(Article by Neil Fawcett ©, added 29-June-1998)
Document of the Dead is a documentary produced by the New York School of Visual Arts which tries to show the entire life cycle of the production of an independent movie. To show this by example Roy Frumkes, a lecturer at the School of Visual Arts, managed to get access to a independent film being shot in Pittsburgh called Dawn of the Dead. The result is a ninety minute documentary which centres mainly of the production of Dawn of the Dead, but also shows scenes from other Romero productions such as Night of the Living Dead, Martin and Two Evil Eyes.
It starts by giving a brief background of George Romero's first feature, and Dawn's predecessor, Night of the Living Dead, before moving onto what comprises the majority of the video, a fascinating look at the filming of Dawn of the Dead.
Footage, interviews and examples are shown through the whole life cycle of Dawn, discussing everything from the script to filming, and even through to post production and the films release. In fact the majority of the interviews were actually shot on location in the Monroeville Mall where Dawn was being filmed.
It first looks at the various aspects of how the script is transferred to film. For example, it is usually assumed, as a rough guide, that one page of script usually translates to about one minute of film. However, Dawn's script was 253 pages long. When asked about this Romero replies, "I usually write long scripts. Martin was a long script that was really a long script. The first cut came out at almost 2 hours 45 minutes. This (Dawn) is a long script that seems long. It's not really long. There's so much description, and if you read those pages, so much action's described in great paragraphs where I got carried away. Some of those things take a second and a half."
Several of the cast and crew are interviewed about their role in the film giving a wonderful insight into Dawn's production. For example, when Carl Augenstein (wearing a particularly scary hat) was asked about his role in lighting, he replies. "The situation is, not enough time, not enough lights, and incredibly large spaces to deal with. The large spaces and the fact we're shooting a large number of angles on any given shot are the biggest problem. We'll do a set up and shoot one angle and the director will immediately call for a reversal on it. Now, normally that's not too bigger problem. But in this case, one reversal might encompass two or three hundred feet of mall area where you have background just to fill in, just to create touches to avoid black holes, hot spots - there's glass everywhere creating reflections. My first reaction was total panic, I aggravated myself to death. The initial shots were so big that I had to use every light to its absolute fullest amount. I couldn't skip a couple of sections and say I'll fill them in with another light. I had to know that between every ten feet there had to be something, or every certain area there had to be highlight or a spot and I had to know that, and I had to exactly what it was. I went back to my books and read performance figures on every lamp that I have and measured things and went through it over and over again and finally it came out, we got the initial set up done and it worked and I felt like about five millions pounds was taken off my head!"
Tom Savini also makes several appearances in his various roles as stuntman, actor and of course makeup artist. We see him performing stunts such as throwing himself off a balcony as his character Blades and also at work transforming people into zombies, which includes a nice time elapses film sequence. During this particular sequence Tom is asked, "are there any schools that teach that?" He replies, "no, not that I know of. I had to teach myself."
The documentary continues on to look at the editing of Dawn. At one point the narration says. "Considering that quick cutting will wear down an audience emotionally. It is remarkable that he (George Romero) can maintain such a level of tension in his films. They contain almost twice as many cuts as any other directors." Asked about this, George comments, "I shoot a lot because I know that I can make the decisions later on the cutting table. So I wind up shooting a lot of material that I fall in love with and I really like and there's just economically no room for it in the final piece. So it's hard. When I sit down and I say OK here are ten scenes that I love, which two are the least needed. That's a very difficult process for me. I think that's where all your bias comes in and all your emotions. It's very difficult. It's a lot easier to edit up front while you're writing."
The final section on Dawn covers its release. With Dawn's graphic content only three options were available. Cut it, release it under an X rating, or release it unrated. George says, "when the distributor took his stance to put the picture unrated, it's not that he wasn't accepting the restrictions of an X, because he's putting a flag on it that says that no one under seventeen will be admitted, forget with a parent, not at all. He's accepting those restrictions. What he's not accepting is the symbol itself, the X, because the X does automatically say to most people in America that this picture is obscene."
As mentioned earlier, there are also small sections on Night of the Living Dead, Martin and Two Evil Eyes, mainly for the purpose of examples of the production process. Many of these, although relatively short, are still very interesting. In one reference to Night the following comment is made about one particular scene. "The most celebrated shot in Night is this one. A close up of one zombie gives way to an extreme long shot of several of them, and the film transforms into a vision of doom. A revelation in space multiplies the horror far beyond our expectations."
Celebrated shot in Night of the Living Dead: A single zombie fills the screen as it reels from a blow. As the
camera and zombie shift, more and more zombies further behind come slowly into view...
One of my favourite parts of this tape gives an answer to the question about the original ending of Dawn. Dawn's original script (which can be found on this site) ends with all the main characters dying. However, the film deviates from this by some of them surviving. In recent interviews Romero says that he can only remember shooting the current "up" ending. However, other people such as Tom Savini for example, say they can remember both endings being shot. In one scene in Document of the Dead, Romero and the interviewer are walking through the mall during one nights shooting of Dawn and the interviewer asks, "I heard rumours that the ending has been changed?" Romero replies, "in fact we shot both 'cos I wasn't willing to give up the tragic ending." This must be conclusive proof that both endings were shot. However, the real question is, is the film of the original ending still in existence? Dawn fans can only hope that one day it will emerge from a dusty film can buried in someones cellar.
This documentary is basically a must for any Dawn of the Dead or George Romero fan. In creating the documentary Roy Frumkes was unknowingly capturing moments from the production of a truly classic horror film.
Finally released onto video about ten years ago this documentary is still currently available for purchase. More recently it has also be released on Laser Disc and DVD with an additional six minutes of footage.
(For the different versions available, look at the Dawn memorabilia page)
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