(A.k.a. ZOMBI; ZOMBIE: DAWN OF THE DEAD)
Is any introduction really necessary?
Oh okay, here we go. Briefly.
Several years after the events of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, where the recently deceased had started to inexplicably come back to life and feed on the flesh of the living, the zombie pandemic has spread worldwide. In America, the police and the National Guard work together to try and keep order on the streets, while society collapses as the undead begin to outnumber those still breathing.
The film opens in a chaotic TV station where a news broadcast fills us on the anarchy occurring in the world outside. Amid all this disorder, two of the station's employees - traffic reporter Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend TV executive Francine (Gaylen Ross) - plan escape to a calmer clime in the former's helicopter. Their friend, police S.W.A.T. team member Roger (Scott H Reiniger) is due to meet them outside the station on this night so they can sneak away together.
Roger turns up following an eventful evening being involved in a bloody shoot-out against immigrants and zombies in a tenement in the slums. It's here that he met fellow S.W.A.T. team member Peter (Ken Foree). The pair quickly bonded and, to Stephen's visible distaste, Roger has also brought his new pal along for the ride.
Once airborne, this disparate quartet gets a true flavour of just how widespread the zombie problem is. Everyone from the army to local redneck farmers are out in the fields below shooting the walking dead, either as a public duty or drunken pastime.
Eventually our protagonists decide to land their chopper on the roof of a remote shopping mall, with a mind to stocking up on vital supplies. However, upon breaking into the building and realising they are safe from the zombies while they stay holed up on the top floor, they soon decide to stay there longer. After all, the empty stores below have plentiful provisions - all these guys have to do is outrun the ambling ghouls who keep returning to their favourite stores each day through a force of habit. That, and ensure that the entrance to their top floor sanctuary is never compromised ...
Obviously there's much more to late writer-director George A Romero's 1978 classic than that. But chances are you've all skimmed past the synopsis as it is: DAWN OF THE DEAD is one of the most celebrated contemporary horror films of all time.
Filled with energetic performances, muscular direction, snappy dialogue, superbly choreographed gory action (bolstered to no end by Tom Savini's iconic, creative FX work) and wry humour, DAWN is also peppered throughout with social commentary. Be it the zombies whose muscle memory compels them to return to the mall daily as a metaphor for the American obsession with consumerism, the telling inability for the survivors to pull together even in a critical situation (a trait shared by all of Romero's DEAD films), or the moment where a television with no reception is switched off by one character only for another character to turn it back on and continue watching a snowy screen: DAWN is filled with acute observations on the downfall of modern society. And this is a film clocking in at 42 years old at the time of writing!
That's not to mention the film's iconic score, or its perfect pacing, or unforgettable set-pieces ...
Again, I feel like I'm preaching to the converted. So let's cut to the chase and look at Second Sight's new bells-and-whistles UK blu-ray release.
Now, it has to be said at this point that Second Sight have released simultaneous blu-ray and 4K UHD editions of DAWN OF THE DEAD. I'm focusing on the blu-ray edition, and we were sent the first three discs of this formidable set for review purposes. Those discs contain new restorations of three different cuts of the film - the theatrical cut, the extended Cannes cut and Dario Argento's European release cut. I'll mention the additional bonus features that weren't made available to review, later in this write-up.
So, disc one. The theatrical cut - which is effectively the director's cut, the version that Romero edited for distribution and personally preferred. All versions in this release are uncut, with this one clocking in at 127 minutes and 7 seconds in length.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p MPEG4-AVC presentation showcases a new 4K scan and restoration of the original camera negative. This was overseen by Second Sight themselves at post-production company Final Frame's offices in London and New York. Crucially, the restoration was further supervised and approved by DAWN's director of photography, Michael Gornick. The booklet contained within Second Sight's limited-edition set explains the process of their "labour of love" restoration work in greater detail.
Put simply, the results are superb. From the opening scene with the red carpeted wall behind Ross, it's evident that the colour palettes here are richly vivid but superbly controlled. Images are bright but never unnaturally so, a thin layer of fine grain retaining the film its organic texture. While some early moments may exhibit brief moments of softness, the increased detail and heightened clarity on offer - which if anything appears to improve as the film progresses - is quite remarkable. Contrast is strong, blacks are solid ... for a low-budget film of this age, DAWN scrubs up extremely well in this new restoration.
English audio comes in options of 1.0 mono, 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround and 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Each track can't help but impress with its cleanness, clarity and even balance. Optional English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing. These are easily readable at all times, and free from any obvious typos.
There are two audio commentary tracks to complement this theatrical cut. The first is an archive one featuring Romero, Forrest and Savini. This was originally recorded for Anchor Bay's 2004 US DVD release and is efficiently moderated by Perry Martin.
This is a relaxed, genial track which begins with Romero's memory failing him a couple of times (Forrest has to remind him that they weren't married at the time of shooting): he soon finds his rhythm and proceeds to amiable offer a wealth of information.
Among topics discussed are: how Argento's cut excised much of the film's humour, thus presenting a film much more grim in tone - something Romero attributes to the movie suffering such heavy censorship in Europe and the UK; the benefit s of working with a crew that are familiar with one another and the sense of on-set camaraderie this invokes; the effects that work best and those that aren't so successful, as well as Savini's enduring gripe about the blood's overly theatrical and bright hue; Savini's secondary role on the shoot as a stuntman; the mixed variety of music used in the film; some familiar faces witnessed amongst the extras; a mini-debate about the worth of CGI; the possibility - at the time this track was recorded - of Romero directing a fourth DEAD film, etc.
The theatrical cut's second audio commentary track is newly recorded for Second Sight's release. You can thank film historian Travis Crawford for this highly informative and constantly engaging proposition. Crawford's track was recorded during the current Covid-19 worldwide hoo-hah and parallels between the world in 2020 and Romero's film are not lost on our host. He also goes into some detail about Romero's original concept for DAWN, where the director envisaged a much darker film where the protagonists were a naked couple - the woman being heavily pregnant throughout the film. Crawford's track also provides the best source for identifying and detailing differences between each version of the film.
Disc two furnishes us with the extended cut which was used for the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This version clocks in at 139 minutes and 29 seconds.
The bulk of this transfer is the same restoration as that used on disc one, with additional 4K scanning work performed on the extended cut's colour reversal inter-negative for the additional scenes. Consequently, this presentation is of an equally high standard, with no visible change in quality when the additional scenes appear.
Audio-wise, this version comes with one option: English 1.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. As is the case with disc one, this audio track has been newly restored from the original optical track negative and is once again superb. Again, there are no issues with the optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles on offer.
The only extra on this second disc is another archive audio commentary, this time with producer Richard P Rubinstein. Martin turns up once more to moderate proceedings, again doing a sterling job of fishing priceless nuggets of trivia from his subject and keeping events ticking over nicely at all times. Rubinstein sheds more light throughout the chat about the working relationship with Argento during production, backing up Romero's claims that co-producer Argento's grim European cut of DAWN harmed its chances of getting past the UK censors. He also believes DAWN contains gratuitous violence, and yet distinguishes the franchise from the likes of FRIDAY THE 13TH or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET - both of which he says he could never produce himself. Rubinstein also covers the great reaction the film got at its Cannes screening; how the film's actual budget came in at $640,000; a lot of detail about how the project originally came about - with Romero envisaging a trilogy; the film's distribution from a producer's point of view, and so on.
Disc three affords us the opportunity to check out the controversial cut that Dario Argento prepared for European audiences, using a different score in many scenes (utilising more of the fantastic Goblin soundtrack) and stripping away several of the film's more humorous sequences.
This version is also uncut at 119 minutes and 37 seconds in length. The transfer used here is an earlier one, a 4K scan of the inter-positive conducted by Michele De Angelis at Backlight Digital studios in Rome. Picture quality is very strong, but noticeably different in presentation to the previous two cuts on offer. Colours are more muted and the general aesthetic tone is slightly darker. And yet, images are still sharp and clean with plenty of fine detail on offer.
Once again, we get English audio proffered to us in choices of 1.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. Optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing? Sure.
We get another archive audio commentary track at this juncture. This one comes courtesy of co-stars Foree, Ross, Emge and Reiniger. This is a comparatively mirthful track which quickly establishes how friendly this foursome is. Foree takes the lead throughout, but all get to offer fond memories of the shoot along this enjoyable journey.
Each disc opens to an animated main menu page. Pop-up menus include a scene selection menu which, for each cut of the film, proffers twelve chapters.
Though not provided for review purposes, this release is fleshed out with the following:
A fourth blu-ray disc which contains somewhere in the region of eight hours of bonus features. Deep intake of breath, these are summarised below.
"Zombies and Bikers", an enjoyable new 59-minute documentary featuring interviews with Savini, Forrest, Taso Stavrakis, John Amplas, Jim Krut (the zombie who famously gets scalped by a helicopter blade) and many more.
"Memories of Monroeville", a fresh 34-minute tour of the mall used in the film. Savini, Gornick, Stavrakis and Tom Dubensky are our hosts.
"Raising the Dead". This is a 25-minute featurette focusing on the production logistics of this sequel. We get more of a talking heads-style approach here, interspersed with lots of cool archive stills and footage. Rubinstein, Forrest, Gornick, Amplas, Dubensky and Stavrakis are all present.
Savini is the focus of the 13-minute chat that is "The FX of DAWN", finding the special effects artist talking about creating a whole host of pioneering grisly images, while sitting in front of an array of gruesome latex heads from his illustrious legacy. He's still moaning about the colour of the blood in the film.
"Dummies! Dummies!" is a most welcome new 12-minute chat with actor Richard France.
We also get a lost archival interview with Romero himself, where he reminisces over where DAWN fit into his career. This 20-minute proposition is another offering which is new to this release.
But, wait, there's more! We also get a significant amount of archive extras to bulk out affairs. These begin with 13 minutes of Super 8 footage shot in the mall by zombie extra Ralph Langer. This illuminating footage even comes with the option of commentary by Langer.
Then there are two versions of Roy Frumkes's celebrated feature-length documentary DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD. Although listed as the original 66-minute version, we actually get the extended 91-minute version and the "definitive" 102-minute cut with optional commentary from Frumkes.
"The Dead Will Walk" is another acclaimed archive documentary, this one clocking in at 75 minutes in length. Rounding out the disc are a further 18 minutes of trailers, TV spots and radio spots.
Apparently these four discs are planned to be re-released at some future point as a pretty sweet boxset. In the meantime, this current Second Sight limited edition release contains a few more exclusive extras:
Three CDs which between them contain the original Goblin soundtrack (plus bonus tracks), and De Wolfe Library compilations parts one and two.
A 160-page hardback book containing seventeen new essays on the films themes and influence, along with numerous archive articles, another Romero interview and lots of colourful stills.
The original novelisation of the film in paperback form, co-written by Romero and Susanna Sparrow.
Packaging itself is a thing of beauty: upon lifting off the outer box's lid, you'll find inside two inner digipaks containing the seven discs between them, and the two books.
The blu-ray release is region B encoded. As mentioned earlier in my review, this stunning set has also been released in a region-free 4K UHD edition.
Some may say this is overkill. Others will argue this is DAWN OF THE DEAD's most definitive release so far. It's certainly a film whose reputation and following is deserving of the "special edition" treatment, with Second Sight really going the extra mile in that latter department.
An undisputed genre classic - even though Romero himself admits in his commentary track that it isn't scary - DAWN OF THE DEAD has earned its place in horror history and is thoroughly deserving of this exemplary release.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight|