NOVEMBER 28, 2013
The first time I ever watched Dawn of the Dead was on Thanksgiving (in 1994, if memory serves), and for the next few years I made it a tradition. The irony is that when I was 14 I didn't even pick up on the satire re: consumerism, and when I got my car a couple years later I would join the rest of the folks on Black Friday shopping the following day - the very sort of thing the movie was commenting on, which has only become more apt as the day (which now stretches into Thanksgiving itself) becomes more and more insane. It's pretty easy to find screencaps of Romero's movie placed next to shots of Black Friday shopping, in fact.
So it's kind of ironic that by the time I caught on to the movie's subtext, the tradition was waning. I added End of Days to my Thanksgiving tradition, and when life got too busy for both (a girlfriend (now wife) meant two family gatherings), I went with Arnold for my sole tradition, since that one had a challenge built into it (staying awake for the whole thing, post-dinner). And then during HMAD's "golden" era I had to use that time in the morning for a new movie anyway. So when I quit the daily aspect, I was stoked that I'd be able to revive the tradition - even if it's just this one time, it was a delight to wake up and sit on the couch in my pajamas with my favorite zombie movie, like I did as a kid.
...I have weird bouts of nostalgia.
BUT, I did opt to mix it up a bit. After querying folks on Twitter, I realized that I had never actually seen the European cut (sometimes referred to as the "Argento cut") of the film. My copy growing up was the theatrical, and when I got Anchor Bay's DVD, I only watched the extended version. Not sure why I thought I had seen the European version, but I was tipped off when I learned that version had ALL Goblin music, and none of the library stuff - I knew for sure I had never seen it without that goofy theme at the end (which is now used - albeit in chicken cluck form - for Robot Chicken's end credits). So it was a bit of a mix of old and new, making it ripe for a HMAD entry (which have been lacking thanks to my Twilight Zone column, and again I apologize).
So what's the verdict on this one? Well, it's certainly not BAD - the worst editor in the world could probably still make a good movie out of the footage Romero and his team created. But I certainly wouldn't recommend this version to someone who was a complete virgin to the film, as the changes aren't necessarily for the better and some of Argento's edits render things slightly confusing without the context of footage you had seen in the other cut(s). For example, when Roger and Peter move the trucks to block the doors, he omits the entire first sequence, which goes off without a hitch and fully explains what they're actually doing - it starts with Roger already getting a bit cocky and Peter telling him to calm down. So not only is it unclear as to why he is so excited, it's a bit vague as to what they're actually DOING, and thus when they move the second (now first) truck, it kind of makes them look incompetent as well, since everything goes wrong there.
Another bizarre edit comes early on, when they're in the chopper. As they pass over Johnston, the sequence with the rednecks plays out pretty much the same way, but it omits Stephen's line "Those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing." So now the movie just cuts in a lengthy sequence of previously unseen (and never to be seen again) characters shooting at zombies and discussing their ammo over coffee, with zero explanation or setup. I mean, it was always kind of an extraneous sequence anyway, but it sticks out even more here - I suspect they just left it in because it's got some zombie kills. Indeed, the most obvious thing about this version (and Argento's intent with it) is that it's faster paced; many of the shorter character beats have been omitted, leaving all of the action more or less intact (it's been a while since I've watched it, but I'm pretty sure the biker attack at the end goes on even longer). Without all those quiet moments, the movie is long past its halfway point before they even "settle in" at the mall, and then it goes right into "We have to leave" mode.
But if you ARE hip to the original version (or the longer (too long?) extended cut), then it's all good. I love the library music cues, but few would argue that having more Goblin is a bad thing, and Romero's version DOES get a bit lax at times (as most of his films do). And it doesn't omit anything you love, though I think they trim even MORE out of the dock scene - I'd have to go back and check, but even though Joe Pilato only showed up in the longer version, didn't the guy asking for cigarettes still appear in the theatrical? Speaking of smoking, I still love how much the pregnant Frannie smokes (and drinks); they talk about aborting it but it seems like she's well on her way to killing the kid on her own. Ah, the 70s! And while some say that this version omits the humor, there's still plenty of it - Peter and Stephen posing for the bank camera, Frannie "shooting" Stephen with the hair dryer, etc. Hell it even keeps in the stupid biker guy that is obsessed with checking his blood pressure during a zombie attack, as well as the pie in the face gags.
And what's important is that the SCOPE of the film has been left intact. It hits the ground running (few films, sequel or otherwise, have managed to convey such chaos and doom in their opening sequence) and rarely lets up as the characters make their way to the mall, stopping to off some zombie kids and (in Peter and Roger's case) take down a zombie-infested highrise. I quite like the remake, but there's so little buildup to them getting to the mall, and they more or less have it secured much quicker as well. Some of my favorite scenes in this Dawn are when they're just trying to find their way in, or going on a supply run for just a couple of things, BEFORE they decide that they can pretty much just live there. Even with this faster version, it still gives us time to know our four heroes and make sure we understand that securing this giant mall isn't something they can do in a couple hours (as always, it's impossible to tell how much time passes from the moment they arrive to the time where Roger dies, but it seems at least a week or so).
The effects also hold up; I'll never shine to the "melted pink crayon" look of the blood, but the bites and headsplosions all look great, and I couldn't help but wonder if Tom Savini ever watches Walking Dead and feels insulted that his former protege (Greg Nicotero) is relying on horrible digital blood/impact shots on the show. I know it's TV and they have to move a bit quicker, but certainly Nicotero and his team (otherwise the best in the business, as far as I'm concerned) can be doing better work than this, and have to feel at least slightly embarrassed to see their stuff stacked up against superior work from 35 years ago. And Romero/Savini didn't exactly have all the time in the world either - all of the mall stuff was shot during closing hours, so they had to start late at night and be out of there early - hardly the most luxurious shooting arrangements. Maybe making it look so bad helps them get past the AMC censors?
So, in conclusion: I think this "Dawn of the Dead" movie is a keeper. If you're reading this site and haven't seen it yet, I'm not sure what the hell the problem is, but certainly any one of the 11,000 Anchor Bay releases are available at your local used DVD store. Again, if you haven't seen it yet, either version of the US cut is where you should start, but for fans who have also neglected to check this version out - it's definitely worth a look, but don't be surprised if you go back to your preferred one the next time you take a trip to Monroeville Mall.
What say you?
P.S. The viewing inspired me to load up Dead Rising for the first time in over 6 years and wander around slicing up zombies. Forgot how damn tough that game was, especially if you get captured by those cult assholes.