Zombi (aka, Dawn of the Dead) – Italian/Dario Argento cut (George A. Romero, 1978)
“Some kind of instinct. Memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
“They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”
Ah, yes, those trenchant little observations about the importance of the suburban shopping mall for Romero’s shambling dead. They’re so fun, so memorable, it’s a joy to repeat them by just typing them out. Not exactly subtle, pretty much conking the audience over the head with their parallel of the raised dead finding meaning by mindlessly stumbling about the Mecca of consumer capitalism with the same attributes of their living counterparts (especially when compared against the first entry in Romero’s unbelievably important zombie trilogy, “Night”, where I’d argue the director wasn’t as consciously aware of his motivations for creating his apocalyptic vistas, with his themes expressed in less conscious ways, where his feelings towards societal critiques and recognition of the wildly exploding social turmoil at the time served as unspoken backdrop informing the milieu, rather than as directly approached subject matter), but, man, are they beautiful nuggets… perfect mixtures of tongue-in-cheek black humor with heady content, delivered with just the appropriate tone of seriousness (matching right up within a movie constantly assaulting us with garish images of violence that are grotesque, yes, but also have a deliberately quirky comic-book quality – in fact, it’s always been kinda hard for me to understand the uproar this film caused at the time – I’ve always felt the much harsher, in-your-face, still brilliantly impressive gore gags achieved by that grand master of gore himself, Tom Savini, for the follow-up and final trilogy entry, “Day” are far more censor-pushing).
The reason for my delving back into just “Dawn”, the middle entry (and arguably the most celebrated one… though not my favorite… that position will always be secured by the stark nihilism of “Night”, with “Day” and “Dawn” in an on-going battle for runner-up position, with the winner depending on the day) of the classic, official Romero “Dead” trilogy (rather than a full-fledged Romero retro, or at least Romero ‘zombie’ retro) came about from my recently popping in the new 4K restoration release of Italian director Lucio Fulci’s quite different, yet equally as personal (and certainly auteur-driven) 1979 quasi-follow-up (or opportunistic rip-off, or whatever you wanna call it) to Romero’s box-office hit from the previous year, known in Italy as Zombi 2 (with, naturally, Romero’s film known there as Zombi).
Finding myself newly blown away by Fulci’s lurid masterpiece of putrescent abjection (interestingly, while I still have a deep fondness for the political critiques and cleverness of “Dawn” and its pancake-makeup-faced zombies, it’s the raw purity of Zombi 2 that has that film growing in greater stature over time for me), I decided next that it was the perfect time to catch up with the in-name-only, late 80’s-produced sequels (with the recently released Severin blu’s conveniently sitting right up there on my shelves) Zombi 3 and Zombie 4: After Death, which ended up being fun to see, with a lot of the pleasure admittedly deriving from the disc extras discussing the torturous madness of shooting in the Philippines at the time and the occasional odd moment of inspiration amongst all the bad filmmaking (with Zombi 3 however, being draped in a bit of a depressing pall, displaying just how far director Fulci was tumbling from grace).
Still not having had my full fill of zombie fun (along with whatever you wanna refer to those biologically-created ”Demons”-like creatures from “3” and “4” as), I figured why not also take another look at the one whose success directly led to all these spaghetti sequels, namely, Romero’s 1978 second zombie ground-breaker (the first, naturally, being “Night”), but since I was sticking to the Italian side of town, I figured instead of the longer Romero/American theatrical cut, or the even much (and, dare I say, way too long) longer Director’s Cut (though why it’s called that, considering Romero was said to have preferred the US theatrical cut is anyone’s guess), I’d give the more controversial cut of the film – i.e., the Dario Argento/European theatrical one — a whirly-girly-gig.
From the opening escape of helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross) from the utter chaos that has enveloped the television studio where she works (yeesh, never mind a true threat to humanity like a zombie horde, all you need do is look at the hysteria people are being driven to right now, ratting on and shaming their friends and neighbors, embracing things like nightly house arrest, over a virus not much stronger than a flu bug which poses zero – and I mean zero — threat to humanity, for clear evidence of our propensity for a quick turn into madness – in fact, I would argue that right at this moment, the Western World is in the throes of a long-in-the-making, complete mental breakdown, with the emergence of this latest Covid – a minor virus, certainly in comparison against things like the ongoing nuclear weapons proliferation, planet-destroying climate change and the on-going world-order changing lockdowns – having been the final straw) and on into the next — where we’re introduced to the second pair of soon-to-be-stragglers that make up our little foursome of survivors who spend the majority of the film holed up in the mall trying to make a fairly fruitless go at some kind of normal life while fending off flesh-hungry zombies and lawless marauding humans (as well as simple boredom and the difficulties of good ol’ regular human relationships) – where SWAT officers Peter (Ken Foree, the one actor amongst the regulars who actually had a bit of an ensuing movie acting career, becoming a bit of a genre regular) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) reluctantly join the raid on a low-income housing project, to watch in horror as a slew of racist police shoot and kill the resisting black and Latino tenants as if they already were zombies (all before a whole bunch of actual zombies join the fray, leading to lots of flesh-biting, and a startling exploding head shot that, similar to what David Cronenberg would do with equal bravura – and perhaps a bit more effectiveness – just the next year with his very own early exploding head moment in Scanners, had Romero clearly laying down the gauntlet, setting the agenda for the over-the-top fun to follow), Romero’s cinematic obsession with – and brilliance at – presenting the disintegration of the social order under duress certainly remains intact under the shorter (though far from short at just under 2 hours, which is longer in length than most of Argento’s own films) European cut.
In fact, as I re-watched, I thought Zombi (or Dawn of the Dead, if you insist) would make a really interesting double bill with the harrowing Threads, the cautionary speculative film that also imagines — in much harsher and real terms that is — the destruction of humanity’s social fabric (i.e., ‘the unweaving of the threads’) only after a nuclear war (would be a bit of a tough night for the average moviegoer, mind you, but an enlightening and challenging one, nonetheless… and potentially a life-changer… though likely not for the modern hipster audiences that have overtaken the rep houses, too scared and uncertain of the world to dare connect, keeping themselves protected with their preferred pose of mocking superiority to the material they’re watching).
I’ve always insisted it’s the Euro cut of “Dawn” that I’ve always preferred, as it’s paring down fixes some of the goofier elements of Romero’s vision, as well as the more glaring overlong pacing problems (such as the really long segments of our bored foursome trying to keep themselves occupied playing pretend games around the mall, which is manageable in the Euro cut, but kinda interminable in the lengthier alternate cuts)… and kept a stronger more serious, action-focused tone all the way through… but seeing it again… my preferred version becomes a bit less clear.
While Argento’s cut fixes pacing problems, it also hinders a bit the resonance that builds in the longer character moments of the American cut, such as the greater focusing on the tensions between Peter and the pregnant Fran as they try and build a semi-normal life for themselves, with Stephen’s underlying destructive attempts at proving his value as the ‘man of the house’, especially in the face of the two uber-menschen SWAT guys Peter and Roger, really underlined. It ends up watering down a bit the character payoffs, undermining the emotional stakes created over the film. A particular case of glass half-full, half-empty.
There’s Roger’s ultimate tragic demise, with our super-energetic soldier getting bitten partially because he has a kind of (understandable) breakdown, acting wildly out of control while him and Peter are out dodging zombies to jump-start abandoned trucks and drive them around. In the Argento cut, Roger’s over-reactions are too jarring… while we can figure out that Roger’s clearly gone mental (under the apocalyptic circumstances, who wouldn’t?), acting dangerously over-aggressive and manic, it’s too sudden and full throttle (with, on top of it, the goal of what they’re exactly doing moving around the trucks confusing)… in the Romero version, there’s a whole sequence that’s been omitted in which they go out to the trucks a previous time, in which not only is it made clear why they’re there doing what they’re doing (they’re moving them in front of the mall as an attempt to block the entrances from intruders) but in which we see Roger starting to fray a bit, making the later jump into breakdown mode a bit less startling, and more effective.
I’m a bit surprised Argento cut out the oft-celebrated gag of the zombie having the top of his head sheared off by helicopter blade, but then again, I don’t miss it. It’s awkwardly staged, with the zombie having to unaccountably climb on a box just so he can raise his head into the whirring chopper blades, with the performer clearly wearing a Frankenstein extension on the top of his head to get cut off (again, Savini and Romero would eventually wonderfully perfect these kinds of bits in “Day”, switching this moment to that awesomely grandiose and gory ‘head getting lopped off by shovel’ gag).
Even more surprising, however, is something Argento included in his cut that Romero nixed, which perhaps speaks most clearly to their different approaches (and also to why I still do, push come to shove, prefer the Euro cut). Early on, during the raid of the tenant, when Peter and Roger stumble upon the writhing dead locked away in a caged room in the basement, right after the moment of the two coming upon a mysterious one-legged priest (a great moment existing in all the cuts), the Argento cut goes on to follow the two men as they grimly shoot each of the writhing zombies in the head, one after the other, with wonderfully creepy ‘zombie’-like sounds playing over the score, and the camera cutting back consistently to the grim determined faces of the actors as they play out their horrific executions. It’s this extended sequence where we move the farthest away from Romero’s colorful, comic-book approach and the closest towards something more akin to Fulci’s grim nihilism… and it’s my favorite moment in the entire film.
So, while I miss some of Romero’s amusing library-music cues (such as the wonky carnivalesque muzak near the end of his version), and it could perhaps have used a bit more of Romero’s thoughtful character scenes (only if they didn’t hurt the pacing), it’s the Argento/Euro cut, with the full Goblin score (a score that isn’t even really my favorite of the prog-rock group’s Italo-horror entries, and that becomes more than a bit repetitive during the film’s running time, yet still has more than its share of unforgettable refrains along the way) and the grimmer tone (punctuated by that unforgettable extended zombie-execution scene) that I hold closest to my heart.