Night of the Living Dead began with comic, petty sibling rivalry and ended with a grainy, no survivors photo montage. It would be tough to envision a grimmer slide into pure nihilism. One decade later, George A. Romero opened his post-apocalyptic sequel Dawn of the Dead with a horrifying SWAT raid through a zombie-infested ghetto tenement, complete with make-up artist Tom Savini’s Karo-filled-condom gore fireworks, and concluded with, among other absurdities, a pie fight and final credits to the lunatic polka accompaniment of “The Gonk.” Though this emphatic tonal inversion could be written off in any number of ways (not the least of which could be: “Romero’s finally snapped”), I think it’s the key to understanding the film and its relation to its predecessor.
Dawn begins more or less at the same point that Night left off, with chaos reigning and a fragmented populace suicidally dividing itself over how to handle the zombie invasion (though the social concerns of the ‘60s are notably in the distant past). Two SWAT cops and a pair of young lovers from the city TV station hop aboard a helicopter and seek refuge somewhere, anywhere away from the volatile wasteland of their urban environment. This is the first of Romero’s reversals. Night‘s besieged would-be survivors were trapped in a rural farmhouse, and their only hope for survival was represented by the hope for escape to the City. Like much of America in era, Dawn‘s pampered protagonists abandon the unpredictable, ethnically diverse city in favor of the comforting anonymity of suburban USA—specifically, the suburban mall at which they land and eventually inhabit. Romero’s distinctly Pittsburghian sensibilities can’t be underestimated when explaining Dawn‘s appeal; the Monroeville Mall perfectly evokes the feel of a hollow monument standing at the center of a community that couldn’t be bothered to define itself any more distinctively than could be represented by their choice between Florsheim or Kinney’s shoes. The mall, in essence, shoulders the burden of their identity.
Once the four make unto themselves an idyllic paradise inside the mall, cleansing it of zombies and sealing if off for themselves, they inevitably cave in to the buyer’s delight, so buried in furs, guns, diamonds, and leather (and, ludicrously, cash) that they ultimately end up oblivious to the approaching motorcycle gang that threatens to crash the party. Eventually the gang breaks through the barricades (and, somehow, the moat of zombies still drawn to the mall because, according to one character, it reminds them of something they used to need) and anarchically turn the film upside down, transgressively taunting the zombies, stealing their jewelry, smashing their pusses with cream pies, and chopping their heads off for sport, not survival. Again, the way Romero portrays the roving gang is a distinct retraction from how, for instance, he painted Karl Hardman’s tantrum-prone Harry Cooper character in Night. As least in the first film, opposition didn’t equal antagonism. Here, Romero’s world contains strains of humanity (probably detritus on exodus from the City) that, as demonstrated by their lack of respect for the zombies, could be justifiably considered “worse” than death.
As countless undergrad thesis papers have already delved into in far greater detail, the cumulative effect of these thematic reversals points to Romero’s big message: that if the often bleak ‘60s of Night were defined by their radical political activism, then the insipidly optimistic ‘70s of Dawn are a testament to the politics of retrenchment, consumerist balm and self-immobilization. (Even Dawn‘s Tempra paint blood is like eye candy—I’ve got to buy it!—compared to the brackish smears of chocolate syrup in Night.) Many of Romero’s other disturbing propositions still remain (for example, what happens to the souls of the living who are devoured by the dead, given they don’t experience the same pseudo-reincarnation?), but Dawn‘s most unsettling aspect is in how it shows us how little we’ve changed as a culture.
Okay, are you sitting down? Anchor Bay has presented the film in no less than three separate cuts. The one that "counts," per se, is probably the "U.S. theatrical version," which lands the primo disc one spot, along with frickin' four audio options: 5.1 DTS and 5.1 surround (both of which are basically the same track), 2.0 stereo and the original mono mix. Basically, the original mono is the foundation, and it sounds pretty good (if a tad cottony with the dialogue and way overmodulated with The Goblins score). The other tracks don't do much more than open the sound up, and some of the forced directionality is more distracting than illuminating. But for what they were working with, I doubt the sound could've been any better. The DiviMax video transfer is even better. The orange intestines, the ashy skin, the blue-gray of Tom Savini's jeans nearly fraying from the pressure exerted by his taut thighs are all as vivid as possible. The pitch black of the mall's utility room is particularly evocative and well presented. The other two cuts (the extended Cannes version and the European Dario Argento edit) are basically as good, though neither have the DTS track, and in fact the extended version only has a mono option.
To be as brief as possible, the extra features will take you longer to get through than all three cuts combined. With three versions of the film come three commentary tracks, naturally. The first disc features Romero, his wife Chris, and Savini; the second features Richard Rubenstein; and the third brings together the four leads. Rubenstein's commentary is probably the most monotonous, but it's nice to hear a single voice given the chance to wax solitarily. In contrast, the other two tracks are riotous and communal. Finest moment of the first commentary track: Chris expresses to her husband just how stupid she thinks the pie fight actually is. Finest moment of the third track: Ross economically unpacks Romero's questionable approach to feminism and his latent Catholic dogmatism. Well, that and the revelation that Reiniger took cold showers a lot on the set. Or the notion that there's homo subtext all over the film (love between soldiers). Or Ross explaining that the crew wouldn't let her meet financier Dario Argento until she put on make-up. In short, everyone's having a great time on the tracks, and they're all great listens. Divvied up among the first three discs are endless galleries of stills, posters, production photos, as well as domestic and international trailers. Incidentally, the Italian trailer has arguably the single greatest closing "stinger" shot ever. Finally, the fourth disc, titled "Documentaries," has a pair of, what do you know, documentaries. First is the newly produced, typically artless but duly informational Anchor Bay production The Dead Will Walk, with a cast of thousands and more anecdotes than can be replicated here. On the other end is the vintage "making of" documentary by Roy Frumkes, Document of the Dead, which is nearly as classic in Dawn's fan circles as the actual film. The print they used has probably seen better days, but it's thoughtful, in-depth, downright academic at turns, and includes copious amounts of behind-the-scenes footage, which makes the also included 13 minutes of on-set home movies a bit redundant, but still worthwhile. There's also home video taken during a tour of the Monroeville Mall by Ken Foree, who leads some of the film's most fanatic followers through the utility room, the Penney's store, and other immortal locations. Finally, I found an Easter egg: a brief clip of a Buddhist monk exclaiming that Dawn is one of his favorite films.
If the endless gallery of box covers from previous video versions of Dawn of the Dead are any indication, this "Ultimate Edition" will probably keep you occupied just until the "Definitive Edition."