Roy Frumkes’ documentary on the “GONE WITH THE WIND of the horror genre” DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD gets remastered and re-edited for its definitive edition, out on DVD from Synapse Films.
Frumkes was a teacher at SUNY Purchase College when he first tried without success to get funding for a series of teaching films on independent filmmaking. Things changed when Frumkes joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts where he proposed a series of films focusing on different aspects of filmmaking (although DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD would turn out to be the only one for reasons discussed below). Since New York and California were union states, Frumkes looked elsewhere for an independent production to cover. He knew producer Richard Rubenstein who had just worked with Romero on MARTIN and got his permission to visit the set of DAWN OF THE DEAD with a small crew from the School of Visual Arts. In 1989, former Frumkes student Len Anthony made a deal to release DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD on VHS and commissioned an update of the film. Frumkes hired a video crew (which cost more than the entire budget of the original 16mm film which utilized School of Visual Arts equipment, students and crew) for a one day set visit on Romero’s half of TWO EVIL EYES (a duet of Poe stories in which Romero directed “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and Dario Argento directed “The Black Cat”). More recently, Frumkes decided to upgrade the film with relatively new interview footage from his set visits to LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD along with a Romero appearance at the 2006 Chiller Theatre convention and an after-party reunion with a handful of actors from the “Dead” series and other cult personalities.
An opening epigraph explains the film’s mutation from a teaching film to “something more personal and free-form in nature” and Frumkes is only half-way successful with that. Apart from a new somewhat amusing stop-motion animated sequence and a brief Q&A bit at Chiller with Romero, the first hour or so of the film – going by the 1989 cut – sticks very closely to the teaching format with the pre, production, and post brackets, and Tyrell’s narration as the film interviews Romero, Rubinstein, effects artist Tom Savini (as he makes up Frumkes and co-producer Sukey Raphael as “pie in the face” zombies), cinematographer Michael Gornick, lighting director Carl Augenstein, casting director John Amplas (star of MARTIN), as well as actors David Emge, Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger. Rubinstein emphasizes the increased budget and larger cast and crew, Amplas talks about casting zombies, Gornick and Augenstein talk about lighting shots with backgrounds that sometime extend two hundred feet (as well as dealing with reflections and hotspots on the many storefront windows in the mall), and the cast briefly talk about working with Romero as a director. Romero makes some comments in his office and the editing room, but the core of the Romero interview is an eleven-minute, single take talk with Frumkes as they walk the length of the mall (shot handheld by DOCUMENT director of photography Reeves Lehman with one 400’ reel of film on the back of a golf cart). Although Romero has been hesitant in recent years to comment on the sociological aspects of the film and the influence of NIGHT and DAWN, he is a bit more candid during the shoot.
Frumkes’ transition to the 1989 footage hinges on a parting remark about revisiting him in ten years (in the commentary, Frumkes compares the film’s two updates to Michael Apted’s UP series), but sixteen years passed with no mention of DAY OF THE DEAD in the interim. The set visit to Romero’s half of TWO EVIL EYES fell on the day they were shooting the death of Ramy Zada’s character (impalement by supernaturally-propelled metronome) which had to be reshot three times for various technical reasons, requiring lengthy interludes while Savini and crew reset the effects giving Frumkes time to speak to Romero, Savini and Romer’s wife Chris about other projects and filmmaking in general. Romero – bouncing a yo-yo as a stress reliever since he had quit smoking at that time – discusses how independent companies are behaving more like the majors in not only funding your film but wanting to “own you” while Savini describes the Clive Barker-scripted GRAVEYARD SHIFT which he was trying to get off the ground (presumably this is the same Stephen King project that Ralph S. Singleton and Paramount green-lighted late in 1990 since Savini says at the time no studio was interested in making “a film about rats”). Romero’s wife Chris, only glimpsed in the original 1979 footage, elaborates on Romero’s studio film MONKEY SHINES (in which she had to audition for a role that Romero had scripted specifically for her). It’s an interesting update, but the lack of DAY OF THE DEAD material seems like an oversight since his next two set visits – forming a major portion of the “definitive” update material includes visits to the sets of LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD (on the commentary track, Frumkes mentions visiting the SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD set but nothing of that is included here, or of BRUISER which is not mentioned at all).
The new footage opens up with an interview between Frumkes and Romero’s daughter Tina (an actress in LAND OF THE DEAD) who sheds light on growing up in the household where her father made their living room and kitchen his home office (Tina was on-set for TWO EVIL EYES during the Frumkes shoot but her mother asked Frumkes not to include footage of her at the time, although that footage appears in the 2012 cut). Whereas the lack of mention of DAY OF THE DEAD seemed like an oversight in the 1989 footage, Frumkes uses the 2012 upgrade to include Romero’s and Savini’s reactions to the 1990 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake shoot which was racked with funding issues. Romero also comments on the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD as being better than he expected, but more like a video game. He also liked SHAUN OF THE DEAD although he thought that maybe it was “too reverential” (Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright contribute brief talking heads) and Greg Nicotero weighs in on DAY OF THE DEAD when describing how much it cost to design each zombie and animatronic creation. During his interview with Frumkes, Romero is reluctant to comment on the influence of his films, but Frumkes inserts a cheesy stereo warehouse commercial (“Night of the Living Deals”), a YouTube clip called “Bush vs Zombies”, and a trailer for Rodney Moore’s XXX film NIGHT OF THE GIVING HEAD. The last portion of the film is a Chiller Theatre 2006 after-party in which “Dead” series actors Judith O’Dea, Billy Cardille (NIGHT), his daughter Lori (DAY), Jon Polito (DAY), and make-up artist Greg Nicotero (who does mention working on DAY first on effects and then being brought in as an actor) who add their thoughts to working with Romero. Blue Underground’s Bill Lustig, writer Marc Walkow, The Jerky Boy’s Kamal Ahmed, and others weigh in on how Romero’s films have inspired them. The documentary concludes with an ending credits slideshow of Romero family photos demonstrating Frumkes’ obvious affection for them but just seeming rather abrupt for viewers.
DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD exists in at least three versions: 1) the original 16mm 66 minute 1979 version intended as a teaching film about independent filmmaking; 2) the 1989 version (84 minutes) intended as a documentary of the film; and 3) this new “definitive” version (running 102 minutes) intended to document both the film and its influence on Romero’s subsequent work and popular culture. Actress Susan Tyrell narrated the 1979 version, Nicole Potter narrated the extended footage on the 1989 version, and Frumkes both narrates and makes off-camera remarks on the footage exclusive to the definitive version. The 16mm version did not end up being used as a teaching tool in highs schools (the end product was supposed to run only twenty-five minutes) and apparently only made festival rounds. The 1989 version went straight to VHS (appropriate since it was the video company – owned by former Frumkes student Len Anthony – that commissioned that Frumkes update and expand it) but found wider exposure in 1998 when Synapse Films released it as one of their earliest DVD release (along with the Michele Soavi documentary DARIO ARGENTO’S WORLD OF HORROR which– unlike DOCUMENT – is rendered largely obsolete by the availability of almost all of Argento’s films which were once hard-to-see uncut or at all). That version included six minutes of deleted footage from the 1979 shoot, unused interview segments from TWO EVIL EYES, and an audio commentary by Frumkes, director of photography Reeves Lehman, and Nicole Potter (now out-of-print, the 1989 version can also be found on Anchor Bay’s 4-DVD ultimate edition of DAWN OF THE DEAD (minus the Synapse disc’s audio commentary and interview, but with the extra scenes tacked on at the end without mention) or on Arrow’s UK 4-disc DVD set (with commentary, the interview segments, and deleted scenes).
The only extra on the Synapse’s 2012 DVD edition is a brand new audio commentary by Frumkes, which is understandably just as free-form as the film’s structure since he has to jump around to a bit to tell the story of how the project came into being and shoot anecdotes while also explaining the various editorial changes as they come along. Frumkes’ explains that he chose to use “Greensleeves” over the opening and end credits because it was public domain, and he wrote a zombie version of the lyrics (translated into Dutch and performed that way over the opening animation, and then performed in English over the ending credits). He explains how producer Rubenstein instructed his crew to stay at least a hundred feet away from Romero during the shooting and how director of photography Reeves Lehman, a Vietnam vet lead “commando raids” on the shoot (using telephoto lenses and sneaking around to get closer angles) and how that “broke the ice” with Romero. He also explains that he wanted to use a female narrator to balance out the “cast” of the film since Gaylen Ross for some reason did not want to be interviewed during the shoot, and has some interesting recollections of Tyrell who enjoyed New York’s nightlife in excess during the recording sessions back in 1979 (presumably the commentary was recorded before Tyrell’s recent death since Frumkes only mentions that he heard she was very ill) as well as her rapport with co-producer Raphael (then Frumkes’ girlfriend, now Tom Hanks’ personal assistant). Frumkes details some of the re-editing process which included of nearly sixteen minutes from the previous cut starting with the opening sequence (a Marx Brothers movie clip that makes Pittsburgh the butt of a joke) and reducing and removing clips from MARTIN and DAWN that did not feature Tyrell’s narration as well as pruning the TWO EVILS EYES material (as well as the extended end credits montage). Michael Gornick reportedly did not like some of the updated footage because it was more downbeat, but Frumkes says that’s the reality of the shrinking independent film business. When discussing the brevity of the LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD coverage, he points out that the productions not only have their own making-of crews but Romero’s reputation is now such that Frumkes is not the only documentarian that wants to cover him (he regards the home movie footage Tina Romero provided to him as his own special hook on Romero coverage). Frumkes also reveals that it took six months to license the YouTube “Bush vs Zombies” clip for the film, but only three hours to get permission to use the NIGHT OF THE GIVING HEAD trailer. For the curious, Frumkes briefly mentions his involvement in the aborted anthology TALES TO RIP YOUR HEART OUT and its participants (which not only included Wes Craven but also CAT PEOPLE scripter DeWitt Bodeen).
Synapse has also released a limited 1500-copy Blu-ray/DVD combo edition; but it is not the definitive version on the Blu-ray. Due to its mixture of film and video sources (analog and digital), either Frumkes or Synapse has elected not to upscale the SD video footage, so the DVD in the combo pack is the same as the one under review. The Blu-ray, however, contains an HD mastering of the original 66 minute cut which was shot entirely on 16mm (all of the footage from the 1979 shoot in the “definitive” cut does, however, make use of this new transfer). Frumkes mentions that the previous available versions were struck from a fine grain element, which had its color saturation dialed back since dupe negatives struck from that element would pick up additional color. Video versions mastered from that element thus have looked less colorful and sharp than Synapse’s new version transferred from the original negative. Clips from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD appear to have been replaced with the same footage from a newer master while the MARTIN and intercut DAWN clips just look brighter and cleaner than before (I’m assuming that the version on the Anchor Bay edition is indicative of the Synapse transfer since it opens with that company’s label). Since Frumkes’ no longer has separate dialogue and music & effects tracks for the film, he has chosen to retain the mono mix throughout (in Dolby Digital 2.0). (Eric Cotenas)
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