Lee Broughton returns with a review of a mammoth limited edition box set dedicated to George A. Romero’s gut-wrenching zombie apocalypse opus, the first sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Fine performances from a quartet of unfamiliar lead actors, hordes of malevolent zombies convincingly brought to life by hundreds of local volunteers, groundbreaking make-up and special effects by Tom Savini and a wholly involving storyline combine to make Romero’s finely crafted horror show a real winner.
Dawn of the Dead
Region B Blu-ray
1978 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 127 min., 137 min., 120 min. / Street Date 16 November, 2020 / Limited Edition / Available from Second Sight Films / £69.99
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross.
Cinematography: Michael Gornick
Set Decorators: Josie Caruso, Barbara Lifsher
Special Effects: Tom Savini, Gary Zeller, Don Berry
Original Music: Goblin (as The Goblins)
Produced by Richard P. Rubinstein, Dario Argento
Written, Edited and Directed by George A. Romero
Two local TV station employees, Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), attempt to escape the zombie apocalypse by absconding in a helicopter. Along for the ride are two AWOL SWAT team members, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger). The foursome land on the roof of a huge zombie infested shopping mall with a view to possibly picking up some supplies but they soon decide to stay there. They work hard to wrestle control of the shopping mall from the zombies but then have to face a new danger: an army of rogue bikers who are determined to take the shopping mall’s contents by force.
Dawn of the Dead was the film that ushered in the home video age for me. A schoolmate’s father was a very early adopter of the VHS video format and the gigantic top-loading video player that sat beneath the television set in the family’s sitting room soon had a pile of interesting looking video cassettes stored beside it. Most of them were horror films from the late 1970s and a copy of Dawn of the Dead usually had pride of place at the top of the pile. Thus it became the first film that I ever watched on the VHS format.
I knew George A. Romero’s older genre works from reading about Night of the Living Dead (1968) in a variety of horror film books and seeing The Crazies (1973) on TV. In terms of his more recent work, I had read Romero’s in-depth article on Martin (1977) in Dez Skinn’s House of Hammer magazine a few years earlier and had read a couple of reviews of Dawn of the Dead when it was playing in cinemas. But nothing could have prepared me for seeing the film that first time. So much about the whole experience that day was new.
As my schoolmate loaded the cassette and pressed the play button, I was aware that I was watching a film on a brand new (to me) format: VHS. I was also aware that I was watching a horror film in the middle of the afternoon. Until that moment on that day, watching horror films on a television set had been an activity that always involved staying up and watching a late night broadcast live. If you fell asleep partway through the transmission it was simply tough luck and you had to hope that the film might get a repeat broadcast one day.
Furthermore, the tone and general content of much of Dawn of the Dead was also new (to me) in one way or another: the non-stop cavalcade of realistically bloody special effects, the malevolent zombie hordes (grabbing and grasping with their tangled arms outstretched), the strange looking “helicopter” zombie, the ferocious zombie kids, the huge shopping mall, the bikers riding their bikes inside the shopping mall, zombies getting pied, the film’s distinctive colouring and its idiosyncratic soundtrack (the effective mix-and-match of Goblin’s exciting electronic-rock cues with the sometimes melodramatic or strange-sounding but always somehow on point library music cues).
For a kid brought up on Universal and Hammer horror films, that first viewing of Dawn of the Dead was all about the gory special effects, the acts of extreme violence and extreme horror that they enhanced and the high levels of tension and suspense that the film’s exciting and tightly edited narrative generated. I had seen and been thrilled by William Sachs’ pretty gory The Incredible Melting Man (1977) on the big screen a couple of years earlier but Dawn of the Dead was clearly a different kind of film and subsequent viewings allowed me to develop a more nuanced appreciation of Romero’s work.
I’ve always marvelled at the way that Romero was able to set the film’s back story up in just the time that it takes for its front credits to roll. The scenes of chaos that we see and the stressed-out conversations that we hear at the TV studios — along with the cutaways to the convincing “zombie crisis” debate that is being filmed and transmitted live from the studios — tell us everything that we need to know. By the time that the front credits have ended, we’re already fully primed and ready to move straight into the film’s main narrative arc. And Romero pulls no punches when he introduces the true nature of the zombie threat via Peter and Roger’s initial encounters with the living dead while on a SWAT manoeuvre.
Unlike most zombie films, there is no obvious zombie fodder to be found amongst the show’s four protagonists. Sure, these people are desperate and sometimes flawed individuals but they come across as real people who we soon come to identify with, care about and really root for. Forty years on and umpteen viewings later, the tragic ends that some of these characters meet still possess the power to hit me hard.
Maybe Romero’s characters capture our interest and remain compelling because he cleverly allows everyday problems of a human nature to trouble them as much as the zombies do at times. He’s able to show that — even in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and even when an individual has every possible consumer product that they might ever need right at their fingertips for free — common or garden relationship trivialities and petty household squabbles will inevitably arise.
Our protagonists look the image of domestic and consumerist bliss dressed to the nines in their opulently furnished “penthouse” suite atop the shopping mall but when a sense of routine becomes apparent — and with it, feelings of boredom — they’re soon reduced to effectively arguing about whether the television set should be on or off while they’re eating dinner. It’s worth noting that while consumerism is traditionally seen as a feminine trait, Francine is the last of the four to be seduced by what the shopping mall has to offer and the first to see the damage that seeking comfort and finding satisfaction in surrounding themselves with material things is doing to the group.
The film’s interesting gender politics become even more pronounced when Francine’s pregnancy comes to light and Peter feels the need to make his ability to effect an abortion known. The question of whether a baby should be born into a zombie-infested world isn’t articulated directly but it is clearly on all of the men’s minds and Francine — who is inadvertently eavesdropping from an adjacent room — is horrified by that very idea. It leads to the question of who should get to decide the baby’s fate if agreement cannot be reached: the mother or the father?
Francine and Stephen’s relationship is interesting on further levels. Peter and Roger are invaluable members of the group due to their SWAT-related skill sets. Stephen is also invaluable, as he knows how to fly the helicopter. But when it comes to shooting and fighting, he is the weakest performer amongst the men and he takes his feelings of inadequacy out on Francine when she necessarily begins to assert herself.
We know that Francine is a compassionate but strong woman from what we saw of her actions in the TV studio and she openly strives to get stronger when the group decide to stay on at the mall. She soon declares that she doesn’t intend just being the men’s cook and cleaner and she demands an equal say on the group’s future plans. Not only does she learn to shoot alongside Stephen, she also learns to fly the helicopter. So before long she has accumulated all of the important survival skill sets that had previously made the three men appear superior to her in the survival skills stakes.
Racial politics are also present in Dawn of the Dead and Peter’s African American identity is of interest here. Of the two SWAT men, Peter is more skilled in terms of tactical planning and foresight and he is a natural leader, which means that he gets to give orders and instructions to his white companions when needed (a reversal of the usual racial hierarchy encountered in most contemporaneous action-orientated films). Peter is also the most masculine of the men by virtue of his size and strength.
Furthermore, he possesses the attributes of a hero. He knows how to keep his eye on the ball, keep cool under pressure and look at situations in pragmatic and emotionally detached ways when necessary. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Roger or Stephen and their rash and woefully misjudged actions on two separate occasions ultimately result in some serious problems for the group.
As bad as the zombies are, Romero pointedly sets up two different types of human survivors as equally dangerous threats to the group. The first type is the National Guard and the trigger-happy redneck militias who coalesce around them. They pose an ever-present threat because, from the moment that they break into the shopping mall, the foursome are classified as looters who would be shot on sight by these armed authority figures. The second type is the equally trigger-happy rogue biker gang who are used to taking whatever they want by force.
Interestingly, Romero employs a kind of cinema vérité-cum-documentary-like aesthetic — and foregrounds non-actors — when he first introduces both the National Guard / militiamen and the biker gang, which brings a tangible sense of realism to the sequences in question. When zombies subsequently wander into these scenes — scenes which inherently possess a very high reality quotient — the effect is quite startling and this clever filmic slight of hand undoubtedly results in the zombies themselves feeling more real than they perhaps might have done otherwise.
Tom Savini’s make-up and the on point acting of so many of the film’s non-professional extras also plays a major role in making the zombies believable. For my money, Dawn of the Dead’s zombies might be the best looking — and the best choreographed — zombies ever to grace the silver screen. Furthermore, these exceptional zombies — when combined with the film’s compelling protagonists, its exciting and involving narrative and its impressive technical specifications (in spite of its low budget) — just might make Dawn of the Dead the best zombie film ever. It’s certainly the film by which all other zombie films must be judged.
Second Sight’s Region B Blu-ray of Dawn of the Dead represents a fairly mammoth undertaking. Three versions of the film (the theatrical cut [127 min.], the extended “Cannes” cut [137 min.] and Dario Argento’s shorter cut [120 min.]) are presented as 4K scans. Each cut of the film comes on its own dedicated disc and the set’s extra features are housed on a fourth disc. Additional restoration work was carried out on the theatrical cut of the film for this release and that cut in particular looks and sounds excellent. Note: the images used for illustrative purposes here are taken from older sources and do not reflect the excellent picture quality of the new Blu-rays.
The set’s brand new extra features kick off with Zombies and Bikers (58 min.), which rounds up many of the folk who played zombies and bikers in the film: Mike and Donna Savini (the zombie kids from the airport chart house), Trudy Gray and Nick Bomba Tallo (two of the “motorcycle raiders”) and a host of others describe how they heard about the film and how they got contracted as players while also providing anecdotes about the shoot. A number of these extras are now regular guests at horror cons and we see footage from the Living Dead Weekend con in which Jim Krut and Tom Savini recreate the infamous “helicopter” zombie special effect live on stage. Krut also takes us on a tour of the Harold W. Brown Memorial Airfield where the “helicopter” zombie sequence was shot.
Memories of Monroeville (34 min.) involves assistant cameraman Tom Dubensky, director of photography Michael Gornick, make-up/effects/actor/stuntman Tom Savini and actor/stuntman Taso Stavrakis taking a tour of the iconic Monroeville shopping mall and reminiscing about key aspects of the shoot there. Raising the Dead: The Production Logistics (25 min.) has Dubensky, Gornick, assistant director Christine Forrest and casting director/actor John Amplas discussing the film’s financing, production and initial release.
In The FX of Dawn (12 min.) Tom Savini discusses the groundbreaking special effects that he and his team created for the film. Dummies! Dummies! (12 min.) has actor Richard France (the bearded scientist with an eye-patch who is seen during some of the televised debates about the zombie crisis) discussing his relationship with Romero and his appearances in several of the director’s early films. The Lost Romero Dawn Interview (20 min.) is a previously unreleased interview in which George Romero gets to talk about the film in some clearly affectionate detail. In addition, Travis Crawford provides a new commentary track for the theatrical cut of the film and Ralph Langer provides a new commentary track for his Super 8 footage from the original shopping mall shoot.
A number of other extra features have been ported over from previous releases of Dawn of the Dead (see the disc specifications below for the full list). All told this set’s extra features are about as comprehensive as they come. There is a bit of overlap from feature to feature, with the same anecdotes being told several times in some instances, but the enthusiasm and affection that these anecdotes are told with means that they never really get old.
Also included in this Dawn of the Dead box set but not provided for review are three CDs (the first contains Goblin’s complete soundtrack score — which featured more heavily in Dario Argento’s cut of the film — while the remaining two CDs round up the De Wolfe music library cues that were used for much of Romero’s theatrical cut of Dawn of the Dead), a 160 page book that contains new writing on the film and a paperback novelisation.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Dawn of the Dead
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Four commentary tracks: 1. George A. Romero, Tom Savini & Christine Forrest; 2. Travis Crawford; 3. Richard P. Rubinstein; 4. Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross & David Emge. Plus featurettes Zombies and Bikers, Memories of Monroeville, Raising the Dead: The Production Logistics, The FX of Dawn, Dummies! Dummies!, The Lost Romero Dawn Interview, Ralph Langer’s Super 8 Mall Footage with two optional commentaries by Ralph and Robert Langer (13 min.), Document of the Dead (the original cut, 66 min.), Document of the Dead (the definitive cut, 100 min.) with optional commentary by Roy Frumkes, The Dead Will Walk (2014 documentary, 80 min.), trailers, TV and radio spots, 3 CDs of soundtrack music, a 160 page book featuring new writing on the film and a novelisation of Dawn of the Dead.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Rigid card box with a lid
Reviewed: December 6, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Lee Broughton
CineSavant Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson