In honor of the late, great George A. Romero, I watched his zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy in a nice 4K Ultra HD package. Recognized as the Godfather of all Zombies, as well as the Father of the Modern Zombie, Romero was born on 4 February 1940 in the Bronx boroughs of New York City and sadly passed away quietly in his sleep from lung cancer on 16 July 2017. He made a name for himself in 1968 when he wrote and directed the now iconic cult classic Night of the Living Dead, rightly recognized as the forefather of the modern zombie culture enjoyed around the world.
He was a true pioneer of the horror genre, and his themes of the genre serving as a commentary of modernity and many societal ills have been massively influential, from the likes of Stephen King, Jordan Peele, Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Romero will also be remembered for helming cult favorites Creepshow, Monkey Shines, The Dark Half and Day of the Dead. But for loyal, hardened fans will continue showering Season of the Witch, The Crazies, Knightriders and now vampire cult classic Martin with some much need attention and love.
At the time of his death, he was busy working on another zombie film, titled Road of the Dead, which he described as "The Fast and the Furious with zombies." As of this writing, plans for its release or where exactly the production is at are unknown. Nevertheless, Romero and his influence in the genre will always be remembered as the man who sparked my love affair for all things horror related.
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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Imported from Italy, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead comes courtesy of Koch Media under the distributor's Midnight Factory line as a six-disc Collector's Edition Blu-ray package. All six discs are housed inside a thicker than normal blue case with a glossy side-sliding slipcover and reversible cover art. The package includes five thick postcards and a 24-page booklet with several essays written in Italian about the film's history, Goblin's musical score, on the alternate versions and some insight on the plot's themes. It finishes with an amusing interview conversation between Romero and Argento.
The dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably on one panel containing Argento's European Cut of Romero's ground-breaking film, which runs at 118 minutes. Although approximately ten minutes shorter than Romero's 127-min original vision, Argento's version is slightly gorier with a couple added scenes of zombies in the basement of the apartment complex and several alternate takes. But the Italian filmmaker infamously removed the scene of the zombie whose head was chopped by the helicopter blades. The significant difference between the two is that Argento edited the film to be less comedic and doesn't give as much time to character development. Instead, the attention is more on being an action-packed, atmospheric horror flick while Goblin's eerily strange musical score plays throughout, and the overall color timing is also bit paler for a cold, drearier feel.
Two center spindles hold four Region B locked, BD50 discs, two of which are HD SDR versions of Argento's cut, but one is a 1.33:1 full-frame version. The fourth disc is Romero's original theatrical vision while the fifth disc contains the 139-min Extended Version that was shown during the Cannes Film Festival, mistakenly referred to as the "Director's Cut" but is really more of a Workprint. Finally, the last and sixth Blu-ray is a collection of supplements and documentaries about the film and the production. At startup, viewers are taken directly to the standard menu screen with options along the bottom, full-motion clips and music.
According to the accompanying booklet and a white text screen at the start of the film, Koch Media performed a full restoration of Dario Argento's European Cut of George A. Romero's ground-breaking film from the best available 35mm interpositive and scanned those elements at 4K resolution. Unfortunately, the beloved, massively influential cult classic is brought to us in SDR, not HDR10, which is somewhat disappointing, leaving fans to wonder if better highlights and brightness would dramatically change the viewing experience. Nevertheless, taken as is, the results offer a surprisingly good upgrade over its Blu-ray counterpart, offering various improvements that make it the best the film has ever looked on home video. Of course, coming from inexpensive 35mm film stock developed into 16mm for the editing process and then blown-up again to 35mm for theatrical prints, the source won't yield the sort of results that will convince most. But for those familiar with the zombie masterpiece, there are plenty of appreciable improvements to make the package a worthwhile purchase.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is highly detailed, exposing every nook and cranny of the mall. Admittedly, Argento's European Version comes with its share of soft, blurry moments, which is to be expected from a vintage source and small production such as this. Still, fans can better make out the stitching and faded creases in the worn leather jackets of the bike gang, the texture of the fabric in the furniture decorating the survivor's living quarters is more perceptible, and Tom Savini's gory makeup work is gorier and bloodier.
In fact, the biggest improvement in this 4K presentation is the overall color palette, providing the entire image with a bit more energy and pop in the primaries. While the living come with rosy, healthy complexions throughout, the zombies appear a sickly, paler blue than before. Contrast is brighter with crisper, more intense whites, but the levels remain stable and consistent while the image still seems a tad more faded than Romero's original cut, which might suggest the color timing was changed slightly. Blacks are also darker and truer though not at a level to gush over. In the end, however, its an improvement fans will noticeable, and with a fine layer of grain, it provides the picture with a lovely film-like quality.
On the Blu-ray side of things, the same 4K remaster of the Argento Cut was also used, and the results are a massive upgrade over the 2007 Anchor Bay release. Unfortunately, for Romero's original theatrical version, producers recycled the same master from the 2004 Ultimate Edition DVD box set, which isn't bad but it's not great either.
Adding to an extensive feature list of positives to the package, owners are also given four listening options: two in Italian and two in English. As would be expected, the UHD automatically defaults to the Italian DTS-HD Master Audio language in either 2.0 monoaural or 5.1 surround sound mix. Similar options are also offered in English — a between 5.1 or 2.0.
For the sake of comparison, I tried the new surround mix first, which instantly comes alive with Goblin's weirdly ethereal music filling the entire soundstage and extending into the sides. This alone is a vast improvement over the uncompressed PCM 5.1 track heard on Anchor Bay's 2007 Blu-ray release. However, this version is not without some drawbacks, particularly with the vocals coming in at an unusually low volume, making it difficult to sometimes hear the conversations. Meanwhile, many effects are noticeably louder and occasionally overwhelming, not only feeling artificial and forced but also stretched beyond their capabilities. This unfortunately makes for a flat and uniform mid-range that greatly lacks fidelity and warmth.
The 2.0 mono mix is the superior listening option because it's closer to the original audio recording, which was also remastered from the same elements as for the video. Immediately, dialogue reproduction is vastly improved and very well-prioritized, allowing fans to better enjoy the constant back and forth between the characters. The mid-range feels fuller and far more dynamic, exhibiting terrific clarity and separation in the upper frequencies while maintaining excellent distinction of the background activity during the action sequences. The movie has never really had much of a low-end to speak of, but there is some appreciable bass to be enjoyed, providing the cult zombie classic with a better sense of space and presence.
The package includes a new collection of supplements, but they're all in Italian.
Audio Commentary: Legendary composer of the Italian horror genre and long-time Dario Argento collaborator, Claudio Simonetti is interviewed and shares his thoughts on the film's history and iconic score. It is only available on the Argento cut, but unfortunately recorded in Italian without subtitles.
Interviews (HD): A set of three new interviews, starting with Tom Savini (19 min) discussing his career and involvement in this production. This is followed by Nicolas Winding Refn (8 min) talking about his love of the film and sharing his thoughts on the plot's themes. It finishes with legendary Italian horror maestro Dario Argento (29 min) reminiscing on Romero, how he came to be participate with the production and his contribution to the cult classic for the European market, expressing reasons for the changes.
The Restoration of Zombi in 4K (HD, 8 min): A discussion with Michéle De Angelis and Gianni Vittori.
Press Conference (HD, 32 min): Footage from the 73rd Venice International Film Festival on 2 September 2016 where Argento and Refn presented the 4K restoration of the film.
Presentation Speech at a Midnight Showing of the Film (HD, 10 min): More footage of Argento and Refn praising the film and its restoration prior to a midnight showing.
When There's No More Room in Hell (SD, 30 min): Vintage interview footage with Argento, film composer Claudio Simonetti and producer Alfredo Cuomo.
Trailers (SD, 15 min): Collection of three theatrical previews and three TV spots in English, followed by a German TV spot and theatrical preview.
Contest Zombi – Fan Art (SD): Still gallery of contest winners and runner ups.
Often heralded a zombie masterpiece and considered instrumental in popularizing the genre around the world, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead remains one of the best. When the film released in Europe, legendary Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento edited the film to be more less comedic and slightly gorier, dubbed the "European Cut." In Italy, the cult classic comes courtesy of Koch Media, which did a full restoration of the 35mm interpositive and remastered those elements into a brand-new 4K transfer, delivering a massive improvement over previous home video releases but sadly, is not in HDR10. The audio was also remastered into four DTS-HD MA options, but the 2.0 mono soundtrack is the best way to enjoy this classic. With a sixth Blu-ray containing a set of new supplements for hours of entertainment, the overall 4K Ultra HD package is worth it for hardened fans and in memory of the late, great George A. Romero.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.