George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was as important to propelling forward the zombie sub-genre, and horror cinema as a whole, as Night of the Living Dead. Yes, Night brought us the genesis of the modern zombie and was justly praised for using a horror setting, a genre previously seen as nothing but shock value entertainment, to explore then-current themes like the war in Vietnam and civil rights, but both praiseworthy aspects were as much collateral effect as principal target. The Vietnam allegory was half intentional, half a result of the low budget, as evidenced by the raw docudrama aesthetic. The civil rights part was mostly accidental, after the colorblind Romero and his crew simply thought African-American Duane Jones was the best actor for the leading role, and didn’t change a word of the script to refer to his race.
By the time the late ’70s rolled around, Americans had thrown themselves at the feet of blind consumerism as a last ditch attempt to ignore their recent painful past. Hippies turned into selfish and hedonistic yuppies, and the progressive and revolutionary-minded Romero turned his wrath toward this hypocrisy by angrily skewering it in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Up until Dawn’s release, it was rare for a horror film to insert such pointed satire while fully delivering on the bloody expectations of its genre. It works as well as it does because it represents a perfect storm of different elements that can make a great horror product: It’s terrifying and culturally relevant; it delivers a copious amount of blood and guts; and it has fun with its premise while also somehow taking it dead seriously as an allegory of our modern society.
Because of this perfect balance of tones, it would be easy to edit it to accentuate certain points of view. That’s what makes Dawn a fascinating subject for Battle of the Cuts, since each cut focuses on a different aspect of the narrative. There are three commercially available versions of the film—the theatrical cut, which finds a delicate balance between satire and horror; the extended cut, which expands on character moments that create a more personal experience; and the European cut supervised by Dario Argento, which excises a lot of the humor and satire in order present a more straightforward and grim horror experience. Let’s dive into some major differences between the cuts:
Extended vs. Theatrical
During the SWAT raid on the projects, there are two extended scenes where the two officers, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), come face-to-face with the toll it takes on them to kill zombies who were once human. These scenes put a more personal touch to the mania that encapsulates the sequence.
There’s an added sequence where a couple of thugs try to jack panicked couple Francine (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen’s (David Emge) TV news chopper. This scene establishes early on that violence between humans is just as much of a threat as the zombies. It also deftly foreshadows the third act where a motorcycle gang wreaks havoc on the shopping mall in which our heroes find shelter. In the theatrical cut, the human conflict isn’t foreshadowed as well.
There’s a scene during the helicopter ride to the mall where the four protagonists talk about family they left behind. This further gives a personal human touch to the story.
There’s an extra minute and a half of the four main characters having fun while looting the mall. This scene is vital in the way that it expresses people’s ability to distract themselves with consumerism even while the world burns around them. This extra footage shows each character enjoying the mall in their own ways, giving us more insight into the individual characters.
During the third act, Romero focuses more on the mayhem as the biker gang battles zombies and our heroes try to escape unscathed. This material gives the audience more of Tom Savini’s wacky gore effects while putting more emphasis on just how hopeless humanity’s survival is when faced with such an unstoppable force, and whether or not that survival is really deserved.
Theatrical vs. Dario Argento
This is an unusual alternate cut, since the focus is more about what’s been taken out rather than what was put back in. Argento, who signed on to handle the European distribution of the film, decided to create a more self-serious and disturbing vision that took out a lot of the humor, which is par for the course for the Giallo legend. That cut was released in Europe as Zombi, which eventually created a franchise clusterfuck. After Zombi was a big hit in Italy, Lucio Fulci came out with Zombi 2, a sequel to a film that was already a sequel, not that most of the Italian audiences knew that at the time. The Zombi series then went on its own way, while Romero himself continued with his franchise with the woefully underrated Day of the Dead and the underwhelming 2000s trilogy we shall not mention furthermore.
It’s tough to itemize the differences between the U.S. theatrical cut and Argento’s Zombi, since it’s the minor changes sprinkled throughout that gives us a tonally different whole. Mostly, a lot of the satirical comments that link the zombies to modern consumerism are taken out. The fun that the characters have in the mall is also shortened significantly. The beginning and end titles are also different. The opening credits present the title as Zombie, further complicating things. The end titles of the theatrical cut are a pop culture staple, the cheesy upbeat mall music playing over tongue-in-cheek images of the abandoned mall. It’s so iconic that even Robot Chicken used the music as its main theme. In the Argento cut, we just cut to black and a somber and serious cue from Argento and Goblin’s score ends things on a much more downbeat note. Speaking of the music, the European cut also puts more emphasis on the more traditional Argento-Goblin type of score found in Argento’s own films—dreary, moody and bleak. A lot of the more playful and upbeat cues from the theatrical cut are taken out.
There isn’t a clear winner here—it just depends on what you want to get out of your Dawn of the Dead experience. If you’re looking for a well-paced balance between horror and satire, go with the theatrical cut. First timers are also advised to watch this version. If you’re looking for more detail into the characters and the world building, the extended cut is perfect for that. If you don’t care much about the film’s social themes, and just want a straightforward genre experience, then the Argento cut is tailor-made for you.
Here’s the bad news: It’s tough these days to get your hand on these cuts. Even the theatrical cut isn’t available for streaming, and has to be bought on physical media. If you want to access the other two cuts, a deep dig into your wallet might be in order. The ultimate editions that contain all of these cuts, either on DVD or Blu-ray, are pretty pricey. Dawn’s U.S. distribution has always been volatile, and it seems like we’re in one of those pockets where we’re waiting for new distribution to connect us with these cuts. Keep looking it up every once in a while; it’s only a matter of time until they’re available again.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.