Dawn of the Dead (1978) Blu-ray review

A sumptuous Blu-ray package for the most influential zombie film ever made

What can be said about the second part of Romero's epic zombie saga that hasn't be written before? Not much I'd wager given the weight of critical and academic analysis it has been repeatedly subjected to since its original release back in 1978. As such I'm not going to waste much time on the movie itself, after all every self-respecting horror fan will already be familiar with the film (in all of its many incarnations - replicated here with the inclusion of three different cuts) and those who have yet to see it are in for a gore-filled treat with an underlying subtext that is every bit as relevant today as it was thirty-plus years ago. As such, I'll just skip the waffle and reiterate the oft-repeated claim that Dawn of the Dead remains one of the greatest, and most influential, horror films ever made.

We've got to survive!
So, with that out of the way, let's move onto this new three-disc set from Arrow Films. As with the earlier three DVD releases in its Masters of Giallo series, Dawn of the Dead allows you to choose the sleeve image you want on display. Here though you get a choice of four images, including a mix of original art and pieces based on original poster designs.

As well as the three discs in the set (one Blu-ray and two DVDs - more on these below), the box also includes a double-sided poster featuring the all-new sleeve art by Rick Melton (seen on the packshot above) on one side, and a reproduction of the original UK cinema artwork on the other. Finally, there's a 16-page booklet entitled For Every Night There is a Dawn featuring interviews conducted by film critic Calum Waddell.

Everything you need, right at your fingertips
Moving onto the discs, first up is the set's pride and joy - a Blu-ray containing the 'Theatrical Cut' (127mins 03secs) of the film. Presented as an AVC 1.85:1 encode, the hi-def image quality will be immediately familiar to anybody who has already seen the Anchor Bay Blu-ray released in the US a couple of years back - as evidenced by a side-by-side comparison of the two during the process of preparing this review. However, this is no bad thing, as the image quality for a low budget movie of this vintage is incredibly good.

On a purely technical level there are no major issues - edge enhancement is mercifully absent and colours are accurately rendered with no obvious banding. Perhaps the most obvious improvement over earlier standard definition DVD (using my trusty old R1 Ultimate Edition as a point of comparison) comes in the fine detailing in the image. While it doesn't necessarily stack up to the latest Blu-ray blockbusters, in comparion to its standard-definition forebearers, this new hi-def release is like having a soft focus filter removed from your eyes - Hell, even the opening credits look sharper and feature an artificial sense of depth I never noticed on any other version of the film. If there's one complaint, it's that the source print itself still contains some very minor print damage and dust, which could probably only be overcome if somebody invested a massive amount of money into a huge Wizard of Oz-style remastering.

Shoot it, man! Shoot it in the head!
The audio is a little less thrilling, but this really is down to the quality of the original recordings. The disc offers up both a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix and a stereo LPCM track. Regardless of my general preference for listening to films with their original audio mix, the latter is - to my ears - the more satisfying version. Snatches of dialogue can be lost in the 5.1 mix as it tries to do more than the original recordings where ever meant to handle. However, if surround sound audio is all that you'll accept, then as long as you factor in the limitations of the source material, then its a perfectly acceptable alternative. English subtitles are also included.

What are they doing? Why do they come here?
The Blu-ray disc also serves up a decent collection of extra features for fans to devour, even if most of them have turned up on previous DVD incarnations of the film. First up are a pair of very informative and lively audio commentaries, both moderated by DVD Producer Perry Martin - one with writer-director George A Romero, special effects legend Tom Savini and assistant director Chris Romero, the other featuring producer Richard P Rubenstein (which previous accompanied the so-called 'Extended' or 'Director's Cut' in the R1 Ultimate Edition DVD box set).

Joining the above is the excellent documentary Document of the Dead (84mins/576p), which I still remember buying as a standalone VHS release back in the mid-90s. Tying in with this are Document of the Dead: Deleted Scenes (7mins/576p) and Document of the Dead: Lost Interviews (20mins/576p), which include extra footage like Adrienne Barbeau discussing working on Creepshow, Romero talking about the pitfalls of working with major movie studios and Tom savini chatting about the Night of the Living Dead remake he helmed. Finally, there's the odd, but sometime informative fan documentary Fan of the Dead (52mins/576p), which follows French fan Nicolas Garreau as he flies to America to track down some of the locations from the Romro's ...Dead films and chat to some of Dawn of the Dead's stars at the Pittsburgh Comic Book Convention.

This was an important place in their lives
Having dealt with the Blu-ray disc, now it's time to move onto the two DVDs. First up we have the longer 'Director's Cut' of the film (139mins 25secs), which I've always found to be an intriguing, if not wholly satisfying alternate edit of the film. There are some very nice character beats added to the story, but on the whole the pacing of the film just doesn't work as well as it did in the 'Theatrical Cut'. This version arrives with a commendable anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer, despite some print damage, and fine Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. Neither will win any awards, but what were you hoping for? The disc also features English subtitles for the film itself, and while there's only one extra feature, it's a corker. The 75min documentary The Dead Will Walk previously appeared on the US Anchor Bay Blu-ray release, and while there is some cross-over with information that can be found in the commentaries and documentary on the Blu-ray disc, it's still a great watch for fans.

They're multiplying too rapidly!
Finally, we come to the second DVD in the set, this one playing host to the 'Argento Cut' of the film (119mins 05secs). As die-hard fans of the film will undoubtedly know, Dawn of the Dead was recut for the European market on its original cinema release by Italian horror auteur Dario Argento, who had already worked with his band of choice the Goblins to provide some music for the movie. This European version ups the pace by ditching some of the character scenes, making for a more frantic, noticeably different and ultimately shallower, experience.

Unsurprisingly, this version also features even more music from the Goblins. In terms of AV performance, the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio are very much on a par with those of the 'Director's Cut'. Given how hard it was to track down this version of the film for such a long time (something that did change in recent years), that should be considered a very good thing indeed. Once again there are English subtitles for the feature itself.

The main extra on this disc is the fun Scream Greats: Tom Savini, a 53min chat with the special effects guru about his career that was originally released on VHS in the US back in 1986 as the first volume of The Fangoria Video Magazine Series. It's a bit sloppy in terms of production, but features plenty of insight from the man himself (plus other filmmakers and effects artists he's worked with) as well as some cracking clips from the films in question.

The disc also contains a Publicity Vault, which plays host to the US Trailer (3mins), German Trailer (1min), three US Radio Spots (2.5mins combined running time), two UK TV Spots (1.5mins combined running time) and five text reviews of the film by the likes of roger Ebert and Stephen King. Arrow Films also found space to publicise its Masters of Giallo DVD series with trailers for House by the Cemetery (3mins), Macabre (2mins) and Sleepless (1min).

When there's no more room in Hell
So there you have it, a magnificent set that does a great job of celebrating the importance of Romero's undead masterpiece. Is it perfect? There are a few extras that have appeared on other versions (such as the US Blu-ray's Film Fast Facts trivia track, plus the Monroeville Mall Tour, Monroeville Mall Commercial and additional trailers/TV spots and excellent On-Set Home Movies that have appeared on other releases in the past). But these are really minor niggles. At the end of the day Arrow Films has done an exceptional job with this three disc set, and I for one can't wait to see what it comes up with next (which, rumour has it, will continue to make Romero fans very happy).

Arrow Films, All-region Blu-ray/R0 DVD, £18, On sale now (HMV-exclusive - elsewhere March 1 2010)