THE Dawn Of the Dead

It's been a long time coming, but I'm now looking at easily the most anticipated cult home video release of 2020 here, ladies and gentlemen: Second Sight's massive 4-disc (7 if count the bonus soundtrack CDs) 4k Ultra HD boxed set of George Romero's 1978 classic Dawn Of the DeadAnnounced back in January of 2019 and originally slated for release that summer, it's been delayed again and again, though largely for the right reasons ("we are giving the restoration team as much time as they need to do the most thorough job possible").  It's also been rough getting this imported properly into the United States, but if you've hung in through it all, I dare say you're happy now.
What's interesting about Night Of the Living Dead is that, as famous and powerful as it was, it didn't really kick off a sea of imitators.  It wasn't really until Dawn that zombie films became the genre onto itself as we know it today.  This is where Romero solidified his reputation for mixing social and political themes with his horror... not just for the simple observation that people can be mindless consumers like the zombies wandering the shopping mall, though that's clearly here, and the sort of thing films like The Dead Don't Die still seem to be patting themselves on the back for restating.  I think the real commentary is derived from reflecting on the human behavior, the ones we identify with as they attempt and fail to imitate a traditional way of life, ultimately taking up arms to defend their valueless merchandise from actual other survivors.
Not that we really come to these films to be taught a civics lesson.  We're here for the thrills and scares.  But what's interesting is that those don't really come from the zombies either.  They did in Night, where flesh eating ghouls surrounding your home really is the source of terror.  And they were made so again in the mindless remake.  But here, the most frightening aspect is the breakdown of civilization.  I mean, this film has a scene where a zombie is literally smacked in the face with a cream pie - they're the most helpless faction in this struggle for survival, which has transformed from an overnight siege to a savage war of attrition.  What's harrowing is right from the opening scene, authority is failing, scientists are shouting in futility on a television program that's being abandoned by everyone still working on it.  The police's last stand is a raid on an inner city apartment complex where they're shooting the lower class residents and each other.  And while they're still potentially dangerous, we see the zombies are easily managed, but that doesn't make everyone any less doomed.
The health of this film on disc went from vital and active to shockingly dry.  I used to own the 3-disc special edition of laserdisc from Elite and remember specifically not replacing it with Anchor Bay's original '97 and '99 non-anamorphic and nearly barebones DVDs.  It wasn't until their 2004 Special Divimax Edition that I finally found the jump worthwhile (a trend we'll see repeat with this film).  That was nice, but in 2006, Anchor Bay blew that and any other option out of the water with their definitive Ultimate Edition, a 4-disc set loaded with new and legacy extras and three cuts of the film (the theatrical - Romero's director's cut, an extended cut full of deleted scenes and extra footage, and the Italian cut, edited by none other than Dario Argento, who actually co-produced Dawn).  That was the go-to set for the DVD age and almost for the BD age.  Anchor Bay released a very early blu in 2007, which was a decent bump to HD for its time, but sacrificed the alternate cuts and a ton of special features.  It seemed clear that was for the early adapters and the obvious move for most fans was to wait for a BD equivalent of the Ultimate Edition.

Except the movie sort of slipped into a bit of a limbo when producer Richard P. Rubinstein paid a ton of money to convert the film into 3D, and then apparently expected a massive licensing fee that priced out any boutique label looking to release a update on home video.  The original blu (and an equivalent 2010 Arrow blu that at least restored more extras with a bonus DVD) went out of print and started fetching exorbitant prices, despite looking more and more in need of an upgrade itself.  Americans are still waiting, but in the last couple years, Koch took a stab at it with an Italian 4k edition, later expanded into a few other regions.  But people had issues with it, and eventually Second Sight announced plans for a massive, multi-cut 4k restoration that would carefully address every issue and also out-do even the Ultimate Edition in terms of features.  It took them a long time, but they've finally released separate BD and UHD boxed sets in the UK; and once again, I'm glad I waited to make the jump.  They're limited, but thankfully not too narrowly, having pressed 12,000 of the 4k box and 6,000 of the blu-rays.
Theatrical: 1) AB 2004 DVD; 2) AB 2006 DVD; 3) SS 2020 UHD.
Extended: 1) AB 2006 DVD; 2) SS 2020 UHD.

Argento: 1) AB 2006 DVD; 2) SS 2020 UHD.

Before I delve into this, I can't help but say wowww, look how gorgeous Dawn looks now.  But okay, let me compose myself.  I suppose the first serious thing I'll draw your attention to is that the theatrical and extended cuts tend to be consistently using the same transfer.  The DVDs look like each other (and the 2004 and 2006 DVDs are for all intents and purposes identical) and the the two UHDs look like each other.  That's because they're both taken from the original 35mm negatives, with inserts for the extended cut.  But in both cases, the Argento cut has a distinctly different look, taken from the Italian interpositive and featuring very distinct color timing, and in the cases of the 2006 DVD, is also slightly windowboxed.  Segueing into the framing, then, all the DVDs are 1.84:1, which the UHDs slightly correct to 1.85:1, except the DVD of the Argento cut, which is 1.83:1.  In fact, Anchor Bay's DVD of the Argento cut is zoomed in far more than any of the other transfers, although that's not to say all the rest are the same.

Looking at the two sets above, we see that the UHDs are consistently (across all cuts) zoomed in tighter on the exterior shots, though they hue pretty closely to the DVDs on the interior shots. What this tells us (and me checking comparing other points in the film confirms) is that the film's been constantly re-framed between the new and old versions.  This pretty much leaves us to trust that SS is the correct framing, though they do assure us that their work was supervised by DoP Michael Gornick.  And indeed framing issues had been a complaint with the previous 4k releases of this film, and working to fix them was one of the reasons Second Sight's edition took so long in the first place.
Extended: 1) AB 2006 DVD; 2) SS 2020 UHD.
One last thing, while we're still examining the PQ, is the extended inserts.  Like I said, the theatrical and extended cuts are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same... except when they're not.  So above is a shot only seen in the extended version, which isn't taken from the same negative, but rather the color reversal internegative.  And it holds up rather well.  You won't notice every time an added bit appears onscreen because it stands out from the rest of the film, the grain still looks fine and perfectly filmic in 4k, and the image is still quite strong.  Maybe the detail is slightly less clear and the grain a little more scattershot, but considering how things like focus vary throughout the film (an aspect of the original filmmaking, not the disc transfers), it doesn't snag in motion.  On AB's DVD, that footage looked a little overly contrasty, but Second Sight have made an ideal, transition-less blend with the rest of the film.

A nice thing you can say about the Anchor Bay's later DVDs is that they decked the film out with audio options, even to the point of overkill: mono, stereo, and two 5.1 mixes.  But surprisingly, they never included any subtitles, even for the Ultimate Edition.  Well, Second Sight of course bumps them up to lossless DTS-HD tracks for the mono, stereo and 5.1 tracks, except the extended cut, which just has the original mono in DTS-HD.  And yes, Second Sight has added optional English subtitles to all three cuts.
In terms of special features, I'm happy to report that everything from the Ultimate Edition has been carried over to the Second Sight box except the easter eggs.  I'd long assumed I'd be holding onto the DVDs for some of the special features, but I'm happy to report there's no need to bother.  It's all here, plus there's a bunch of great, new stuff.

To start with, the 2004 DVD doesn't have a lot, but it does have the excellent audio commentary by Romero, Tom Savini and associate producer Christine Forrest (a.k.a. Christine Romero) from the laserdisc.  Besides that, it has some trailers, galleries and two easter egg interview snippets, but it's mostly all about the commentary.  The Ultimate Edition has that commentary (plus all those trailers, the easter eggs, etc), plus two more commentaries, giving each cut its own commentary.  That's pretty great, because it's a good way to watch the different cuts without getting bored watching what is still by and large the same movie three times in a row.  So the extended cut has Rubenstein and the Argento cut has a more fun, relaxed take with cast members David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross.  It also has a great, feature-length retrospective documentary called The Dead Will Walk, plus on-set home videos with commentary by the zombie extra who filmed them, Robert Langer, and a tour of the Monroeville Mall location with Ken Foree.  Plus there are even more trailers, galleries, radio spots and even a vintage commercial for the mall.  And there's Document Of the Dead.

Possibly the most important extra of all is really a feature film that's been deemed worthy of its own individual release several times in the past: Roy Frumkes' 1980 Document Of the Dead.  Synapse first released it in 1998 - in fact, I still have that DVD, for reasons we'll elucidate a little further down the page.  Then it was expanded into a longer cut (now getting into Land and the later Dead films) and restored in HD, which Synapse put out as the "Definitive" release in 2012.  And it's such a crucial history of the film, with tons of exclusive footage filmed on location and behind the shooting of Dawn, that it's been included in both the Ultimate Edition set and Second Sight's latest box.  In fact, Second Sight again has really gone all-out with this.  Because the Ultimate Edition features the original 1998 cut again, though it's a little longer, because they took some of the deleted scenes from Synapse's DVD and tacked it onto the end of the film as an addendum.  But then Second Sight, in the interest of being thorough and completist, has included that DVD cut (with the addendum) and the longer "Definitive" version.

And just for the record, yes I know there are even more cuts floating around out there.  There's the short, roughly hour long original film school version from '79, and an "'89" cut with a couple minutes of different footage, though still running far shorter than the latest "Definitive" cut.  Frumkes just keeps Lucasing it, and those are available on some foreign DVDs if you really feel the need for the perfect Document collection.  But honestly, I think even two cuts is overkill.  Basically, it's a great hour on Dawn with varying degrees of bonus footage tacked onto it and re-redited each time.
1) 1998 Synapse DVD; 2) 2004 AB DVD; 3) 2020 SS original cut BD;
4) 2020 SS "Definitive" cut BD.

So as you can see, the original cut never got restored, but the expanded version has and it looks heaps better.  Synapse's original DVD was interlaced, though (hey, it was all the way back in 1998) so the subsequent releases at least fix that.  It's also a little bit greener.  But otherwise, even on the blu (and I understand this was the case on Synapse's blu-ray as well), the original cut is always presented as just upscaled SD.  There is unique footage to both cuts, so I can see the reasoning for continuing to release both besides just historical preservation, but by and large, the extended cut is the one fans are going to want to watch, and the difference in quality is extreme.  Sure, it's some pretty rugged looking 16mm stuff, but on blu it finally looks like film, with authentic grain, greatly clarified detail, no funky video noise or compression, and much more authentic colors.  Also, the DVDs (yes, both) are a bit squished at 1.29:1.  Second Sight corrects this for both cuts, restoring the original cut to a more natural 1.33:1, and the extended cut to 1.34:1.  And more notably, the extended cut also reveals more information along all four sides.  The only slight disappointment: the audio is lossy on every version.

And Document Of the Dead, even though it's included here as an extra, brings with it its own extras.  The original DVD had three (which, yes, is the reason I've held onto it).  The first is the 7-8 minutes of extra footage, which has since been tacked onto the end of the original cut on the Ultimate and Second Sight releases.  But the other two are exclusive to Synapse.  There's an additional twenty minutes of "Lost interviews," including a portion with Adrienne Barbeau, and an audio commentary with Frumkes and his DoP Reeves Lehmann.  Now, Frumkes recorded an updated commentary for his expanded version, which yes is on the Second Sight disc, but neither they nor Anchor Bay carried over the old one.  Of course, it has to be said, the two commentaries repeat a lot, and you have to be pretty die-hard to need the commentaries for both cuts.  But if you've already got the Synapse DVD, that and the extra interview footage might be worth hanging onto.
But we're not done talking about extras yet, because there's still all the new stuff created by Second Sight!  And there's a bunch.  We get a fourth audio commentary (for the theatrical cut) this time by expert Travis Crawford, to give the outsider historical perspective.  Then there's a new, hour-long feature called Zombies and Bikers, talking to a ton of the cast and crew.  There's also a half-hour tour of the original mall location with Gornick, Savini, the assistant cameraman and a stunt man, nearly half-hour featurette on the production of the film, a new interview with Tom Savini, a vintage interview with Romero and an interview with actor Richard France.  And those on-set home videos?  They have a new commentary by Langer's brother, yes, in addition to the old one, which is still there as well.  And there are three soundtrack CDs - one of the Goblin score and two of the library music.  And there are two hefty books inside: a 160-page hardcover collection of essays and photos about the film, and the complete Dawn Of the Dead novelization. The discs are carried in two digipacks, all bundled together in a very thick, sturdy box.  And, if you ordered directly from Second Sight, they also included four exclusive art cards.
This is one of those movies that's such a staple, so revered and something I've consumed so much growing up, that I haven't wanted to watch it again for a very long time.  That's partly why I was satisfied just holding onto my DVDs even when I could've kept triple- and quadruple-dipping on the HD discs from Anchor Bay, Arrow and Koch.  But I don't think I'm being hyperbolic to say Second Sight has reinvigorated Dawn Of the Dead.  I'm back in love.  And I don't know if, given the availability of this restoration, a US release is around the corner.  But I also don't know what more anyone could ask for - what further supplements could do anymore than repeat what's already been presented here?  So if you were thinking of holding off, I'd say don't.

4 comments:

  1. I seem to be having issues with screenshots on this and the Tremors review. Has anyone else noticed either broken links or wrong pictures?

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    1. Ah! Yes, well spotted. Some of the DVD screenshots had broken links to the fullsize versions (I had "http://http://" in them). I was so busy checking and rechecking my UHD shots, I never looked twice at the DVD ones. Anyway, I fixed 'em now. Thanks for letting me know!

      I can't find any issues in the Tremors ones, though.

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    2. Thanks! For Tremors, the Arrow BD link for the screen cap of Fred Ward and Finn Carter links to Arrow BD screen cap of Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon by the truck. Hope that helps!

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    3. Oh yeah - cheers! I just fixed that one, too. 8)

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