Back in 2008, it was announced that producer Richard Rubinstein was in the early stages of converting George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece DAWN OF THE DEAD into a 3D version. At the time, he had teamed with a Korea-based company called Stereo Pictures Media, Inc to test out several minutes of footage to see what it would look like, and surprisingly, because of the way Romero had composed all his shots, the film very openly lent itself to the 3D format. The project continued and we heard very little about it except for a report from Comic-Con back in 2013 that stated it was “close to competition.” Then, again… silence.
I was just wondering aloud on a recent episode of the Shock Waves podcast what ever happened to DAWN OF THE DEAD 3D? And as if by fate, the very next day, Beyond Fest in Los Angeles announced that it would premiere this version as part of their 2016 line-up.
DAWN OF THE DEAD, as a piece of horror cinema, is a lot of things. Quintessential zombie movie. Superior sequel. Unrated horror that pushed the limits of what could be shown on screen. Brilliant satire on consumerism. And above all else, it’s just a great movie. So, does it need to be in 3D?
Rubenstein took the stage to intro the film for its U.S. premiere at the Egyptian Theater on Saturday, October 8th to a packed house and explained the long journey to get to this screening. He wanted to make clear that nothing about the film had been altered editing-wise. This was still the original theatrical version, but now converted from start to finish in 3D. And he went on to credit George for making such a long-lasting piece of pure cinema. The lights went down, and off we went.
I had never had the opportunity to see DAWN OF THE DEAD on the big-screen, so this was a thrill, regardless of which dimension it was screening in! Because Rubenstein owns the rights, it’s been a rather difficult (ie: expensive) movie to license for theatrical exhibition. Hence, I can’t recall a single instant where it played at a revival house, making this screening a bit more special than usual. We all have our favorite Romero movies, but I hold the first 4 in his DEAD series; consisting of NIGHT, DAWN, DAY and LAND, in extremely high regard. (DAY being my personal favorite and in my opinion, what THE WALKING DEAD completely modeled itself after.)
But this is DAWN OF THE DEAD! On the big-screen! In 3D, no less! And it did not disappoint. The story picks up sometime shortly after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD where the corpses of the recently deceased are coming back to life and feeding on human victims. The opening begins in a news room with a heated debate about what’s going on in the world, and Stephen (David Emge), a helicopter pilot, pops by the studio and alerts his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross) that they need to fly the hell out of there and look for someplace safe to retire to. Stephen’s friend Roger (Scott Reiniger) joins them with Peter (Ken Foree) and they eventually seek refuge in a shopping mall, something that was a fairly new thing back in ’78.
From there, they realize that if they can secure the entrances and clear the zombies out, they could conceivably live there for a while. Here’s where a lot of the fun aspects come in. Both Roger and Peter are S.W.A.T. team members, and have a military background. As a kid, I recall my friends & I teaming up with their younger brothers to play “Dawn Of The Dead.” It’d be a scenario where their place doubled for the mall, and we’d run around, hiding behind furniture and pretend to kill zombies. Yes, we used to play this in real life before it became the basis of every first-person video game!
What I just described is what made DAWN stand out. The characters were great and relatable, and we wanted to pretend to be them if we ever found ourselves in the zombie apocalypse scenario. Francine is pregnant, so there’s the moral conflict if they should continue with the pregnancy considering what’s going on in the world. (Hey, remember that from THE WALKING DEAD comics and season 1?) And as always, there’s a group of bandits that notice them in the mall that are hell bent on taking it, because as is often the case, the actual human threats are usually far more horrific than the “monsters.” If ever there was a movie that wrote the rule book for zombie stories, it’s DAWN OF THE DEAD.
Regarding the 3D, it primarily adds depth to most the shots. Considering it wasn’t shot with the intention of that format, it surprisingly works well. Yes, of course there’s a few key gimmick shots of things coming at the camera and into the audience. That first head explosion during the raid on the apartment complex in the opening literally flies at you, but if you blink you’ll miss it! Peter playing tennis on the rooftop is another example. Or the glass from the truck window exploded towards you in the sequence where Peter and Roger move the trucks to block the entrances in the mall.
A good portion of the trademark distinguishable zombies and key set-pieces, as well as quotable lines drew cheers and applause from the audience, but really, it wasn’t because of the 3D. It’s because of how damned good the movie is and how well it plays with an audience on the big screen. I’m sad I’d never seen it this way up until now!
After the screening, there was a brief Q & A about the movie, but we still didn’t get any sort of confirmation of what Rubenstein plans to do with this 3D conversation. He hinted that there is a company that does stellar work with Blu-Ray “collector’s editions” that is interested in putting it out, but he wants to aim for a theatrical release. Not too surprising considering the Deadline report from 2013 claimed this conversion cost somewhere in the $6 million (!) dollar range, which is unbelievable considering the original budget was $685,000.
I wonder if modern audiences would care to see DAWN this way, or if it’s mostly only appealing to the die-hard horror fans? Keep in mind, this process began 8 or 9 years ago! Before THE WALKING DEAD was even was on the air! Before WORLD WAR Z came out in 3D from Paramount! Is there room or interest in a big theatrical re-release of a 1979 zombie epic that basically started it all? There’s definitely a market for it on home video, especially for those of us that love having a home 3D set-up. It was just announced that a new 4K restored version was coming to Blu-Ray but only in Italy. I hope this means a U.S. version isn’t too far off.
Bottom line, did DAWN OF THE DEAD need to be converted to 3D? Not really. But it’s still a great movie, and it’s cool that this version exists.