DAWN OF THE DEAD: ULTIMATE EDITION (DVD) Image

I think it’s safe to say that most people have fears. Some have them to the point of extreme, and I guess these could be referred to as phobias. More often than not, these fears are about tangible things like heights, enclosed spaces, snakes, or spiders. Then there are those of us who have irrational fears. We fear things that will never, ever happen. I’m going to confess to having one of those fears, and up until this point I’ve only admitted it to my wife. I have an irrational fear of being attacked and eaten by the undead.

On the surface, this might seem silly, but let me tell you there are times when I find myself driving down country roads in the middle of the night and in my mind’s eye I can see zombies shambling up from the sides of the road. I even start making conscious decisions of what I would do if they in fact DID start shambling towards me. (Speeding up comes to mind…).

Sometimes, when I get up in the middle of the night to get a bottle for the baby, I look out through our sliding glass doors to the field behind the house and again, my imagination runs a bit wild.

Now, I realize I will never have to deal with real zombies, shambling or otherwise, so the fear does not get so bad as to lose sleep or hide under the bed. Though I will admit to locking the bedroom door from time to time, but this is more to give would be robbers a harder time getting in while I’m sleeping (uh-huh, sure…). The really funny thing is how I’ve dealt with this irrational fear over the years. First and foremost is that I watch any movies that I can on the subject (this way I can learn what to do and what not to do to survive a zombie attack), and have spent a good number of years working as an effects artist in the haunted house business. Yep, that’s right. I surround myself with all manner of creatures, monsters and zombies on nearly a daily basis. Go figure. Of course, if any of the guys I work with read this review and learn of my fear, my life will become a living hell. (So, if any of you ARE reading this, I’m just making it up for the sake of this review.)

What all of this has to do with the new DVD release of “Dawn of the Dead” is that by writing about this, it not only allows me a cathartic release of this otherwise secret fear but lets you know that I’m somewhat of an expert on the subject of the undead. When I tell you that “Dawn of the Dead” is one of the greatest zombie movies ever made, there’s a real good chance you’ll lend some credence to my opinion.

I’ve long been a fan of the work of George Romero. His ‘Dead” trilogy still stands as one of the best series of its kind, and makes Romero the undisputed king of horror film fans everywhere. The original 1968 release of “Night of the Living Dead” was a groundbreaking film for the horror genre in that it not only pushed the envelope of what could be shown on camera, but also refrained from having the typical Hollywood ending where the ‘good guys’ win. For the time it was made, it was considered shocking and horrific, and in spite of its age and low budget status still gives some people the willies even to this day. Even more shocking to audiences at the time was it had an African American as the main lead. Long thought to be a bit of a social commentary on Romero’s part, he still claims that he chose the actor for no other reason than he was the best actor he had at the time.

Romero didn’t really set out to be a horror film director, but with the release eleven years later of “Dawn of the Dead”, that pretty much did it. Again Romero went against the Hollywood grain by refusing to make cuts to the film so that it would get an ‘R’ rating. He instead chose to release the film Unrated, which was often a death knell for most movies back in the 1970s as most theatres wouldn’t even play them. As a matter of fact, when I saw the premiere in El Paso (Texas), the theatre would only show it as a midnight movie.

If I can share another little personal side note, I was into the haunted house thing even back then while in high school. I went to the premiere with a friend, both of us dressed up as zombies. We sat outside the theatre box office and fought over and chewed on a couple of fake arms that had been filled with chopped up hot dogs and ketchup. The theatre manager loved it, some of the patrons… didn’t. We of course went into the theatre a little later and watched the movie, much to the discomfort of the couple we sat next to. (Hee Hee).

Though I was already a fan of horror films (and secretly ‘zombie-phobic’), seeing “Dawn of the Dead” made an impact on me with not only it’s visceral imagery, but its underlying social commentary. The special effects by Tom Savini were absolutely the grossest I had seen at the time, and I just ate it all up (both figuratively and literally). I set out to learn as much as I could about the creating these types of effects, and have fortunately had the opportunity to parlay that education into some really fun part and full time jobs. But what really set the film apart for me, was the social commentary I mentioned. The fact that Romero chose to set the main part of the movie in a mall really brought it home. Whether or not he really meant to, Romero’s vision of zombies lumbering about the mall is an image that I still carry with me every time I walk into one. And thanks to the ‘mall zombies’ I always find there, I don’t have to use much of my imagination to revisit the movie. Seriously, check it out the next time you go to the mall. Just look at all the vacant stares and aimless sense of motion. It’s eerie.

All of Romero’s ‘Dead’ films deserve to have the special edition treatment on DVD, and for the most part now they have. Elite Entertainment did a great job a couple of years ago with “Night of the Living Dead”, and Anchor Bay turned out terrific sets for both “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead. Now Anchor Bay is at it again with a new Ultimate Edition release of “Dawn of the Dead.” And boy oh boy, let me tell you it’s a doozy. Would you believe it has four discs? That’s right, I said FOUR discs.

At first I had to wonder if it was really necessary to release a set of this magnitude for one little zombie movie from the late 1970s. In a word, yes. The original of “Dawn of the Dead”, unlike its woefully underwhelming remake, was a groundbreaking film with more fans than you can shake a stick at. Those legions of fans certainly deserve the opportunity to have as much as they can get their hands on in terms of special features and versions of the film. Granted, there are those detractors who will accuse Anchor Bay of double, and even triple dipping into the pockets of the fans with all these releases, and that is fair assessment. However, they are not delivering crappy sets or wasting the fan’s money. They certainly get what they pay for. And in the end it comes down to a matter of choice. No one has to buy it. (But if you’re a fan, I highly suggest you do…)

This new set offers up 3 different version of the film. The original theatrical cut, the extended version, and the slightly longer European version (re-edited by the ever wacky Dario Argento). This is why this set is for the hardcore fan. They will have hours of fun comparing all the versions to see just what is different. (I myself prefer the original theatrical cut.) What is cool about the way these are set up is that each one has its own commentary track. The original theatrical cut is the same one that was done for Anchor Bay’s earlier Divimax version. It re-united George and Chris Romero with Tom Savini and is filled with interesting facts and trivia. And where Anchor Bay really made a good decision was in having the commentary moderated by Perry Martin, the DVD producer. By having Martin moderate, it kept the commentary focused didn’t allow for much meandering off the subject. It’s a very clear, concise and more importantly, interesting commentary.

The commentary on the extended version is done by producer Richard Rubenstein, again moderated by Martin. Of all the commentaries, his is probably the least interesting, but there is still some good stuff in there. Once you get to the European version, the track gets livelier again as we hear from cast members Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger. What is most interesting about this track is how different each actor feels about the experience and the film itself. It’s a fascinating track for hardcore fans.

Anchor Bay spread out a lot of the special features on the first three discs, offering up all manner of trailers, posters, galleries, etc… But it is on the fourth disc where we get to the heart of the matter. Back when they released the Divimax version, I lamented the fact that they didn’t include the documentary feature, “Document of the Dead.” I used to have VHS version of this documentary but had misplaced it over the years. Needless to say I was thrilled that it was finally included on this Ultimate DVD set. The feature was originally produced back in 1978 by Roy Frumkes and it followed the production of “Dawn…” and is full of tons of behind the scenes footage.

Perry Martin follows this up with an all-new documentary feature called “The Dead Can Walk”, which features a ton of interviews with most of the original cast and crew, and is a must watch for anyone who picks up this set. There are also two great featurettes that gives the viewer a tour of the Monroeville Mall (which was where the film was shot) along with some of the cast and crew, and a look at some on set home movies. They’ve even included a miniature version of the “Dawn of the Dead” comic book.

Earlier this year I saw the remake of “Dawn of the Dead”, which I was originally vehemently against. I’ve never been a big fan of remakes of classic films, and in this case I would have rather seen the money go to Romero so he could make a fourth ‘Dead’ film. I mean, why turn the franchise over to some hack to do a rehash, when you can have the Master turn out an all new and creatively different movie. Admittedly my tune changed a little after seeing it, and was slightly impressed by it. As far as zombie movies go, it was okay. However I would have still rather had the producers of that film name it something totally different and not try to ride the coattails of the success of the original. (I actually thought that instead of re-using the original tag line “When there is no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth”, they should have used “When there is no more creativity in Hollywood, the Hacks will re-write the Classics.”)

On a bright side note, Romero IS finally getting to film a fourth movie, “Land of the Dead” thanks to some foreign investors. Shooting is scheduled to begin in October and hopefully we’ll get to see it in theatres next year!!

Getting back to the new Ultimate Edition DVD, I do recommend grabbing a copy if you’re so inclined. Anchor Bay did a great job with the all discs and the packaging, making this a must have set.

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