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Old 08-18-2004, 07:15 PM
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Default Day of the Dead: SE




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: August 31, 2003

Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 8/19/2003
MSRP: $29.98
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes



inline ImageDay of the Dead, that little sequel by George A. Romero that was never given a chance. First came the drastic budget cuts that forced Romero to reduce the scope of his vision. Second came the harsh (but earned) "unrated" rating which reduced the film to minimal advertising and select venues. Thirdly, 1985 was the year of Return of the Living Dead, and as a film more tongue and cheek and in touch with teenage 80's sensibilities, it ultimately emerged the zombie film of choice the year Day was released. Add to the fact that this film followed Romero's legendary Night and Dawn of the Dead films, and it becomes obvious that Day was doomed right from the start.

That was 1985, and now, 18 years later, Day has slowly been building a loyal and vocal fan base. Although one would be laughed off of the horror circuit back in 1985 for saying Day is the best of Romero's signature trilogy, steadily more and more fans are boasting such a claim. Like many other underappreciated gems, video, laserdisc and DVD has given a new life to an initially forgotten film. This, the second DVD release of the film by Anchor Bay, is digitally mastered and chalk full of extras. How does it hold up?

The Story

inline Image The film begins with a claustrophobic shot of Sarah (Lori Cardille) sitting alone in a barren room. She counts down the endless days on a calendar, and then the hands of zombies jut through the wall, grabbing at her. The nightmare motif is established, and the true story begins. Sarah and her group land down in a Florida city looking for life, but as the newspaper proclaims: "The Dead Walk!" Humans are the minority now, and zombies dominate the abandoned landscapes. Unable to find any survivors, the group returns to their underground barricade.

inline Image They have been cooped up there for months, and sanity is beginning to fade from even the strongest members of the group. Capitan Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) is the biggest victim of cabin fever, as his short fuse burns moment by moment. The self-appointed leader of the group, he has become the tyrant, obsessed with his power and afraid of his extinction. His strength is contrasted against the equally loony Dr. Logan. Logan's insanity is more understated and harmless; he is obsessed with the dead and the possibility of controlling their cognitive movements. Logan has a guinea pig, Bub (Howard Sherman), who is slowly, like a child, learning the simplicities of human life. Logan's research gives promise in the thought that one day the humans may be able to control the seemingly uncontrollable zombies.

inline Image Unfortunately, Logan's progress is not quite brisk enough for Rhodes, and he demands some changes, while at the same time threatens to leave the group stranded. As the group tries to round up more zombies for study, problems ensue and nerves snap. The military, lead by Rhodes, goes against the medical doctors, in the mean time unleashing the legions of zombies. Will the relationship meltdown destroy the two institutions, or will humans continue to prevail?

inline Image There are no likable characters in Day of the Dead. Everyone, from Rhodes to Logan are so self centered and dire that it makes it impossible to identify with any of the human characters. They are mostly cruel, uncaring and cold, but what the hell else are they supposed to be. The biggest knock Romero's Day has taken is the fact that it does not provide a likable human character, but neither do many of the best films of modern times. Taxi Driver, Aguirre: Wrath of God, The Rules of Attraction, and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, feature a cast load of despicable characters and they manage still to be fantastic works of art. To call a film flawed simply because it offers no likable characters is a shameful misjudgment. In order to push the limits of cinema and story narrative, one must probe into the darker and under seen undercurrents of society, and that is just what Day of the Dead accomplishes.

The characters in Day have been locked away for months (years?) and their edgy and loud antics are just what is to be expected. Isolation and desperation has settled in, and these characters are all experiencing the worst forms of cabin fever, and Romero handles it admirably. The characters indulge in profane yelling matches, but it isn't overacting, it is a dynamic of claustrophobic human desperation. These characters are on their last legs, and they certainly show it.

inline Image Claustrophobia is a major part of the film, and is in many ways a return to the roots of Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. Of course it features another strong African American character that becomes a major player in the end. It may be day outside, but these characters never see it, as they fight it out in the darkened mines. In Night the characters were barred in a tight house and basement, and there are definite echoes of it in Day. Because the characters are so close together, their patience and tolerance levels are extremely low, and it makes for good, gritty drama. Dawn of the Dead had their characters cooped up in a mall, but it was always presented as a type of surrogate earth, where they could live and get along with each other forever. I appreciate the tightly composed shots of Day, that really emphasize the constricted nature of the characters. It gives the film a taut urgency, one that makes the viewer wish the characters can escape into that titular day.

inline Image Day is also a return to Romero's original zombie vision in its stark photography. Other than the blood red of various body parts, the movie works on a very muted color palette. In fact, the entire image appears washed out to the point where it nearly recreates the black and white photography of Night of the Living Dead. This film lacks the comic book lightness of Dawn, and its restricted color usage returns the series to its darker origins. It is a bleak portrait of the future that Romero paints, but it is fitting with the apocalyptic story he tries to tell.

inline Image What has elevated Romero's apocalyptic zombie films above the likes of Fulci or Lenzi's work is that he fuses it with relevant social commentary. Day, arguably more than Night and Dawn, offers plenty of subtext to mull over. The film presents two distinct social institutions, science and the military, and pits them against each other. As the world decays around them, they too eventually crumble. Romero has always taken jabs at governmental institutions in movies like Martin, but here he really knocks them front and center. As the two institutions quarrel and destroy themselves, it is somewhat reassuring which one emerges victorious. It is a cold film, but at least Romero gives some sort of relief.

inline Image As interesting as the battle between institutions is, the best part of Romero's story centers around Bub. It seems logical that if one is going to be living amidst zombies that they should be studying them, and Dr. Logan does just that. Mankind has never resisted its analytical tendencies, and Logan's studying of Bub is slavery in an apocalyptic age. In creating his human characters so cold, Romero makes Bub the most human of all. Like a child he re-learns the bits of life we all take for granted, and his story is quite touching. As Roger Avary asserts, Howard Sherman's performance as Bub was probably the best of the year. The kind of emotions he allows to shine through his face is remarkable. Never has a character without lines been so effective at creating such a strong, expressive presence.

Sherman is not alone though, as Cardille, Pilato and Liberty all give stellar performances. The stone faced, but beautiful, Lori Cardille brings to the series the strongest female lead, and it remains one of the most assured and powerful female performances the genre has ever seen. Joseph Pilato is wonderfully over the top, and his shouting monologues are wholly memorable. The late Richard Liberty gives his Dr. Frankenstein character a quirky sense of awe at all of his creations and discoveries. It is an ensemble cast, and definitely up to par with the casts of Romero's other Dead films.

This review would not be complete without mentioning the groundbreaking gore by splatter legend Tom Savini. Sure, he may have done Friday the 13th, The Prowler, Maniac, Dawn of the Dead and Trauma, but none of that work even comes close to his creations in Day of the Dead. Fingers, arms and even heads are ripped off in graphic detail, and bodies are literally torn apart on screen. All of Savini's past tricks are included in this film, and it becomes a kind of "best of" compilation of his astounding work. The sheer volume of effects and the uncut nature of the film make this arguably the benchmark for all gore films to refer to. Rivaled only by Bottin's work on The Thing, Savini's make up effects here are jaw dropping in their graphic and complete nature. Definitely the high point of the trilogy when it comes to graphic dismemberment.

inline ImageIt comes with all trilogies, the inevitable question: "so which is the best film?" Which is the movie that extends far and above the others to proudly be the flag bearer of the series? Day of the Dead isn't that film, but neither is Dawn or Night. Romero's three films work so well together in such different ways that it is impossible to compare them. Let them exist solely as a cohesive whole, three masterpieces that define each timeframe in which they were released. Much more positive comments could be directed at the initially under appreciated Day of the Dead, but holding it in the same light as Dawn and Night is compliment enough for this great zombie film.


Image Quality

The original disc was an early Anchor Bay release, and was letterboxed without anamorphic enhancement. The resulting disc was very grainy, with plenty of gashes and blemishes littered throughout the film. The transfer was dark and overall very washed out, lacking any depth whatsoever. The background was also very active with shimmering and pixilation. It is thus no surprise that the new Anchor Bay disc is leaps and bounds better than the former disc.


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New Anchor Bay DVD
Old Anchor Bay DVD



This new anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer boasts solid colors, and even though the film works on a muted color palette, the intestinal reds and blue skies appear much more realistic than the original disc. The blemishes have been entirely cleaned up this time around, and the grain is also virtually nonexistent. The best improvement is the contrast, which has been lessened considerably, thus making for increased detail and depth to the image. It becomes obvious in the comparative shots at how much deeper, clearer and lighter the new transfer is compared to the old. Great work here by Anchor Bay, certainly living up to the "digital video to the MAX!" claims of their Divimax line.

Sound

First thing is first, this release has been the subject of major discussion on the internet for its slight changes in dialogue compared to the original release. Approximately 6 scenes feature alternate dialogue captured from a television dub of the film. Profanities like "shit" and "Jesus" have been omitted and changed in a couple lines, and the sound of a gunshot has been shortened. Although initially made out to be a huge debacle, unless you have the original audio stems of Day of the Dead surgically implanted in your brain you will likely not notice the differences at all.

The original audio is still 99% intact, and the alterations are easily overlookable. Despite being overlookable, the alterations are still something that should have been rectified by Anchor Bay before the release. Considering the length of time devoted to prepping this disc, there should not have been problems with the audio, especially considering that the original disc contains an unaltered cut. The modifications are minimal, but still amount to a flub that hampers an otherwise perfect release.

The audio is presented in DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX 6.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0. Oddly enough, the original mono mix is nowhere to be found on this disc. This may perhaps be because the three remixes here all sound remarkably close to their mono ancestor. The DTS sounds slightly louder than the Digital track, but both sound similar otherwise. There is virtually no directional movement in the fronts or in the rears, and the rears hardly ever get any discrete sound.

The remixed tracks do sound slightly fuller than a standard mono track, and give the sound a fair bit of depth lacking from the original release. The tracks are all very clear and lack any hiss whatsoever. In the end, these included tracks lack the engulfing experience offered by Anchor Bay remixes like The Beyond, it still does remain true to the film's original audio compositions. Still though, one has to wonder why Anchor Bay didn't just drop the DTS track in order to make more room for the video bitrate.


Supplemental Material

This, one of the first discs under Anchor Bay's special "Divimax" label, promises big things, and it delivers. The first disc contains two solid audio commentaries, one with George A. Romero, Tom Savini, Lori Cardille and production designer Cletus Anderson, and the other with fan boy director Roger Avary. The first commentary has all the participants reunited together, and it is nice to see them catching up on old times and recollecting about the now 18(!) year old movie. They talk about the fun on the set, Lori's young buttocks, the reception of the movie and what it was like working in the mines. Although some content is covered in the documentary, the track still makes for a fascinating listen, and while not fantastic, will still please fans of the Dead.

The commentary with Roger Avary is a bit of a mixed bag. I applaud Anchor Bay for sanctioning a commentary by a true fan, rather than somebody who would probably rather do other things, but Avary's commentary is entirely off the cuff. He is not well prepared, and as a result he struggles at times for things to say. He goes into detail about board games and how he thinks kids should play guns with zombies, and some of the anecdotes fall flat. He is full of life though, and the commentary is definitely worthy of a listen, even if he doesn't bring much information to the table. Avary offers some perceptions about the film, and hearing how him and Quentin Tarantino met George before they were famous is interesting. Not all it could have been, but definitely still a commentary to be heard.



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Moving on to the packed disc two, the biggest featurette is a 39 minute look into the making of Day of the Dead, entitled "The Many Days of Day of the Dead." Romero, Savini, Cardille, Joe Pilato, Howard Sherman, Greg Nicotero and many more participants in the film are all back with new interviews. The documentary looks at the following behind the Dead films, the production in the underground mine, the methods used to do some of the macabre effects and much more. The best parts of the documentary though, are spent with Howard Sherman, as he talks earnestly and fondly of his Bub role, and the complex thought he put into the character. Kudos to Anchor Bay for rounding up so many of the key participants in the project, it really makes this documentary worth the look. Romero and Savini even tease the fans at the end with their hinting at working on the next Dead film.

Like some of Savini's other films to hit DVD, like The Prowler and From Dusk Till Dawn, included here is a 31 minute behind the scenes reel of gore footage. It takes time to show the makeup and masks behind applied and removed, and then by the end looks at the gore shots featured in the film. Savini always does a great job of covering all his effects on tape, and this little piece is no different.

An interview with the late Richard Liberty is also included, and it runs about 15 minutes. The quality is pretty rough, but still audible, and Liberty talks about how he got involved with Romero in The Crazies, and then how that made way for Day of the Dead. He provides some nice anecdotes about the shoot, and even talks about another zombie film he made...Porky's II! A significantly lesser supplement is the Wampum Mine Promotional Video, used to promote the mine used in Day of the Dead. It is a pure puff piece, and actually kind of funny in a campy sort of way. If you need storage space in the future, you'll always have this featurette to refer to.

Next up is no less than seven well produced still galleries: Production stills, Behind the scenes Parts 1 & 2, Posters & advertising art, Gallery of Memorabilia, Zombie Make-up, and Continuity stills. Each one features a truckload of shots, and seeing the zombie gallery shows just how much work Savini put into making his legion of differentiated undead.



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Three TV spots and three trailers are included, as well as a nice George A. Romero biography and filmography. DVD-ROM users will get even more out of this disc, since Anchor Bay has included both Romero's original "first draft" screenplay as well as original production notes. The notes are covered in extreme detail and run 42 pages. The screenplay of Romero's original vision runs 166 pages, and is much larger than the shooting script. It is great that Anchor Bay included this for the fans, especially considering Romero refers to it so much throughout the breadth of the extras on this set.

The menu design for the two discs is some of Anchor Bay's best work, and is also notable for sounding oddly like Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science." The packaging features a variation of the VHS artwork done by the Chiodo brothers, and has a embossed picture of Bub with Velcro that peels back to open the digi-pack set. In keeping with the spirit of the film, Anchor Bay even went at length to include a little write up done on a mock notepad in the same writing manner as Dr. Logan in the film. This set, from the commentaries right down to the packaging, is arguably the best set ever put together by the Blue Sailboat.

The original flipper disc had a great, 20 minute behind the scenes look at the shoot of Day of the Dead. It had footage and interviews of the zombies in between take, it showed Romero in action and it even spent time with some of the lower crew members, like those responsible for calling people to be zombies. It would have went great with Savini's own footage, but sadly Anchor Bay has neglected to include it on this DVD set. So those with the original DVD may want to think twice before dumping the disc.


Final Thoughts

Save for a few minor audio changes, this is the definitive presentation of Day of the Dead. The video is stellar, and the extras cover a great deal of the film's history and are wholly entertaining. The movie itself, a classic; one of the best horror films of the 1980's. Anchor Bay has really gone all out on this disc, and the result will be sure to please fans. The original DVD, despite its poor quality, does contain the original audio track, as well as a great little documentary, so die hard fans will need to pick this disc up twice. If one release is all you have the cash (and the patience) for, then seize the Day and get this new disc. Don't wait until the dead walk and it's too late.

Rating

Movie - A
Image Quality - A
Sound - B-
Supplements - A

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Not Rated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English DTS ES 6.1
  • English Dolby Digital EX 6.1
Supplements
  • Commentary with George A. Romero, Tom Savini, Lori Cardille and Cletus Anderson.
  • Commentary with Roger Avary.
  • "The Many Days of Day of the Dead" documentary
  • "Day of the Dead Behind the Scenes" gore footage
  • Wampum Mine Promotional Video
  • Audio interview with actor Richard Liberty
  • Theatrical trailers
  • TV spots
  • Still galleries
  • George A. Romero biography and filmography
  • "First Draft" Screenplay (DVD-ROM only)
  • Original production notes (DVD-ROM only)

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Old 09-08-2004, 05:54 AM
Great review, as usual. There's something about Day of the Dead that had more of an impact on me than the previous two Dead films. Sure, Dawn is a pant-load of fun, but the gritty realism of Day makes it, for me, a stronger film.

This DVD is pretty good, but I wasn't aware of the dialogue changes. Out of interest, what was the reason given for the changes?
 
 

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