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Dawn of the Dead  (Blu-ray)
Member Name: hogsflesh
Dawn of the Dead  (Blu-ray)
Advantages: Great Blu-Ray presentation of a classic film
Disadvantages: A shame the alternative versions are on DVD, not Blu-Ray
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human nature is in full flow, as security guards pedantically check meaningless security passes and a producer keeps out-of-date information on air because he doesn't want to lose ratings.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.
Summary: The best way to see this classic film
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