George Romero's 1978 zombie classic 'Dawn of the Dead' was one of the first horror films I experienced and it defined terror in my young mind. Looking back, I don’t think it was the film’s rampant gore or its hordes of the undead that made it so disturbing. Instead, what I think truly terrified me was the film’s realistic depiction of humanity at its worst. I remember thinking, would we tear each other apart before the dead even got to us?
Unlike Romero's seminal 'Night of the Living Dead,' this sequel begins with a world in shambles. The undead have become an uncontainable plague and humanity's efforts to fight back are failing. Four survivors -- TV news technician Francine (Gaylen Ross), helicopter pilot Steven (David Emge), and SWAT team officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) -- barricade themselves in a local mall and attempt to wait out the chaos overtaking the world. While things are idyllic for a time, their safe haven begins to unravel as darker human elements attempt to invade their sanctuary and inadvertently give the undead access to the mall.
Much has been made of the social commentary Romero infused into 'Dawn of the Dead' -- and rightfully so. The film’s satire encourages viewers to question their lifestyles and priorities. But it's the script that really sells the flick and makes its stark commentary so successful. Simply put, 'Dawn of the Dead' is one of those rare horror movies that actually take the time to develop its characters into believable human beings. As a result, the tension is increased exponentially and I always feel a deep rooted fear or dread when chaos and tragedy erupts on the screen.
The performances are natural and the dialogue has been fine tuned to eliminate the kind of cringe-inducing lines common to lesser horror films. In fact, much of the character development takes place in total silence -- a wide-eyed glance, a shaking hand, a nervous tick. Even in the film's calm second act, there is an underlying anxiousness and sense of doom evident in each of the lead actors’ performances. Even though the performers are virtual unknowns, they effortlessly convey frustration when they miss a shot, anger at the persistent zombies, and a familiar selfishness when things go their way.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Tom Savini's morbid makeup and gore is so unsettling -– even though I've watched 'Dawn of the Dead' more than two dozen times over the years, there are many moments in the film that still turn my stomach and trouble my mind.
Having said all that, as much as I personally love the film, I should warn newcomers that thirty years on, 'Dawn of the Dead' does shows its age. Indeed, the uninitiated will likely laugh at the movie’s parade of '70s pop culture, sartorial fashions, and transparent practical effects. But even if some of film’s scares have lost some of their effectiveness as a result, its distressing undertones of helplessness remain as effective and relevant today as they ever were.
A genre-classic par excellence, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is smartly plotted, well-performed and immaculately staged. Newcomers may have a harder time initially diving into this one, but Romero’s meticulous character development will ultimately reward them for their efforts. A personal favorite, this is the one horror film I'd drag to a desert island before any other.
Presented in 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 codec, this Blu-ray edition of 'Dawn of the Dead' looks quite good when compared to the flick’s various DVD releases (even the 4-disc Ultimate Edition).
Colors are improved with reds dominating the palette with stability and vigor. Fine details are more crisp, and edges are sharp. There is a surprising amount of clarity in hair and clothing texture that I didn't expect to see in a low-budget film from 1978. Likewise, black levels are solid, and delineation offers natural visibility in the darkness. The print does show minor signs of wear with light scratches and blemishes, but the transfer doesn't exhibit any significant artifacting or source noise.
Unfortunately, while it is clear that a good deal of care was invested in making this release a success, I can’t rank this one among better catalog transfers released in high definition. The most prevalent problems are inconsistent grain spiking, contrast wavering, and motion blurring. Not a knock on the transfer per se, but the sharper resolution also reveals deficiencies in the practical effects and makeup application that I hadn't noticed with previous releases.
As it stands, fans will be happy to see how much better 'Dawn of the Dead' looks in high definition and may be able to overlook the imperfections. On the opposite side of the coin, Romero rookies may shrug their shoulders and wonder why everyone else is overlooking its faults.
Sadly, the uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/16-bit/4.6 Mbps) on this disc highlights recording problems inherent to the source material. Voices are often strained and lost in the shuffle (even in quieter scenes). There also isn't very much activity in the rear speakers, and the soundfield leans forward, residing mainly in the center channel. Pans are infrequent, and directionality leaves a lot to be desired. Worst of all, bass pulses are a bit throaty, treble tones aren't very stable, and the dynamics generally fail to impress.
But as disappointing as the PCM mix is, Starz/Anchor Bay has graciously provided a trio of audio options. In addition to the PCM, we get a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (640kbps), as well as the movie’s original Mono mix (192 kbps). Given the limitations of the material, I personally enjoyed the original mono track more than both surround mixes, as it reminded me of a simpler time when sound design trumped fancy sonics.
The majority of the extras on this Blu-ray edition of 'Dawn of the Dead' have been ported over from the 4-disc Ultimate Edition DVD release of the film. Disappointingly, 'Document of the Dead' (a densely packed documentary that every Romero fan should see) did not make the leap to Blu-ray. Other features missing from this Blu-ray edition include two additional cuts of the film (an extended cut that Romero doesn’t like and a shorter European cut by horror legend Dario Argento), some photo galleries, and assorted bios.
The first bonus I recommend hitting is an entertaining audio commentary with George Romero, assistant director Christine Romero, and effects wizard Tom Savini. The group has a breezy rapport that yields a busy but focused track of anecdotes and interesting discussions. The three men talk about technical details, the script, their struggles getting the film made, the gore, the characters, and many other subjects. I particularly appreciated Romero's likeable demeanor -- while he obviously has some harsh feelings about the studio system, he doesn't portray himself as a victim. Instead, he discusses the art of filmmaking as well as the drive and motivation behind his passion. I also dug that the participants are candid and quick to criticize their own work. They point out scenes that could be improved and discuss the differences between classic and modern horror. Romero discusses his shortcomings and talents as a director, bluntly assessing his career, the film, and his influence on a generation of filmmakers.
Next up is "The Dead Will Walk" (74 minutes), an in-depth documentary that features interviews with Romero, the four leads, Savini, and a host of other cast and crew members. Topics discussed include film’s shoot, the on-set atmosphere, the actors’ relationships with Romero, the director's career, and his original zombie masterpiece.
A collection of "On-Set Home Movies" (14 minutes) expands on the disc's candid coverage of the production and shows Romero and Savini tackling problem after problem during the shoot. This is a great extra that really humanizes the filmmakers and makes them seem like a group of normal guys having a good time. Their joy and exuberance is obvious, and I had a wonderful time watching them throw their souls into the film.
Rounding out the supplemental collection is a tour of the Monroeville Mall (12 minutes), trailers and TV spots from the US and Europe, a commercial for the mall, and a handful of US radio spots.
(All of the video-based features listed above are presented in 480i/p video only.)
One of my personal favorites, 'Dawn of the Dead' is the zombie masterpiece, not to mention a timeless commentary on modern society and greed. This Blu-ray release is a mixed bag that should please fans, but will leave newcomers less impressed. The slightly above average video transfer is still a dramatic upgrade over the standard-def DVD, but the audio package is adequate and underwhelming. Thankfully, most of the excellent special features from the 4-disc DVD have been ported to this release. An easy recommend for fans of the film, this one’s worth a look for all.