DVD: Document of the Dead (1985)

April 30, 2013 | By

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Film: Good/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: Good

Label: Synapse Films / Region: 0 (NTSC) / Released: November 13, 2012

Genre: Documentary / Film History / Horror / Zombies

Synopsis: Roy Frumkes’ classic yet ever-changing documentary chronicling George Romero’s work in the zombie genre.

Special Features: 2012 Audio commentary with director Roy Frumkes.

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Review:

During the 1990s, when word got around film fans that a making-of documentary on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead existed on videotape, for fans it certainly was a must-have document, given there hadn’t been any serious attempt to cover a major pioneer within the independent film scene.

Up until 1985, Romero may have worked almost exclusively in horror, but his rise from industrial films and commercials to not only the chief creator of the zombie film with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead [M] still makes him an important figure among filmmakers who were determined to eke out a career when studios were (and still are) the dominant force in feature film distribution.

His ’68 horror film did not begin a massive wave of zombie films (Portugal’s Blind Dead series excepted), and it wasn’t followed with a string of annual sequels because Romero was still trying out different kinds of genre flips, such as the virus film (The Crazies), a modern vampire (Martin), and later Knightriders [M] – a straight drama about rival egos within a travelling Renaissance festival troupe.

The original concept and design of Frumkes’ doc was as a teaching tool, and the prof took along a spartan film crew and spent the weekend filming scenes of the zombie massacre at the then-new (and very massive) Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania. Some additional footage was shot, and the mix of 35mm and 16mm footage was edited into a 66 min. film that showed the main stages of film production, post-production, and marketing using behind-the-scenes material, film clips, and interviews of the director, producer, cinematographer, effects man (Tom Savini), and main male actors.

Whether Romero alerted Frumkes or the latter kept track of the former’s career, Frumkes later shot additional material on videotape during the making of Two Evil Eyes, the disappointing ‘reunion’ between Argento and Romero. Those segments exclusively feature the absurd finale to Romero’s half of the film, involving a sudden pyramid impalement as designed by Tom Savini. The newly expanded version, running about 84 mins., was later released in 1995 laserdisc in Japan and in 1996 on tape in the U.S. (via Hen’s Tooth), and around 1998 / 1999 Synapse respectively released the doc on laserdisc and DVD with an additional 6 mins. of deleted scenes from the original Dawn edit, an unused end credit sequence, a commentary track with Frumkes “and others,” and about 12 mins. of previously unseen interview material from the Two Evil Eyes visit.

When Anchor Bay produced their 4-disc Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition [M] in 2004, among the bonus docs was the Frumkes film, licensed from Synapse with the deleted and unused footage at the end, making the program run 91 mins. In 2011, Frumkes decided to revisit Romero again, this time during the filming of his more recent Dead sequels in Toronto, and with the extra footage (which also included some former cast interviews from convention shows) created a new “Definitive” edition which is less of an expansion and more of a re-edit that knocks out some material to keep the film fairly well paced and minimizing topical repetition.

The plus side is the new edit uses cleaner documentary footage for the Dawn and Evil Eyes chapters, and clips from Romero’s films are taken from cleaner digital transfers that Synapse themselves have released on DVD. The newly integrated material includes some stuff from the separately indexed 6 mins. of deleted footage, and the Toronto footage was shot using DV gear, hence a flipping between full screen and widescreen ratios.

The sound’s also been cleaned up, and Frumkes added a quaint stop-motion animated prologue where a girl is temporarily rescued from a zombie by Romero. Also new is a fairly lengthy interview with daughter Tina Romero (plus an extract of a short starring her famous parents), and family stills interpolated into the end credit sequence.

The downside is some material from the older chapters was edited out or trimmed, and while it doesn’t take away from the core information, purists should hold onto their prior DVD editions if they want the Groucho Marx prologue; the extra Dawn interview material (which includes segments on storyboards, and Romero discussing the dreaded X-rating, and the priest scene from Dawn); interviews with graphic artists Steve Bissette and The Phantom of the Movies; and (I think) some footage from the Evil Eyes set. Frumkes also chooses at times to stick with unedited interview bits instead of overlaying some film clips and / or behind-the-scenes footage in the Dawn segment.

Of the various chapters, the 1978 Dawn footage is more coherent and has a good structure, whereas the 1989 Evil Eyes visit is fairly dull. In the 2012 edit, the later visits sort of ramble in their loose structure, which includes coverage of Romero’s recent activities and views of the genre he codified, but one can see a certain resignation in his eyes, knowing the only way he’ll get any money to direct a film is to crank out another zombie film with less budgetary funds.

Those wanting to see the original 66 min. edit used by Frumkes for his class will have to buy the 2-disc special edition from Synapse’s website, as that combo release includes the 2012 edition on DVD, plus a new HD transfer of the 16mm film version of Frumkes’ first edit (and a mini poster of the cover art, which also reflects the way the director’s career’s been reclaimed by zombies after straying into Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe territory in prior career phases).

Due to the differing lengths and content within the 1985 and 2011 edits, Frumkes recorded a new commentary track to explain the differences in versions as well as his motivations for following Romero for 34 years, and while generally informative, it does become less involving in the final third, largely because we’ve already heard the director reflect on his zombie films and the genre in prior docs like Night of the Living Dead: 25th Anniversary Documentary [M] (1993) and Autopsy of the Dead [M] (2009). Frumkes does offer several unique anecdotes, but they’re not especially unique.

Given the 40th anniversary of Dawn is coming up in 2018, one suspects Synapse might consider a timed multi-disc edition which features all cuts of Frumkes’ doc (with their respective commentary tracks), and perhaps the inclusion of Cinemall (2012), a 35 min. doc on the uber-fans who make regular pilgrimages to the location to retrace Romero’s classic scenes of paranoia and mayhem.

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

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