“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth…”
George A Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead arrives in limited edition box sets on both 4K UHD and Blu-ray. These releases are the ultimate collector’s edition for fans of the cult classic horror movie.
Although Romero began his foray into the zombie genre a decade earlier with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, it was Dawn of the Dead that truly made an impact on popular culture and established the ever-burgeoning zombie sub-genre. There would have been no The Walking Dead or any other modern zombie series had Dawn of the Dead never been made.
As with many movie classics, the plot is straightforward. There has been an outbreak of a highly contagious virus that re-animates the dead, who stagger around unconscious of anything save for an insatiable need to feast on the flesh of the living. One bite from a zombie is lethal – it will kill the victim, who then in turn becomes a zombie post-mortem to kill more of the living. It’s a terrifying fate worse than death.
Four survivors of the outbreak – civilians Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross) escape in a helicopter with two members of a SWAT team charged with eradicating zombies, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger). With limited fuel, they settle nearby, choosing a shopping mall to hunker down and try to ride out the pandemic, however long it may last. After all, they have plentiful access to food, weapons and supplies. Two problems: the shops below their base are riddled with zombies, and other, more dangerous outsiders turn up on motorbikes with the same idea, and they have no intention of sharing the limited and dwindling resources.
Romero’s unrelentingly entertaining film is full of classic horror moments and is genuinely chilling. From deadly whirling helicopter blades to the basement massacre when Peter and Roger meet, it’s full of memorable flashes of creative genius. It also boasts a clever, eminently quotable script which was developed with the master of the Italian giallo movie, Dario Argento. His stylistic stamp is all over the film, not least in the atmospheric and bombastic soundtrack that he composed. Although the set-pieces are delivered with considerable aplomb, and everyone will have their favourite moment, there is depth to the movie that gives it even more impact. The zombies congregating in the shopping mall, and the way in which the survivors break into the shops to loot new clothes, undoubtedly makes a satirical point about rampant consumerism – even though in the movie it’s mostly human flesh being consumed on screen.
Dawn of the Dead also ties in seamlessly with contemporary concerns, not just in the analogous way in which zombies force us to ask questions about what direction we ought to have in our lives and how we ought to co-exist with fellow humans. But in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has scared everyone and created a distance in how people interact, lessening human contact and eroding trust between one another as much as with the authorities, Dawn of the Dead can be viewed in a whole new light. It originally emerged at around the same time as the BBC’s thoughtful science-fiction series ‘Survivors’. That story followed the struggle to stay alive and rebuild society of a small band of those immune to a disease that had all but wiped out the human race. Dawn of the Dead already resonated with our concerns in the 1970s. Over four decades on, it is no less powerful or thrilling a viewing experience.
Another factor that lifts the movie head and shoulders above the many imitators that came in its wake is its ability to unseat the audience with unexpected moments of levity. The scene in which the survivors go on a mission to surge through the zombies and make away with a car intended as a prize draw reveals them to relish the danger. Later, along with comedic incidental music, zombies are spattered in the face with custard pies. It’s audacious to pull off comic relief and risk sending up your monsters, but Romero manages it brilliantly. He leaves you terrified all over again minutes later with an unbearably tense scene as one of the heroes is trapped in a lift. If the film is frequently suspenseful, that sequence takes the toe-curling terror to a whole new level.
The cast give Romero fantastic performances. The four lead survivors become a team that you can’t help but care about and root for. The dependable Ken Foree is rock solid as the serious Peter. His delivery of the immortal quotation that opens this review is the definition of chilling. Foree is a great example of a black actor in a leading role in a film made last century, which is another reason why Dawn of the Dead has stood the test of time. The charming David Emge is charismatic as Stephen, and the tension and slight mistrust between he and Peter that has to be overcome is a driving force of the film. It’s incomprehensible, given that Emge looked so damned cool in leather flying jacket and aviator shades, and is outstandingly good throughout the movie, but most especially at its climax (avoiding spoilers) that he didn’t go on to enjoy a career as a major leading player. Despite that mystery, his turn in Dawn of the Dead assures his movie immortality.
Gaylen Ross is inarguably somewhat underused as Francine. Having said that, she has moments where she comes into her own, and her character develops as she grows in confidence as the story progresses, playing a pivotal role in the survivors’ futures. Ross makes the most of all of her screen time. Finally, Scott H. Reiniger as Roger is arguably the most sympathetic of all of the central characters, and has many of the best and funniest lines. His buddy chemistry with Foree ensure the two are a joy to watch, which ultimately makes their storyline all the more horrifying and heart-rending.
If you’ve never seen Dawn of the Dead but enjoy zombie flicks, stop what you’re doing and add this release to your collection. If you’re already bitten by the bug, then this multiple-disc Blu-ray edition is something you’ll adore. The first disc contains the original 127-minute theatrical cut with a 4K restoration from the original camera negatives. The picture and sound quality is astounding, and the Argento-influenced red-carpeted wall behind Gaylen Ross in the opening shot has never looked more vivid. You can also enjoy an audio commentary with the late George A Romero, Tom Savini and Christine Forrest. There’s a new additional commentary track by Travis Crawford.
The other discs put plenty of meat on the bone with an abundance of extra features. The second contains the extended 4K 137-minute Cannes cut, with commentary by producer Richard P Rubinstein. The third disc is the Argento cut, a two-hour version with Italian titles (calling the movie ‘Zombi’). The commentary on this one is well worth a listen as it teams up the four leading actors, who have a great time talking about making the movie and seem to remain very fond of one another.
For those who can’t get enough of extra features, hone in on disc four, which should sate the greediest of appetites. As an addict for visiting TV and movie locations, I was especially impressed with ‘Memories of Monroeville’, a 34-minute feature in which members of the crew return to the much-unchanged shopping mall in Pennsylvania which was the major location for the movie. There is an hour-long Zombies and Bikers documentary, which catches up with bit part bikers and zombies, as well as surviving members of the production team. You can find two cuts of Document of the Dead, the partially-animated film by Roy Frumkes that paid homage to Romero’s work. The longest documentary is the 80-minute The Dead Will Walk 2014 Documentary. Whatever angle you’re interested in, there will be an extra feature covering it.
The remaining discs in the box-set comprise audio CDs of the soundtrack. The ornate packaging contains two books, one factual, the other Romero’s own novelisation of the movie. Second Sight Films have truly thrown the kitchen sink at this stunning release.
It’s time to enjoy Dawn of the Dead in all it’s gory glory. For a relatively low-budget film, Romero created something special that ensured every dollar of funding ended up on screen. Dawn of the Dead is not only damned cool, but also a masterpiece of the horror genre that, as far as zombies are concerned, will never be bettered.
Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross Director: George A Romero Writers: George A Romero, Dario Argento Certificate: 18 Duration: 127 mins Released by: Second Sight Films Release date: 16th November 2020 Buy Dawn of the Dead