Monday, October 17, 2011

A Frank Review of "Dawn of the Dead: European Version" (1978)

  • Zombies: Dawn of the Dead
  • Zombi: L’alba dei Morti Viventi
  • Zombie: Le Crépuscule des Morts Vivants
  • Zombi: El Regreso de los Muertos Vivientes
  • Zombie: In De Greep van de Zombies
  • Zombie
  • Zombie: Rædslernes Morgen

The Short Version? Foreign Version of the Living Dead
What Is It? Action-Horror
Who Is In It? Vincent Parmelly, Angelo Fettucini, Marhalt and Becky Vickers
Should I See It? Maybe

Fair warning: this is not in the strictest sense a proper film review. George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite films, and this is a fanboy deconstruction of an aberrant version of that film.

When famed Italian director Dario Argento helped get the sequel to Night of the Living Dead made, he was due some concessions. One was the feature making extensive use of the music of Dario's rock band, Goblin. Another was that Argento would get final cut of the film in foreign markets. Now, director George A. Romero has created two films that could be debated as personal masterpieces, and both are significant to cinema as a whole. However, Romero has a rather spotty track record with regard to making good films, much less great ones. As in, there's the two great ones, with arguable competency on everything else. An intriguing premise would therefore be whether Argento could cut Romero's film better than Romero. The answer is no, and it isn't even close.

Another of my favorite films is Pulp Fiction. Imagine if Martin Scorsese had been given final cut of that picture, and decided it should run in chronological order with much of the Mia Wallace story cut out. Also, change the title sequence and drop most of the soundtrack in favor of more FM hits of the '70s. Pulp Fiction would still be a pretty good movie, but it would lose its mojo-- its special magic. It would smother your French fries in mayonnaise. That's what this is like.

Zombi drops seven minutes from the running time, trimming out virtually all of the humor and quirkiness out of the picture. Since most of the bloodletting occurs in the first act, the cut is so plot heavy that you're nearly an hour in before the characterization really kicks in. Even consequential stuff, like the lead characters planning their operations, hits the bricks. Goblin's score is relentless and often atonal, especially hair metal riffs the close the film over boring black credits. Argento doesn't seem to recognize the value of silence, and he has no use for any subtext or pretense. His cut is a straightforward action/horror popcorn flick with extreme gore, and it's unsettling for a die hard fan to watch. After watching three different versions of the film in a box set within 48 hours of buying it in 2004, I didn't mind the changes as much, because I enjoyed seeing the flick from different (and occasionally new) perspectives. In my first viewing of any version in something like two years, I found myself frustrated by the omissions and misguided alterations.

That's about all I have to offer anyone not already a fan of the movie. From here on out, it's strictly responsa amongst the devout. Turn away now if you are not so damned...

I don't really care for Argento's cut of the opening section. The actual credits are distractingly large. Opening with the score's best track not only leaves the movie nowhere to go but down musically; it also comes across as a silly "spooky sounds of Halloween" riff in this context. The dialogue is much more clear, but it vastly reduces the tension, and feels staged in comparison to Romero's Altmanesque cacophony. While likely shorter in length, the clarity and continuity of the exposition makes it seem like more of a drag.

I miss the cute scene transitions throughout Romero's movie, beginning with the switch from the TV studio to the police raid. The jazzy scoring muffles the sense of dread, playing more like a cornball action movie. I do like the chorus of moans laced in there, though. I also think Argento was smart to spend a bit more time with the unnamed African-American cop, instead of rushing his partner's suicide. Goblin's music nearly drowns out the priest's speech, both audibly and in effectiveness. I did enjoy it during the extended execution sequence of the basement zombies, though.

Argento chopped the hell out of the chopper base sequence. Peter's inclusion in the group was always rushed, but here the entire bunch seem thrown together and disconnected. I really missed this "getting to know each other" section, as well as the odd bits of comedy.

There's an interesting variation on the redneck country flyover in this edit. In Romero's version, the "'Cause I'm A Man" song baldly announces the outright satirical nature of his movie, which is both part of its charm and a turn-off for more serious-minded viewers. Argento still offers canned country music, but treats his subjects with more respect, and I do not miss the silly musical beat from the car explosion one bit. Argento takes better advantage at that "expensive" effect by lingering for production value.

Argento's cut of the abandoned airbase sequence makes improvements. The music is eerier, and the relatively rapid crosscutting tightens up what was one of the more exasperating Romero sections.

I could go on indefinitely. The point is, Argento renders a great film pretty good, throwing out genius with the flaws, and making a fun soundtrack grate on the nerves. It's novel for people like me who would watch as many different variations on a beloved flick as they could get their hands on, but I fear anyone introduced to the movie through this edit are getting sold short.

  • Commentary with stars David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross This is a swell bunch of coworkers discussing their time making the picture. By extension, a lot more time is spent discussing expanding waistlines and thinning hair than the deeper themes of the picture. Still, it's cool when a fan gripes about the loss of the cigarettes scene and Gaylen Ross chimes in to back them up. There's also some criticism of where the remake failed to live up to the ambitions of this feature.
  • Trailers Surprisingly gory. An Italian version and two German numbers.
  • TV Spots A pair from the U.K.
  • Poster & Still Galleries Lots of fun stuff to scan through for the hard core fan. The photos get repetitive, though.
  • Soundtracks The art of the albums. Goblin looks like the '70s prog band you'd expect.
  • Video Covers So, so many. DVD, VHS, laserdisc. Some of these boxes are ever so tacky. I've owned a few of these over the years.
  • Dario Argento Biography Good stuff, for a text piece.
  • Menu The gun store "tribal" music and a partial skull with moving red eyes. The commentary set-up button doesn't work, so hit your audio buttons a few times.

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