Document of the Dead (1989 edit)

Synopsis: This amazing documentary highlights the films of the great horror director, George A. Romero. An intimate look at Romero’s creative process this film contains an outstanding collection of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Dawn of the Dead. Also included are amazing demonstrations at how some of the over-the-top special effects were created by Make-Up Effects Artist, Tom Savini.

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Document of the Dead (1989 edit) 6.75

eyelights: its vintage interview footage with George Romero and co.
eyesores: its lack of focus. its added footage.

“He’s a master of spatial design.”

‘Document of the Dead’ is a documentary about filmmaker George A. Romero that was shot during the making of his classic 1978 feature film ‘Dawn of the Dead‘. Though it covered his career up to that point, it was mostly focused on the new film, with director Roy Frumkes interviewing the legendary director and his cast and crew on location.

What’s interesting about this documentary is that it was re-edited and re-released twice, thus far: though it was initially released in 1979 as a 66-minute feature, it was then re-issued on home video in 1989, and then again in 2012, with newly shot interview and set footage. These expanded versions clock in at 89 and 102 minutes respectively.

I was only able to get my hands on the 1989 re-edit; the original version isn’t at all available on home video and the 2012 version is more difficult to find. Thankfully, the newly-added footage is merely tacked onto the end of the film, as a sort of continuation, allowing us to enjoy the essence of the 1979 version of the documentary.

Filmed over the course of one weekend, we are taken behind the scenes of ‘Dawn of the Dead’, from pre-production to post-production. Though it’s narrated by a dispassionate Susan Tyrell, who provides quick overviews of Romero’s career, style and impact, much of the footage consists of interview snippets and shots of the making of ‘Dawn’.

Having seen the movie multiple times, it’s amazing to see that it came together from these isolated static shots. It’s all in the montage, of course, but it’s surprising how much momentum the picture has in comparison. At the time, Romero’s editing technique, which he developed while directing commercials, was considered quite rapid.

But if there’s one thing to take away from this documentary, it’s that ‘Dawn’ seemed to be an easy shoot, with Romero creating and sustaining a relaxed, collaborative atmosphere with the cast and crew. Everyone attests to how enjoyable it is to work with George, that there’s never any arguing and that he’s always open to their input.

It looks like a tight-knit unit – in fact, many are returning players from his previous pictures.

Romero himself comes off as humble, explaining that, though everyone gives him credit for his progressive casting choices, he doesn’t describe his characters in his scripts and simply gets the best actors to play the part. He also eschews any comparison to Hitchcock, saying that his approach is more akin to Howard Hawkes’ in ‘The Thing…‘.

At the tail end of the original ‘Document of the Dead’ comes 20 minutes of additional footage of Romero shooting a special effects scene from ‘Two Evil Eyes‘, and discussing the making of ‘Monkey Shines’, which had just been released. There’s also a quick look at the cultural impact of ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ up until that point.

What’s interesting to me is how selective the filmmakers were in their choice of subjects: though they discussed ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Martin‘, they completely avoided talking about ‘There’s Always Vanilla’ and ‘The Crazies‘. They didn’t even mention ‘Day of the Dead‘ (not to mention Romero’s other works) in the updated cut.

It makes me wonder what the purpose of ‘Document of the Dead’ is. Is it a documentary about ‘Dawn’? If so, then why do the filmmakers do a short retrospective of his work? And, if it’s a career overview, then why is so much of Romero’s filmography missing? All told, it not only feels incomplete but also a bit amateurish, makeshift.

(That it’s technically subpar, the audio filled with constant hiss and hum, really doesn’t help…)

If anything, ‘Document’ ends up feeling like a padded featurette; it’s hardly the definitive look at Romero or his oeuvre. Which doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting in its own way, but there have been plenty of other featurettes relating to Romero’s work since – and better ones at that. I’d say that this one is for completists only.

And I don’t think any further edits can change that.

Dates of viewings: September 18+19, 2017

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