This review originally appeared in 2011 as part of a series on George Romero's "Dead" films.
Welcome back to Retro Reviews: after the Night of the Living Dead anniversary hack job, the Cap'n needed a palate cleanser, preferably with zombies. I watched Shaun of the Dead (with the Edgar Wright / Simon Pegg commentary on, because I'm the kind of person who listens to commentaries, thank you very much), but I realized what I really wanted to watch was Dawn of the Dead. The last three times I saw the film, however, I had seen the theatrical cut, so it seemed high time to shake things up. It was time for the longer, zombie-er-er "extended" cut!
While I will cover aspects of the film, this review will also cover the history of the "extended" cut. Accordingly, I won't recap Dawn of the Dead for readers unfamiliar with the film, and will more than likely include spoilers.
Unlike the mangled, pointless Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary edition, Dawn of the Dead's history of alternate versions goes back almost to the film's release. There are a number of different cuts (many of which were bootlegs in the era of VHS) in different countries, but Anchor Bay settled on three versions for its Ultimate Edition: the theatrical cut (127 minutes), the "extended" version (139 minutes), and the "European" cut (121 minutes).
The Ultimate Edition is, in many ways, a combining of earlier (albeit bare bones) releases of the films: in the early days of DVD, Anchor Bay released the "extended" version as the "Director's Cut," a disc so early in the medium's existence that Dual Layer technology had not yet been implemented, meaning that you had to flip the disc halfway through the film*. Romero was quick to point out that he preferred the shorter, theatrical version, so when releasing the Ultimate Edition, it was given the "extended" moniker and suggested as producer Richard Rubenstein's preferred cut. The European Cut, also known as Zombi, was re-edited by Dario Argento for foreign audiences; this version is shorter, removes much of the humor, and adds a few smaller character moments.
And that is, in a nutshell, your brief recap of the different versions of Dawn of the Dead. For the purposes of today's Retro Review, the Cap'n is setting the wayback machine to the version I've had the most contact with, the "Director's" or "extended" cut. Over the years I've had multiple copies of the longer version on VHS and DVD, and while the Blu Ray release is the theatrical cut, the version I've seen as often (if not more often) is the longer cut.
Young cinephiles are always excited to find something they didn't know existed, especially "alternate" cuts of films they love. I had seen Dawn of the Dead, maybe made a copy on VHS, and knew the film well by the time I first saw the two tape "Original Director's Cut" at, of all places, a used Record Store. Assuming that the Dawn of the Dead I knew was merely a charade, some censored version, I paid eight dollars (or whatever the price was) to see the "true" Dawn of the Dead, and to show it to all the other zombie fanatics I knew, as I would with so many other films over the years. Despite the fact that this was something mass produced - not to mention something someone already bought and sold - we thought we had the inside track on movie secrets!
I confess that I owned the "flipper" disc of the "Director's Cut" as well as the later Theatrical cut (which wasn't a flipper), and more than likely owned the re-release that preceded the four disc Ultimate Edition (which I still have). The holy grail until the Ultimate Edition was Zombi, the Argento cut, but aside from stripping away much of the social commentary and the underlying humor that sold it, Argento's version (disc three) isn't much more than a footnote best remembered for allowing Lucio Fulci to make Zombi 2 (or, as it's known in the U.S., Zombie). Let's take a look at what makes the "extended" cut so, well, extended.
The chief difference between the "extended" cut (disc two) and the theatrical version (disc one) of the set is that there's more of just about everything: more mall, more interview footage with the scientists, more ransacking, more mall shopping montage, and more chaos at the beginning, both in the WGON news station and in the housing project. With twelve extra minutes, there's actually less zombie carnage and more time spent developing the relationships between Roger, Stephen, Francine, and Peter. The additions are spread out over the film, usually in little chunks rather than a noticeably different sequence. Over the years the 127 and 139 minute versions bled together so much that I don't notice when minor additions are missing or present.
In fact, the only scene I can directly point to is early in the film: an extended encounter between the protagonists and police officers escaping by boat. In the theatrical version, most of the conversation is limited to the conversation about escaping to an island ("any island") and the cop asking for cigarettes. In the "extended" cut, there's a longer standoff between the two groups, and a cameo that I found interesting with respect to Romero's last three "dead" films.
Visitors to the Blogorium (and no doubt many other pages) have periodically dropped in my Survival of the Dead review because Alan Van Sprang appears in Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead, playing what may or may not be the same character (Brubaker, Colonel, and Sarge, respectively). Since Land takes place after Diary and Survival, it is entirely possible that Van Sprang is playing the same soldier, but it turns out Romero also cast an actor in Dawn of the Dead for a minor part only to use him in a lead role in his next "dead" film. Joe Pilato, who plays Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead, is one of the escaping officers in Dawn of the Dead. The "extended" cut expands his cameo by giving him the most interaction with Stephen and Francine, and he's listed in the credits. It's almost certain that Pilato is not playing the same role; the Van Sprang connection remains to be seen.
Other than that minor trivia tidbit, the "extended" cut of Dawn of the Dead does feel a little padded at times. Oh sure, it's nice to spend more time in the mall, to see more of Roger before he "turns," and feel the sense of time as the Monroeville Mall shifts from dream to nightmare, but in other ways the additions hurt the film. The film's opening at WGON is interminably long, and while it conveys a sense of chaos as the world tries to explain what's happening, the urgency of Francine needing to escape diminishes with every cut back to George Romero's cameo, or to the longer argument on-camera about the nature of the dead. The cumulative effect actually lessens the immediacy of "getting away," in part because the audience is now mired in the minute details of keeping the station operational.
It also takes twice as long to introduce Ken Foree's Peter and Scott Reiniger's Roger during the apartment complex raid. The sequence is adversely affected as a result: while the raid itself doesn't appear to be any longer than in the theatrical version, it certainly feels longer because the WGON sequence dragged the pace of Dawn of the Dead to a crawl, and by the time the foursome leaves in the helicopter it feels like the film may never find momentum. Romero's theatrical cut allows the film to have a sense of urgency, of desperation, before the film slows down in the middle, then to pick up again during the biker raid near the end.
With respect to pacing issues, I will say that there's no great harm done to Dawn of the Dead as a whole in the "extended" cut. It's hardly a mangled version of the film and, at times, benefits from a more languid pace. At two hours and twenty minutes, you're going to get more Dawn than you ever knew you needed, but for fans who wore out their shorter versions, it's a nice break from the norm.
Join the Cap'n next week when I continue "March of the Dead" by reviewing, um... Day of the Dead? Maybe? Return of the Living Dead part 2? We'll see when we get there.
* Early DVD adopters might also remember this from Goodfellas and Sleepers discs as well.