George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray Review

When there is no more profit to be made off of the standard definition DVD format, the living dead will begin to populate the next-generation DVDs.

Zombies have definitely been getting their due on both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD over the past few months. Fans of the horror subgenre have been enjoying 1080p upgrades of such flesh-eating epics as Edgar Wright’s hilarious Shaun of the Dead, Danny Boyle’s chilling 28 Days Later as well as its follow up, 28 Weeks Later, and 300 director Zack Snyder’s 2004 update of Dawn of the Dead.

The one thing the aforementioned films have in common, aside from being about zombies, is that they all owe a huge debt of gratitude to George A. Romero and his Living Dead franchise, beginning with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. While that black-and-white classic hasn’t hit the next-gen DVD market yet, Romero’s trio of follow ups have: 2005’s Land of the Dead hit first on HD DVD back in September of 2006, and now 1985’s Day of the Dead and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead have simultaneously arrived on Blu-ray courtesy of Starz/Anchor Bay Entertainment.

For those unfamiliar with the film, a quick recap: Thanks to some unknown element, the dead have been coming back to life and greatly increasing their numbers by biting and thus infecting the living. With the government collapsing and society crumbling at an alarming rate, two SWAT officers (Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger), a traffic reporter (David Emge) and his pregnant girlfriend, a producer for a local television station (Gaylen Ross) steal a TV station helicopter and head west, taking refuge in an abandoned shopping mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

For several months, this shelter makes for an ideal utopia. Of course, that doesn’t last: not only is their consumer paradise becoming more of a self-imposed prison, the quartet now has to contend with two outside forces: a large gang of bikers as well as the advancing ”and increasing- zombie population.

With its no-holds-barred graphic violence (in the age of the “Torture Porn” horror film, this film still remains one of the all-time goriest movies ever made) and keen social commentary on consumerism and greed, Dawn of the Dead stands as one of the all-time great horror movies. Romero’s directing is first rate, smartly balancing the scares and gore, courtesy of Tom Savini’s superb makeup work, with an involving screenplay populated by a quartet of characters that aren’t your typical horror film clichés, but ones with dimension. They are brought to life by the solid acting of the four leads, the standout being Ken Foree’s cool turn as SWAT officer Peter.

While the film’s fashions and music score have dated somewhat, Romero’s social observations have not, nor has the film’s ability to shock, appall or entertain. Romero tried twice again to mix social commentary and horror in “Day” and “Land” (a fifth entry is due in 2008), but the results were a mixed bag at best. The recent spate of zombie flicks has for the most part been pretty damn good, but none have come close to achieving the level of excellence that Dawn of the Dead did.

Dawn of the Dead was among the first wave of Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment titles to hit the Blu-ray format, and much like the other title I recently reviewed, the original Halloween, the Blu-ray of Dawn is the best presentation of the film yet to hit home video. However, that doesn’t exactly mean that it’s going to be your first choice for demo material.

Presented in a 1080p/AVC-MPEG4 encode and in its original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio, Dawn is in remarkably good shape given its age and the fact that it was a low-budget independent film. Colors, flesh tones and black levels are all solid, and there is certainly more detail to the picture than there has ever been before. Compression artifacts and video noise prove not to be issues either.

Yet, this presentation is exactly a home run. There isn’t exactly a lot of sharpness to be found here. What we get is a good looking albeit somewhat soft-looking picture. This may be a facet of the source material, or it could be the work of Starz/Anchor Bay, I’m not entirely sure. The softness isn’t enough to ruin your viewing enjoyment of the disc, but it is prevalent enough for one to take notice.

Dawn of the Dead was originally released with monaural sound. The Blu-ray contains that track as well as two other audio tracks: remixed 5.1 Dolby Surround and Uncompressed PCM. Flipping between the three tracks, I was really hard pressed to notice much of a difference. The PCM track has a little more of an open feel to it and the Dolby Surround track has a bit more life than the mono track, but in the end it was a wash. This film still remains largely a center-channel affair, so if you don’t have the equipment to decode the PCM track, don’t sweat it. You’re not missing much.

In terms of supplemental material, Anchor Bay’s excellent 4-DVD edition is still the best edition on the market. It included three cuts of the movie (the 127-minute theatrical cut, a 137-minute extended cut and Dario Argento’s truncated international cut entitled Zombie) plus another disc of extra material as well as a comic book. While only one cut of the film made it to the film’s high-def debut, the theatrical cut, and the excellent documentary entitled Document of the Dead did not, Starz/Anchor Bay have ported enough extras from the mega set to satisfy fans.

A feature-length group Audio Commentary kicks things off, which features George Romero, makeup artist Tom Savini, Assistant Director Chris Romero and DVD producer Perry Martin. It’s a pretty engaging commentary track, filled with interesting trivia tidbits about the production, observations on the film both pro and con, the difficulties of getting the film made as well as the art of filmmaking in general.

Next up is the informative and very entertaining 76-minute documentary entitled The Dead Will Walk. Featuring interviews with George and Chris Romero, Tom Savini and Dario Argento among others, The Dead Will Walk looks at things such as Romero’s filmmaking influences, working on 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, the production of Dawn and the reaction of the film once it was released.

Film extra Bob Langer’s 14 minutes of Super8 Home Movies is a nice little supplement. The footage shown here is in pretty rough shape, but it’s still decent enough to watch and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Langer himself. The Monroeville Mall Tour (approximately 11 minutes), in which Ken Foree leads a group of fans from around the world on a tour from a few years back of the shopping mall made famous in the film, is worth a watch or two, but that is it. Rounding up the extras ported from the SD collection are a series of U.S. and International Trailers, Television Spots from the U.S., U.K., and for the Monroeville Mall, and Radio Spots from the United States.

The last extra on the disc is Fast Film Facts, a pop-up trivia track exclusive to the Blu-ray edition. A lot of the material is covered on both the disc’s audio commentary and documentary, but if you are new to the Dead franchise and don’t want to bother sitting through those supplements right away, this information track is a nice way to get your Dead knowledge up to speed.

George Romero considers Day of the Dead to be his favorite of his series, while my friend Randy picks Night of the Living Dead as the best of the franchise. I enjoyed the original, found the third film to be a bit of a letdown and the fourth one completely unnecessary. But whatever my feelings are about the rest of the series, none come close to achieving the level of greatness that Dawn of the Dead did. It has brains to go along with the gore, and its sharp social statements seem to only get more relevant as time goes on. Starz/Anchor Bay Entertainment offers up a nice Blu-ray presentation of the film, with decent enough video and audio presentations and some solid supplements to boot. Halloween 2007 may have come and gone, but a horror film like Dawn of the Dead can be enjoyed anytime.

Besides, Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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