Dawn of the Dead (1978): Extended version

Synopsis: When there is no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth.

This 139-minute edition is often referred to as “The Director’s Cut”, when, in fact, the Theatrical edition is George Romero’s preferred version. The Extended Version was created to use to premiere the film at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, and contains numerous additional scenes, gore, and a music score filled with library tracks.
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Dawn of the Dead (1978): Extended version 8.5

eyelights: Ken Foree. its social satire. its setting. its gore effects. its extended stage-setting. its atmosphere.
eyesores: its pace. its undead make-up. its greater runtime.

“You’re hypnotized by this place, all of you; it’s all so bright and neatly wrapped. Don’t you see it’s a prison, too?”

The first time I saw George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie classic, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, it was on Anchor Bay’s 2-tape “Director’s Cut”. I bought it because its packaging suggested that it was the director’s original vision – and because it boasted special features. Sadly, not only were the special features thin, this was not actually a Director’s cut.

The version that Anchor Bay peddled is actually a workprint version, a longer cut that Romero presented at Cannes before he was finished editing the picture. It’s not the final cut. In fact, Romero feels that the final theatrical version is the finished product; that makes it the Director’s cut – hence why this one is now called the “Extended version”.

For many, however, the “Extended version” is considered the best version of the picture.

I might actually agree.

The overall difference is an additional 12 minutes of footage, along with numerous different cuts along the way. There’s also a largely different soundtrack, as Goblin weren’t done recording their score yet. Though it may not seem significant, these small changes make for a very different experience altogether than the Theatrical or Argento cuts.

The overall flavour of the “Extended version” is less action or horror-oriented and much more contemplative, focused above all on the social commentary. It can be a bit jarring as a first experience after having watched the tension-filled ‘Night of the Living Dead‘, as this ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is more of a survival story than a white knuckler.

It does take a little bit more time to set the stage, providing us with more talking head discussions of the crisis at hand at the television studio. There’s also more footage of the police raid on the tenement building, which shows Roger as a smart @$$, but also as a pragmatist. These scenes help to contextualize the characters’ decision to run.

The time it takes before the group ends up at the mall ends up being much longer (there’s even an extra, tension-filled, scene when they stop to refuel along the way, encountering another group that’s making a break for it): at 35 minutes, it’s nearly a third of the movie so it serves as the first act proper, not just a prologue. It makes sense.

But the whole centerpiece, or second act, is really about them setting up at the mall and rebuilding the life they once knew. They spend a lot more time doing that, including building a fake wall to hide the entrance to their hideout, and shopping for childcare/pregnancy things, that it’s that much more damning when it all falls apart at the end.

Romero’s commentary on our consumer culture is much more pervasive and significant. After Peter, Roger, Fran and Stephen settle in, they get used to the life and start shopping, stocking up on non-essentials. But we see them feeling empty, unhappy, losing their spirit. It’s Romero’s way of stating that consumerism sells happiness but doesn’t provide it.

It’s a stronger picture, thematically, though its length makes it more grueling to watch.

While this is arguably rather fitting, given the context (a zombie apocalypse probably should be a long and arduous experience), one can see why Romero sought to trim the picture a little bit: there are a number of extended bits, especially some of the zombie violence, that don’t work. He likely sought to pace it better, to make it more seamless.

And although the “Theatrical version” (a.k.a the real “Director’s Cut”) is also quite excellent, leaner and more entertaining than this one, it doesn’t have the same intellectual heft. So, whether one chooses to watch this or the other one depends on the experience that you want to have. This one is more meaningful, but with that comes a greater investment.

Personally, I’m all for it.

Post scriptum: To explore the myriad changes between the “Theatrical” and “Extended” versions at greater length, please visit the following link: http://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=632043

Story: 8.5
Acting: 7.5
Production: 8.0

Chills: 3.0
Violence: 3.0
Gore: 5.0

Date of viewing: August 5, 2017

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