Release Date(s)1979/1989/2012 (November 13, 2012)
Studio(s)Roy Frumkes Productions (Synapse Films)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
Due to nature of George Romero’s filmmaking style and execution during the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s, there just isn’t very much in the way of behind-the-scenes footage or photographs from a lot of his early work, which includes the first two Dead films. Not only that, but much of the alternate footage or deleted scenes that may or may not have existed at one time are either lost to time or acts of nature. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have access to much of this material, which is why something like Document of the Dead is so valuable.
Roy Frumkes, a young filmmaker from The School of Visual Arts, was allowed on the set of Dawn of the Dead, shooting lots of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with most of the people involved in the making of it. That footage was then assembled into the original 66-minute version of Document of the Dead, which also chronicled some of Romero’s early work and analyzed some of his filmmaking techniques. The documentary won some awards and did well enough to be released on home video much later in 1989, this time with newly-shot footage, containing more interviews, more discussions about George, and a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of a scene from Two Evil Eyes.
Now, over twenty years later, Roy Frumkes has extended the film again, including more interviews and more behind-the-scenes footage, chiefly from the latter three Romero Dead movies: Land, Diary, and Survival. Unfortunately, it’s not for the better. To me, the most honest, the most complete, and the most focused version of Document of the Dead is the original 66 minute version. Not only do we get interviews with George Romero, producer Richard Rubenstein, the main cast of Dawn of the Dead, and Tom Savini himself, but we also get a thoughtful and intellectual look at the way George Romero constructs his films. The documentary uses examples not only from Dawn, but also from Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s little-seen vampire masterpiece Martin. We get to hear Romero’s thoughts on filmmaking and Rubenstein’s thoughts on his role as the producer, including the outcome of the distribution deal for Dawn. We also get to see Tom Savini performing his famous stunt from Dawn as he jumps off of the upper floor of the mall into a pile of boxes and a mattress, as well as footage of him applying make-up to various zombies (including Frumkes himself in a cameo appearance). It’s a very concise and well-constructed time capsule that’s both informative and fascinating.
Fast forward to ten years later, and again twenty-three years later, and that’s where The Definitive Document of the Dead picks up. Besides the behind-the-scenes footage, which is valuable, there’s also some interspersed footage of actors and filmmakers at convention after-parties chatting with each other about their experiences with George and his films. The first misstep that this version of the documentary makes is that it fails to reflect on the now mainstream appeal of zombies in all forms of media, opting instead to show scenes from a softcore porno entitled Night of the Giving Head. It all feels out place and doesn’t belong in anything labeling itself “definitive”. If anything, it’s unnecessary. This footage might have made as a nice supplement, especially if it had any sort of order or point to it, but it doesn’t. It’s simply footage that has no goal in mind other than to further the running time of a documentary that was perfectly fine without it.
What’s more perplexing about this release is that this new version isn’t even presented in high definition. Fortunately, the original and much superior version of Document of the Dead is given its own separate disc, and on Blu-ray. At once this is both pleasing to me as I prefer the original anyways, but unusual as it sort of pushes the new version to the side on an inferior format. Perhaps because of the many different sources of footage used, making a documentary that looks seamless on Blu-ray might not have been possible, another reason why the original version should have been given top billing and the new footage could have been relegated as a supplement.
All of that being said, the Blu-ray presentation of the original version of the film looks better than ever. I would also venture a guess (and I could be wrong about this) that the clips from Night of the Living Dead have been sourced from a more recent print of the film and spliced into the presentation. I say this because they seem to have a different grain structure and stick out much more than the rest of the footage used in the documentary. Overall, the image quality is fantastic. Much of the color palette, although still carrying a slightly washed-out look, is more vibrant than ever. Contrast and brightness levels have also been improved. Many of the documentary’s visual faults have been corrected as well, although not all. As for The Definitive Document of the Dead, it looks just merely ok. As I stated, it’s a standard definition presentation that was shot on multiple film formats with no fine tuning, so it’s simply adequate. The sound for the original version is a single English mono DTS-HD track, which is very satisfying. All of the narrative and interview dialogue is heard loud and clear, as are the sound effects and music cues. It’s all certainly dated, but that’s part of the appeal of the film to me. For the new version, the sound is a mixed bag, stemming from an English 2.0 Dolby Digital track. Everything is heard well enough, but again, there’s nothing smooth or natural about it. It just sounds like a bunch of clips spliced together, which is basically what it is. There are also no subtitles included on either disc.
As for extras, there isn’t much to be had. The original version of the film is treated as an extra (although I don’t think of it that way). On the DVD, there’s an audio commentary on the new version with writer/producer/director Roy Frumkes, as well as a fold-out poster of the Blu-ray artwork. Missing from Synapse Films’ Special Edition DVD release is an audio commentary by Frumkes on the original version, six minutes of deleted footage, and unused interview segments from the 1989 version of the film.
One might try to argue that a release of Document of the Dead on its own is a waste of time, but for me personally, I just love having the original version as pristine as possible; The Definitive Document of the Dead feels more like the aforementioned waste of time. I can understand a documentary filmmaker wanting to go back and touch upon his subject a bit more with the changing times, but the problem is that the new footage doesn’t even try to do that. But if this release does anything right, it’s the Blu-ray of the original version of the film, which I recommend much more than the so-called Definitive version.
- Tim Salmons