“You are stronger than us. But soon, I think, they will be stronger than you.”Dawn of the Dead
Writing anything at all about Dawn of the Dead in the year 2021 feels a little bit like writing a review of an old book by Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft. There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said a million times, and precious few people left who haven’t already made up their minds on the subject.
Dawn of the Dead is a miraculous film. Of course it is. Everyone knows it is. Even in the catalog of the late, great George Romero’s oeuvre, Dawn is something unique. It’s most peoples’ favorite of the Dead films, and it may well be the best of them. In some ways, it is simultaneously difficult to overstate how formative this picture was on the decades of zombie films that have come since, and at the same time almost impossible to imagine how such a bold, unique vision could have inspired so many bland, same-y reproductions.
Romero’s social and political messages have never exactly been subtle or far from the surface, but here they also go so much deeper than the superficial reading of zombies = consumerism that grows out of the mall’s setting. Sure, the film delivers plenty of lines to support that obvious conclusion (“It’s so bright and neatly wrapped you don’t see that it’s just a prison, too”) but Dawn has a lot more on its mind than just its shopping mall location.
This is a film every bit as overtly critical of racism as Night of the Living Dead, not to mention a film with more than a little to say about American Imperialism (“We took it; it’s ours”) and also other topics, ones more universal than a particular social subject or moment. Questions about what survival means, and why it’s necessarily preferable to the alternative.
It’s a film where the zombies are the MacGuffin that makes the plot turn and, like the eponymous Maltese Falcon, almost incidental to the plot itself. It’s a movie without any of the clichés that we’ve since grown to expect from zombie films, and while it’s a film with only four main characters, it is also a story largely without a hero. Just four tragedies happening in slow motion.
Yet, Dawn isn’t a downer. It is often poignant, haunting, emotional, but it is never grim. More so than any of Romero’s other Dead films, Dawn is a borderline comedy, certainly a social satire that almost becomes a spoof of itself without ever crossing over a line that deflates any of the drama. And while the mall is what we all remember, what got reproduced in Zack Snyder and James Gunn’s 2004 remake, has there ever been another opening quite like this film’s in media res prologue?
Sure, the zombies are all so heavily chalked up they appear blue and when people get eaten they look like those Instagram photos of people cutting themselves to reveal that they’re made of cake, but all of that simply serves to date the film, just as much as the ‘70s fashions and Tom Savini’s extreme Tom Savini-ness do. Besides, no zombies are ever going to look better than the ones in Sugar Hill anyway, so everyone else should just hang up their gore makeup and let their zombies be made of Smurf cake if they want to.
Here I am, though, doing that thing that I said up top was pointless and reviewing the movie itself when what I’m actually here to do is review the new four disc Blu-ray from Second Sight. First off, we need to talk about actually watching Dawn of the Dead. For a movie so influential, so beloved, it has been surprisingly hard to do for a long time. While there are 80 million releases of, say, Halloween or Alien, not to mention the countless bargain collections of the public domain Night of the Living Dead, Dawn has had a hard time shambling onto home video in any reliable form.
This set from Second Sight marks the latest – and probably greatest – attempt to give a legitimate classic its due on disc, boasting not one, not two, but three different cuts of the film, ranging from the 120-minute Argento cut to the nearly 140-minute Cannes cut with just about everything you could ever want in-between. From commentary tracks to bountiful behind-the-scenes bits, including 13 minutes of Super 8 footage taken by one of the mall zombies, these feature-packed discs have a little of everything. There’s even multiple soundtrack CDs featuring the film’s music.
And it perhaps goes without saying that Dawn has never looked – or sounded – better than it does on either the Second Sight Blu or 4K release. Sure, the heightened resolution makes those blue zombies and cake arms stand out, but if you really love this film, odds are those are features rather than bugs. In fact, as one quote from FrightFest used in the promotional materials for the release says, “If you love Dawn of the Dead, prepare to love it even more.”
Really, that’s a fairly apt summary of who this release is for, after all. A four disc special edition that runs upwards of $100 and, if you’re in the states, requires a region-free Blu-ray player to watch isn’t for casual viewers or the merely curious. It probably isn’t even for hardcore horror hounds who just want to pop in a zombie movie and munch some popcorn now and again. This release is for those who love Dawn of the Dead, who want to re-watch it and study it, who want to compare and contrast the three different cuts of the film included here, and want to do it all in the most unsparing clarity they can muster.
If that’s you, well, you probably don’t need me to tell you to go out and pick this up. You’ve probably already done it.
Dawn of the Dead is available currently from Second Sight.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.