What is left to write about "Dawn of the Dead," George Romero's 1978 follow-up to his genre-creating "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)? The plot is simple enough. A ragtag group of four survivors--cops Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) along with helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) and his pregnant girlfriend (Francine Parker)--flee to a mall where they try to survive the horde of ravenous zombies. Some of them make it; some of them don't. Oh, and some bikers show up along the way too. The end. So what accounts for the film's enduring popularity?
The film's satire of consumer culture has been oft-discussed, perhaps to the degree that the film may now be slightly overrated as social commentary but underrated as pure thriller. Romero wields a sledgehammer rather than a fine chisel. Zombies are, literally, the ultimate consumers and even in death, the ultimate consumers want only to return to an "important place in their life," the suburban shopping mall. Romero develops a few riffs on this theme. Perky mall music provides ironic counterpoint to some of the grisly slaughter and zombies claw eagerly at the glass of a department store like the horde of women who line up for Filene's Basement's annual bridal sale but Romero's critique is painted strictly in broad strokes. This doesn't mean it isn't effective. The choice of a shopping mall (a fairly new phenomenon in 1978) for the setting of the bulk of the film is inspired and provides the backbone for Romero's often rambling and disjointed narrative.
"Dawn of the Dead" is no Swiftian critique, though; it's a pure action movie and it is in this respect that Romero's skills shine through. "Dawn" plays much differently from its predecessor. Romero swaps black and white for color and a gritty, documentary style for a more polished, mainstream approach. While "Night" played as pure nightmare, a bleak fever dream, "Dawn" relies more on rock ‘em sock ‘em action. Much attention, aided gleefully by effects artist/stuntman/cult-hero Tom Savini, is lavished on the various ways in which zombies are shot, decapitated and butchered but, though the film is far gorier than the first, the effects are more likely to produce cheers than terrified gasps. Romero goes so far as to describe "Dawn" as a "comic book" movie but it's weightier than that.
There's only so much you can do with zombies, and, to be honest, they're pretty easy to beat. You can outrun them, outsmart them and blow their heads off at will. Romero's secret to maintaining interest is his flawless pacing and he achieves this by omitting almost all the exposition typical of most contemporary action films. "Dawn" doesn't set up the story or even refer to the prequel. The viewer is thrown right into a world overrun by zombies and never told why or how this situation arose.
In a typical Hollywood script, the characters will tell the audience what they're going to do, do it, then tell the audience what they did. Romero lets the action speak for itself, not worrying if viewers are often disoriented, trusting them to catch up with the proceedings. He saves time and places the focus on the moment, always keeping the action exciting even when some of the setups are repetitive.
The shift from nightmare to thriller also shows up in the sublime ending of the film. "Night of the Living Dead" ended on a completely nihilistic note, the hero gunned down senselessly with not a shred of hope left for the human race. "Dawn" flirts with similar devastation as Peter prepares to kill himself, only to make a last ditch attempt to escape to the rooftop where he fights his way, accompanied by kitschy action score, to the helicopter being flown away by Francine. As Peter settles into his seat, he asks "How much fuel do we have left?" Francine answers, "Not much." Peter nods and says, "All right." And we're out. Not exactly a Hollywood ending but positively giddy compared to the first film. This is as hopeful as Romero will let it get and it's the perfect way to end the movie.
It should be obvious to state that the movie is not flawless. Some of the jokes are a little too heavy-handed and the acting is occasionally a bit stiff (though Ken Foree's rugged performance stands out). However, Romero faced a tall task when making a sequel to his original landmark film and he succeeded in almost every way. "Dawn of the Dead" deserves to be rated alongside films like "Star Trek 2," "Evil Dead 2" and "The Empire Strikes Back" as one of the great genre sequels of all-time.
There are several cuts of "Dawn of the Dead" floating around, but the Divimax disc offers only the original 127-minute theatrical version in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format. The picture quality is excellent with sharp colors and virtually no blemishes. You really can't ask for a better transfer than this. Anchor Bay usually delivers the goods, and they don't disappoint this time.
The Divimax disc offers the original mono track (Dolby Digital 2.0 mono) as well as DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks. Some of the sound effects are weak and muted, but that's a function of the original production, not the DVD. Music and sound effects are well mixed and the dialogue is always clear. They've done as good a job as can be expected from the source sound. There are no subtitles on the disc. Optional English language closed captions support the audio.
The Divimax Special Edition offers several fairly mundane special features. There are two movie trailers, 3 TV spots, and nine radio spots (each 60 seconds), and many of the trailers and spots are redundant. The poster and advertising gallery is somewhat disappointing as well; most of the screen shots are just pictures of movie listings clipped out from newspapers. The comic book preview is a waste, only a picture of a comic book cover and a web link. The text biography of Romero is more useful though it doesn't offer much new information.
The only noteworthy extra is an audio commentary track by George Romero, his wife Chris, and Tom Savini; the commentary is hosted by Anchor Bay's Perry Martin. The commentary is fairly typical of its type with the principals gossiping and reminiscing about the film's production. They recount anecdotes mostly familiar to the film's fans but there's still much to be enjoyed even by the most devoted viewers. The commentary was recorded recently enough for Romero to discuss the success of the "Texas Chainsaw" remake which makes him optimistic about the success of new horror films. He discusses his own plans for the fourth Dead film though he remains nebulous on the details. Of particular interest is a discussion Romero and Savini have about their opinions on CGI (Romero is an old-fashioned kind of guy: "Give me the rubber suits!") and Savini's ongoing recounting of the various ways in which he created effects or was beaten and bruised during his many harrowing stunts.
There are two Easter eggs on the disc. Under the Extras Menu, go down to Main Menu and click the right arrow. Click on the silhouette of the zombie to access a short interview with Chris Romero about how she met husband George. Do the same under the Audio Options Menu for a clip of Tom Savini discussing a rather ghoulish practical joke.
The real special features were, of course, saved for the four disc "Dawn of the Dead - Ultimate Edition," the Holy Grail for any "Dead" head.
Viewers today may be somewhat jaded by the gross-out effects common to the modern horror genre and may not realize what a landmark in gore "Dawn of the Dead" really was. Film historians who cover the horror genre need to recognize not just Romero but also Tom Savini as a pivotal figure in the development of the modern horror film. The scene near the beginning of the film when a man's head is blown clean off by a shotgun was truly shocking at the time and was a clear influence on films that followed shortly after such as Evil Dead.
I also want to warn you about a small group of people. I don't know where they come from, or what makes them do what they do, but apparently some people have actually been saying that the 2004 Zack Snyder witless remake of "Dawn of the Dead" is better than the original. You must not trust these people. I don't mean you shouldn't trust their taste in film--that should be obvious. I mean you shouldn't trust them with anything. Not your car, not your DVDs, not even to take care of your plants while you go on vacation. In fact, if they're over your house, and ask you to use the bathroom, then you should say no. You just can't take the risk.