Dawn of the Dead (1979)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Multiple Dolby formats
Anchor Bay Entertainment, $49.95

Dawn of the Dead (2004)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Universal Studios Home Video, $29.95

Excess is both the subject and a stylistic motif in George Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, so perhaps it’s appropriate that Anchor Bay’s four-disc special edition DVD is one of the most exhaustive sets ever devoted to a single film. Containing three separate cuts of the movie (the U.S. theatrical release, the European theatrical release, and an extended cut featuring footage not included in either previous version), multiple commentary tracks, three making-of documentaries and extensive promotional materials, the set is essential viewing for any horror fan.

The most satisfying of the film’s three incarnations is the 139-minute extended version. More is more when it comes to Dawn of the Dead, a commentary on American consumption that attempts to shock the audience out of its complacency with aggressive editing and some of the most graphic violence ever staged by a filmmaker of Romero’s stature. Yet the film is also filled with quiet, poignant moments. Though many associate the movie with heads blowing apart and bodies being torn to pieces, some of its best images grace contemplative passages in which the last surviving humans reflect on what they’ve lost.

In fact, 25 years after its release, what is most impressive about Dawn of the Dead is the wide range of tones and ideas that Romero stuffs into the tale — it’s a tragic love story, a boisterous action film, an apocalyptic horror movie, and occasionally even a slapstick comedy. First and foremost, however, it’s a satire on consumerism that feels even more prescient now than it did when it was released. Setting the action in a shopping mall, Romero unleashes a barrage of jokes mocking our obsession with shopping. In the film’s most famous exchange, one character asks another what draws zombies to the shopping mall. The answer: “Instinct.”

Romero and cinematographer Michael Gornick provide a counterpoint to the intense storyline, hyperactive editing, and gory violence with visuals that are completely lacking in self-consciousness. Gornick’s restrained camerawork make the carnage all the more horrifying and shocking, yet it’s also expressive enough to accentuate the emotional content of each scene.

Gornick’s cinematography has never gotten its due, probably because so many previous home-video releases of Dawn have featured uneven transfers that tended to wash out the images. Although two of the three remastered transfers in this package exhibit some flaws — some images appear slightly degraded in the European and extended cuts — overall these transfers are crisp and vibrant. The U.S. theatrical-release version can be watched with its original monaural soundtrack or with remastered Dolby and DTS surround sound, all of which do a fine job of showcasing the picture’s haunting sound design. Each version of the film has its own commentary track, and participants include the lead actors, Romero and several of his collaborators behind the camera.

A fourth disc is devoted to behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and documentaries. In addition to Document of the Dead, an insightful exploration of Romero’s work that has been issued on DVD previously, the disc contains a new 75-minute documentary titled The Dead Will Walk, which takes viewers through each step of Dawn of the Dead’s conception, execution and release. Also included is some terrific Super 8mm footage of the filmmakers creating zombie effects and action sequences (some of which are not featured in the finished film). Taken together, the supplements are a trove of technical information, amusing anecdotes, production details and critical analysis that will delight Dead aficionados.

Many fans of Romero’s film were appalled when Universal announced it was releasing a remake in 2004, yet the recently released DVD of the remake’s “director’s cut” reveals that the new version both respects and reinvents Romero’s cult classic. The filmmakers’ admiration for the original is evident in playful homages and appearances by key Romero collaborators such as special-effects artist Tom Savini, but screenwriter James Gunn clearly loves the first film enough to realize that it’s impossible to compete with it on its own terms. Thus, he and director Zack Snyder eschewed Romero’s social commentary and documentary realism, instead crafting a highly stylized siege film that owes as much to Assault on Precinct 13 as it does to the original Dawn of the Dead

Using oversaturated colors and a widescreen frame in which danger seems to be lurking in every dark corner, cinematographer Matthew Leonetti, ASC creates a disturbing visual landscape that resembles reality yet feels oddly foreign. The effect is similar to the ambience Leonetti achieved in 1995’s Strange Days, and Universal’s meticulous widescreen transfer of the picture beautifully conveys the audacity of Leonetti’s approach. (A full-frame version of the film is also available.)

Supplements include making-of featurettes focusing on the film’s gory special effects; deleted scenes; and a decent commentary track by Snyder and producer Eric Newman. The best extras are some clever companion pieces to the film, including a news broadcast documenting the growth of the zombie virus and a home video by one of the last survivors of the epidemic. These entertaining, self-contained short films (snippets of which are featured in the movie) suggest new possibilities for DVD technology and enhance the viewer’s appreciation of the feature film.

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.