their deaths, slip on ice rinks and dumbly mill around the locked entrances of the mall. The satire of consumerism isn't subtle, but when were subtle satires effective?
The film crams in a lot of social comment - the racism of the SWAT team, the uselessness of both religion and science in the face of apocalypse, the greed of people for whom possessions should now be meaningless - but it doesn't get in the way of the monster movie splatter stuff. The film perfectly balances being subversive and a massive crowd pleaser at the same time (albeit a crowd of horror fans - it's probably a bit too gory for people who don't like horror).
It's very well directed, making brilliant use of the shopping mall location (filming was done at night in real stores). It looks mournfully beautiful when it escapes the confines of the mall, and the framing of shots is often terrific - Romero was far more than just a splatter director. The acting is also excellent. None of the cast are terribly familiar (Ken Foree, who plays the hero, Peter, is in a few other horror movies), but they're all pitch perfect as more-or-less ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The film was co-financed by Italian director Dario Argento, and his favourite band, Goblin, provide some of the incidental music, dolorous synth tunes. Much better are the pieces of library music used in the shopping mall, usually to ironic effect (the most famous, a piece called 'The Gonk', is used as the closing theme to the lame American animated comedy Robot Chicken).
The only weakness, perhaps, is that some of the gore effects are a bit too obviously fake. One zombie has a big square head (like Karloff in Frankenstein), so it's pretty obvious it's going to explode or something. And some of the latex skin that gets ripped open is unconvincing. Oh, and some of the zombie continuity is shaky, with distinctive zombies turning up long after they should have been killed. But these aren't major things.
All in all, this is one of the best films in any genre to be made in the 1970s, although it's too violent to really find mainstream approval. A remake appeared in 2004, but although entertaining, it took a film that was about lots of things, and remade it so it was about nothing. Watch this instead.
This boxset more or less replicates the old Region 1 Anchor Bay release of the film. Clearly the only reason to buy it yet again is the fact that the theatrical version is presented in HD for the first time. And they've done a bang-up job. It wasn't big budget enough in the first place to ever look completely pristine, but they've done wonders with it. The level of detail is marvellous, with the textures of clothing being the thing I always notice the most. I'm picking up on things I'd hardly noticed before, such as the lights all slowly going out in a skyscraper behind the characters as they wait by their helicopter. That's the beauty of Blu-Ray - it lets you feel like you're seeing films you know well for the first time. This is the best I've ever seen the film looking.
It's region free, and uncut - the last UK release I saw famously cut an exploding head. Arrow have been getting a bad reputation for releasing rather shoddy Blu-Rays, but this one is well worth your money.
The Blu-Ray has various extras. There are two commentaries, both taken from the Anchor Bay edition. There's a very good one from Romero, make-up artist Tom Savini, and Mrs Romero, who was assistant director. And there's a very boring one from producer Richard Rubinstein. Sadly the cast commentary that appeared on the Anchor Bay set is not included here. There's an old documentary, Document of the Dead, shot during the filming of Dawn and featuring extensive interviews with Romero and various crew and cast. It's OK, but a bit pretentious, offering us a rather laboured critique of the film as well as an unofficial 'making of'. This isn't in HD, and the picture quality is a bit ropey.
The final extra on this disk is Fan of the Dead, a 50-minute video in which an enthusiastic French fan tries to visit as many of the locations from Romero's 'Dead' trilogy as he can. This is a lot more fun than I expected, and he goes to most of the locations anyone would remember. The best bit is when he goes to a convention in the mall where it was filmed and meets various actors and zombies.
There are two other versions of the film included in this set, each on its own DVD (a shame they're not on Blu-Ray too). Part of Dawn's cult is its bizarre patchwork existence in several different versions, each containing something you won't find in any of the others. It's nice that they included these, but they're for obsessive completists only. Naturally, I have watched both.
I'm not sure where the Director's Cut comes from, as Romero is reportedly happiest with the theatrical cut. It has a few more minutes, mostly taken up in a couple of extra sequences that don't add a great deal. This is probably the least essential version.
Although 'only' a DVD, the picture quality on this is good. You'll also find the best extra on this disk, a thorough and entertaining 'making of' documentary which lasts for about 80 minutes. Almost everyone contributes - as well as Romero and his wife, there's the main cast, various zombies, several of the crew, Tom Savini, Dario Argento and Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin). One of the better documentaries of its type.
The Argento Cut is the version released in Europe. It's about seven minutes shorter than the main version. The biggest difference is that instead of the ironic library music in the mall scenes, it has a near-constant Goblin soundtrack, with tense rock/synth music accompanying almost everything. This changes the mood completely, and turns the film into more of a rollercoaster ride. It cuts some bits, including the semi-comic final zombie montage, and edits some of the violent bits more aggressively, notably Peter's encounter with the zombie children at the airstrip. The picture quality on this is slightly worse than on other versions. This was a huge hit in Italy, and spawned a whole cycle of ludicrously violent Italian zombie flicks. What they lacked in social comment they more than made up for in gore.
Extras wise on this disk, there's a documentary about gore maestro Tom Savini (seemingly part of a horror TV show), which is OK. Savini's a genuinely likeable guy whose enthusiasm for his work shines through. The picture quality could be better, but it's always watchable. There's also a collection of trailers of varying quality (including a few for other films).
Rounding out the package is a reversible sleeve with various (not too good) art options; and a decent booklet about the film, which is let down slightly by being full of typos.
The booklet describes Dawn of the Dead as The Godfather of horror, which is pretty accurate. It's funny and scary and thoughtful. It's seriously classy while still being slightly disreputable in the way all great horror films are. This is probably the finest horror film ever made. And, barring a cinema re-release, this is the best way to see it.