PictureDid you ever hear the one about the 1080p image that made the film look worse than before?
Nah ... I'm only kidding. Dawn Of The Dead, well I'd say about 80 per cent of it anyway, looks better than it ever has before. I've seen virtually every VHS, Betamax, DVD and Laserdisc version of this film that have appeared on both sides of the Atlantic (and a few assorted bootlegs hailing from God knows where), from the famed (though heavily cut) original PAL Intervision release and 16mm transfers of the 139-minute cut that circulated during the eighties to the previous Divimax editions put out by Anchor Bay. I've even seen two different cinematic prints of the movie at film festivals - seeing Dawn with an almost rabid crowd of like-minded fans is something else, I can tell you! But, beyond a doubt, the movie has never looked as bright, colourful, clean or clear as it does on this Blu-ray from Starz.
The good news is that the 1.85:1 picture (encoded via MPEG-4) is now vibrantly colourful with many scenes looking highly polished and scrubbed-up. Reds and greens are brighter and cleaner. That troublesome blood has moments now that appear a lot more convincing than ever before - though there are still plenty of instances when it just looks plain wrong. The blues of the SWAT fatigues and the greens of the National Guard unit, the garish interiors of the mall - lights, store-fronts, the coins and gravel on the bed of the pond - all looking much more vivid thanks to this new transfer. Daylight exteriors look a lot cleaner and natural too. Whereas, in most other versions of the film, the lonely airfield and the haulage-yard look drab and drizzly, they now look ... well, less drab and lonely. Seriously, the skies are brighter, the reflections on the metalwork of the cabs are smoother and the pockets of greenery dotted around the locations are now richer. The distant shots of the trucks ploughing down the slope towards the mall parking lot reveal a very pleasing sense of depth and vitality too. In fact, the transfer now exhibits levels of depth that can be quite striking for a film that has always looked determinedly flat until now. The battle sequences have much more spatial clarity and distinction, with scurrying bikers, wandering zombies and hilltop-hillbilly snipers presented within the frame with a fresh sense of three-dimensionality. Sudden lurching zombies appearing from around corners or from out of the side of the shot are lent a bolder realisation with the benefits of enhanced resolution, bringing up-close action really into your face. The horrible clutching hands of the living dead as they pour into the elevator after Stephen now feels like a much weightier image in 1080p and that shot as the snaggle-footed Stephen turns into view, revealing the terrible hole in his neck, now looks even more ghastly - the wound actually glistening.
Blacks can be either very good or still fairly poor, though, with shadow delineation a mixture of fine and tight or dipped into grey and less distinct. Still, they are much better than before - and that is the main thing. The gloom inside the old hangar is more solid, as is the shadow-play within the generator area. A brief shot of Fran illuminated in the dark by candle-light has presence but some other areas seem slightly diffused. Detail, however, is excellent. Close-ups are extremely good. Check out the lines on Roger's dishevelled face when that blanket slips away, or the many wounds inflicted upon the zombies or their victims. Bullet hits are much clearer, obvious flaps of skin tearing away and more defined jets of blood streaking across the screen. The intestinal feast of the bikers is a lot clearer and the slicing of the Helicopter Zombie's head is more clinical. But this added sharpness plays havoc with Savini's effects, showing up many of his quicker makeup jobs with messily applied paint, loose prosthetics and the like. At first, this may be a bit dispiriting but, rest assured, the magic of it all is, thankfully, not lost. Background zombies are more pronounced and noticeable with this transfer, too. In fact, despite my many, many viewings of Dawn Of The Dead, there were still a few surprises to be found in the deeper and peripheral parts of the screen that, alone, make this version worth seeking out. Strangely enough, I had never noticed the lollipop stuck in a female zombie's hair before. Oh, it was always there, of course (I've checked) but my eyes had never picked up on it before.
But there are quite a few quibbles, though. There are still signs of age despite that sharp gleaming new transfer. There is grain floating about - nothing too drastic, though - a nick here and a little pop there and some occasional hair-like wisps. Contrast can sometimes waver a little bit, too. But what really grated, considering the improvements that have so obviously been made, were the elements of motion drag that dog some shots and the copious noise that plagues the odd darker sequence, namely when Blades (Savini) and Sledge (Stavrakis) are forced to fight the zombies on the balcony after the lights go out in the mall. Quite honestly, this looked terrible and it featured some hefty contrast fluctuations in what looked like vertical columns as well. Noise is apparent in other dark scenes too, but never so badly as here. A quick check with the Ultimate Edition didn't reveal anything nearly so obviously detrimental.
Overall, despite the mixed-bag quality it may sound like, the new high-definition transfer of Dawn Of The Dead is a very welcome one. I guarantee that you will see details now that you have never noticed before and, for this alone, the movie feels new and fresh once more.
All screen-grabs are taken from the Ultimate Edition.
SoundWell, although I quite like the fact that these older movies are getting treated to surround mixes, the results - as well you know by now - are rarely all that successful. This is a prime case in point. Dawn Of The Dead is a bonafide mono-mix movie, however elaborately you may choose to re-engineer it to cater for new home theatre equipment. The film is based front and centre without much space for sonic spread, so a full PCM (48 kHz/16-bit/4.6 Mbps) and DD 5.1 (at 640 kbps) makeover feels pretty much like a redundant exercise. Gunshots have a little more presence and weight in the surround tracks, as do the sound of the motorbikes, the trucks and the whirly-bird, though not a great deal more, it must be said. The music, especially Goblin's cues have more body and sound fuller and louder in the surround mixes, too. But viewer immersion is not particularly effective since the rears are quiet for most of the time and bass levels are whimsical at best.
Although I prefer the mono mix this time out, Dawn's attempts at throwing out some effects and ambience aren't totally wasted. One sequence does immediately appeal to the use of surround sound. You know the bit I mean, surely. When dopey Stephen takes an ill-advised sortie of his own around the generator rooms of the mall and gets accosted by the hungry night watch-zombie, he is forced to loose off rounds that then ricochet around him off the metal pipes and panels of the area. This scene, at least, makes a convincing and relatively fun stab at whip-around acoustics, with Flyboy's errant bullets pinging around the speakers with quite vigorous unpredictability. Beyond this, there really isn't much to report on. Dialogue is never lost during any of the three tracks, although it does sound slightly muffled at times. The mono mix is definitely the most comfortable of the audio offerings, in my opinion, but feel free to experiment. Just don't expect any miracles.
ExtrasOkay, so this release is missing the other versions of the movie and the fabulous on-set documentary from Roy Frumkes “Document Of The Dead”, immediately dropping it below the standard of the Ultimate Edition, but there is still a great deal of worthy material that has been supplied to the BD disc.
Firstly, there is the excellent commentary track from George and Christine Romero, Tom Savini and moderated by Perry Martin that single-handedly hits practically every nail on the head regarding the film's production from conception, Night-follow-ons, location work, budget restrictions, Dario Argento's involvement, Savini's effects, the use of music etc. It is a candid and honest account from a group of committed people who have been through the wars with studios that simply didn't understand their vision, yet managed to maintain their integrity and produce something of incredible value to cinema. Well worth a listen. The Ultimate Edition contains a variety of commentaries, placed over the different versions of the film and, to be honest, I would have liked the option of the cast track that had previously adorned Argento's shorter and more brutal edition. But that's life.
Next up is the utterly superb feature-length (76 mins) retrospective documentary The Dead Will Walk, which features contributions from virtually everybody involved with the film. The Romeros and Tom Savini, DOP Michael Gornick (who has an absolutely manicured American TV-host voice that seems to remind me of Dick Van Dycke, strangely enough), Dario Argento and Goblin's Claudio Simonetti have plenty to say, but what really makes this thoroughly comprehensive piece so worth its weight in gold are the anecdotes and reminiscences from the cast. All the main four are present, but there are some nice little additions from the likes of the “Screwdriver”, “Rotor-blade” and Escalator” zombies, as well. Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and David Emge (who has aged the most out of all of them) all deliver fantastically nostalgic stories and provide warm-hearted memories that actually seem bizarrely cosy considering the subject matter of the film they were in. There are even some interviews with the doctor and the TV host whose frantic and ridiculed debate opens the film. Absolutely awesome stuff. For devoted film-fans, it just doesn't get any better than this.
Fourteen minutes of On-Set Home Movies focuses on Romero and Savini adapting and overcoming various dilemmas that befall a film set of such an imposing magnitude. Great fun to be had with this, and it really adds to the mythos of Dawn Of The Dead's family-style production.
The Monroeville Mall Tour lasts for around 12 mins and is nicely nostalgic (though now dated in its own right) but relatively disposable - as is the Commercial for the mall a little later on - and the assortment of trailers, TV and radio spots from the US and the UK may be a necessary set for Dead-heads, but really aren't going to be revisited that often. Having said that, though, it is hugely nostalgic to see some of these, as I can still remember them from when I was a child, when they had a huge influence on me even before finally getting to see the movie itself. I used to draw pictures of the zombie armies that I imagined would be in the film.
Finally, there is the now-ubiquitous option to view Fast Film Facts as the movie plays. To be honest, there is that much anecdotal trivia found in the documentary and the chat track that this seemed a little superfluous ... but it is nice that Starz have added something new for the BD release.
Oh, and the menu screens are quite good, too. Lots of film clips but with the viewer looking down a floating gun-sight at various zombies and characters. It would have been better still if, once a function had been activated, we'd been treated to random footage of a bullet going through a skull. Sick, eh? But fun, though!
VerdictSocial commentary running as rampant as the hyper levels of violence he so gleefully exhibits - what was George Romero thinking? Dawn Of The Dead sets itself up as the thinking man's splatter-movie and surreptitiously, insidiously and even dangerously usurps the standards of the modern horror film with a wicked Grand-Guignol sensibility. The films that followed in the series never could live up to this glorious highpoint in the Zombie Boom. Day Of The Dead was chewed down by budgetary restrictions and studio complacency and Land Of The Dead just feels like half a movie. Maybe Diary Of The Dead could once again place George Romero back on the blood-soaked throne as the King Of Splatter. But, until we find out, Dawn Of The Dead, however you choose to cut it, is one of the most important horror films ever made. Playing out like a gun-fetishist's ultra-survivalist fantasy, Romero's staggeringly epic second part of his Living Dead cycle is raw and uncompromising in its depiction of society's collapse, exciting and comic-book in its relentless action and bloodletting, and often both incredibly funny and poignant. Although rife with tension and suspense, the movie is not an especially frightening experience in the conventional sense of the horror film. Rather, Romero cleverly injects the whole thing with a creeping sense of foreboding and tragic inevitability. Without resorting to big city, mega-budget vistas of the end of the world - which we can look forward to with the exciting new adaptation of “I Am Legend” with Will Smith - he paints it just as evocatively with the non-glitz, everyday familiarity of grey Pittsburghian locations, fashioning a scenario that is effortlessly easy for everyone to associate with, and react to.
As far as the disc goes, true collector and fans will just simply have to get it, but the definitive package for Dawn still remains the Ultimate Edition from a few years ago. I personally still rate the longer cut of the movie a touch higher, although this 1080p version of the Romero's supposedly preferred US Theatrical Cut presents it with a truly wonderful clarity that is sure to win over any fan of the film. The PCM mix is of the take or leave it variety - doing nothing especially wrong (unlike on Day Of The Dead), but not really adding anything either - but the extras are excellent, ensuring that Dawn's arrival on Blu-ray is a strong one.
When there's no more room on the shelves ... the new Dawn Of The Dead discs will just have to sit on the floor!
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