(The below is by no means the definitive word on the various versions of Dawn of the Dead. Over the years since I first created this website I've heard from a great many readers in a great many countries. It seems that almost every nation that has seen a release of Dawn of the Dead has its own tale to tell when it comes to theatrical and video releases of the movie. Perhaps in the future I can incorporate other versions and their various idiosyncrasies.)
Interestingly enough, Dawn of the Dead exists in several versions. Some of these versions differ in only minor ways, others major. Which is preferred seems to depend with whom you speak. Fan consensus in the USA tends to lean towards the American theatrical version, the 126 minute one, as being the most accomplished and overall satisfying. But travel to Italy or Japan and fans there will tell you that the Argento cut is best.
Why should there even be alternate versions? Some reasons, as anyone who has ever been involved in anything creative will attest to, are simply artistic. The creator, while looking for the best way to present his/her idea, tries different approaches. Others are purely political. In some cases, having to appeal to financiers, and/or, censor boards, both foreign and domestic. This multiple version existence isn't unique to DOTD, as most films exist in several forms (e.g. anything done by James Cameron), but most films with multiple versions often start from a single lengthy version and then are merely shortened. DOTD is unique in that it has been edited by different individuals into slightly differing forms.
Below, you will find an examination of some of these different version. Of the different versions, there are three main ones, and several lesser ones. It is my hope to one day list in scrutinizing detail every single difference between the three main versions. Until that day (like when I'm an old guy with loads of time on my hands and a glass of prune juice at my side), a rough explanation will have to do.
It should be noted that occasionally you will see people advertise 143 minute versions or 145 minute versions of DOTD. These are usually the same version, as occasionally when transferring a film one projector may run faster than another. The speed differences, while minimal, add up after a while. The truest way to gauge the length of the film is by measuring it in actual feet or meters. I have no idea what the measurement of DOTD is since I don't have a film copy. (And even if I did, I couldn't see myself unspooling it and adding up its inches.)
Long Version (AKA: Director's Cut):
The Long Version was the name originally given by fans in the USA to the original, completed edit Romero did of DOTD. This was the first completed version of DOTD. (Romero has said that originally there was a nearly three hour work version of the film but steadfastly denies rumors that it exists today, stating it was only an interlock copy and never left his editing bench. See interview.)
This was a version rushed into completion so Romero could present it at the Cannes film festival in 1978. This version never officially played theaters in the United States. Instead, American theaters showed what is referred to today as the American Theatrical Version.
In Japan, in 1994, this version made a tour of the country, playing mostly in revival houses and was billed as a Director's Cut. It then went on to be included, along with the Dario Argento cut, in the Japanese laser set from Gaga Communications (a division of Bandai) titled, Zombie: Perfect Collection. Elite Video refers to it, too, as a Director's Cut in their Oct/Dec 1996 laser disc and video releases. Sorry, but I beg to differ. A director's cut is one the director feels is his personal vision, edited with no compromises. Or it is a situation where the director is able to return to a piece and rework the film more to how he feels it should have been but couldn't for whatever reasons. In DOTD's case, the long version is simply a rough-cut. It is a completed film, but it lacks the smoothness of the subsequent American Theatrical edit. Romero has stated that he feels it is not a true director's cut, but sited it as his favorite version for sentimental reasons.
There are many differences between this and the final cut, with the most obvious being length. This version clocks in at 139 (or there about) minutes--making it roughly 13 minutes longer than the American Theatrical release. Though only two scenes constitute the bulk of these minutes, much of the time is spread through out the entire film, making this a very enjoyable alternative to the American Theatrical Version.
One of the two main scenes that were extended is the scene near the beginning when Stephen and Fran are waiting for Roger to show up (with his new friend Peter). Stephen lands the helicopter, gives Fran a lesson in how to pump gas into the helicopter, and then goes wandering about the deserted police dock only to run into some renegade police. The scene is in the regular version but is so cut down that it makes little sense. An interesting point is that actor Joe Palato, who later appeared in Knightriders, and had a starring role as Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead, plays the main police officer here. In an interview he gave during promotion of Day of the Dead he recalled being excited about being in DOTD, but was dismayed when he found his scene cut when he saw it in the theaters. (Though he can be glimpsed briefly scampering about with the other police.)
Another scene only found in this version is one where Peter and Roger, after finding the office in the basement of the Mall, run upstairs to look around the store. I suppose Romero, when looking for ways to cut the length of the film, saw that this scene really served no purpose. To tell you the truth, it doesn't. But what it does have is music by Goblin (I think) that doesn't appear anywhere but here. And it offers a few interesting shots of the mall.
The long version, while never officially released in the US theaters, did find an audience in film classes where the film was offered to schools as a rental.
American Theatrical Version:
The best of the best! This is the fast-paced, tour-de-force that is surely Romero's finest work. This is the version that was released to theaters in 1979 in America and, in censored versions, in Canada and England. It is also the version that was first released on video in the USA and in Japan (much to many fans' irritation in Japan).
While one would think that the final version would be a simple edit job of the long version with less important scenes trimmed to reach the desired time of a two hour film, this is not the case here--luckily for fans! The film is different in many ways from Romero's first, longer version. The music differs throughout, starting right at the beginning. In this version, during the opening WGON TV scene, Romero dropped the slow "Dawn of the Dead" heartbeat paced song by Goblin and replaced it with different version of the song Goblin recorded but at a much accelerated speed.(This version has finally been released on the "20th Anniversary" edition of the DOTD soundtrack.) The scene works better with this music, helping to heighten the tension and lack of communication. Later, in the basement of apartment building 107, when Peter and Roger enter the zombie coop, he replaced the original plucking of the inside strings of a piano with that of a quick, heartbeat pulse, adding a higher element of suspense to the scene.
The audio mix is also slightly different from the long version. In the scene at the abandoned airport, the idling helicopter noise has been lowered. In the first version, this din was distracting. Also in this same scene, when Stephen knocks a zombie to the ground, the thump was brought up. It all works for a better feel and flow.
One of the things that has always attracted me to Romero is his ability to make a scene reach its full potential through editing. Take his film, The Crazies, for example. Due to a low budget and uneven acting, it is an average film at best. Through effective editing, Romero was able to get past the weaknesses of the shoot and make it an enjoyable film.
For DOTD, he was able to use his editing talent on competent actors and superior effects. The result is a film that effortlessly carries the viewer through the story. It is Romero's complete control--his writing, directing, and editing--that makes the American Theatrical Version the best of all DOTD versions.
Italian Version (aka: Argento Version / aka: Euro Version)
Dario Argento, having acquired the right of final edit of Dawn of the Dead for non-English speaking countries, took Romero's film and gave it a whole new tone through extensive editing. When such things as 'character development' and/or 'humor' reared their ugly heads, Argento was quick to exorcise. The running time is shorter, somewhere around 115 minutes. Argento removed practically all of the music Romero had selected for the movie, and relied almost extensively on the Goblin created pieces. This would have been fine as Goblin's music is truly superior, except, for DOTD, Goblin didn't write that much music. The repetitive nature of the music in the Argento version ultimately works against the film and becomes a weak point. Even for the mall scenes, Argento applied different music, using classical sounding pieces that give the decidedly American location a European feel. Lastly of note is that all the music from the soundtrack album appears in this version, compared with only a few in the Romero cuts.
Oddly, even with the shorter running time, there are scenes that are not in either of the Romero versions. And interestingly, and what makes this version a pleasant alternative, is that at times Argento cut scenes entirely different from Romero. For example, right in the very beginning of the film, an employee at WGON walks up to Fran and offers her a cup of coffee in exchange for the coat that has become a community blanket. In the Romero versions, we hear her off screen say, "It's my turn with the coat." In the Argento version, the camera holds on her and we actually see her say these words. So, in this version, while the same scenes appear, they are sometimes given from slightly differing perspectives. All European versions of DOTD were derived from the Argento version.
Romero, though friends with Argento, has always expressed his disdain for this version. As far back as the film's original release he has stated his reservation as to the direction Argento tried to take the film. While ultimately grateful for Argento's contribution and untiring support, Romero has claimed that Argento never really understood what the film was about. Watching the film it is obvious that Argento was attempting to make it an action film and not the multifarious film Romero had set out to make. Thus, I feel that the title 'Zombie', as it's known every where except in the United States, is a perfect representation of what Argento set out to accomplish while 'Dawn of the Dead' is more closely related to what Romero had in mind.
"R" Rated Version:
In 1982, Dawn of the Dead shared billing with the first re-release of Creepshow. Creepshow being an R rated film and DOTD being un-rated left Laurel Productions in a bit of a bind. They wanted both to make DOTD more assessable and to get the bigger profits from a double billing. After making more than 50 cuts in the film they were able to secure the sought after R rating. Unfortunately, this had the undesired effect of making the film near incomprehensible. As an example: In the scene when the helicopter zombie's top is lopped off by the blades of the copter, one sees his body raise up and near the blades. Suddenly a slashed frame cuts across the screen. The next moment he's falling to the ground, eliminated, his top bloody. But what caused this is not clear.
I sat through this version one and a half times. The first time, my friend and I walked out, but not before first complaining to the manager. A few days later, when my initial anger had subsided enough, I became curious as to what sort of cuts the film had been subjected to and went back. More annoying than just being denied a complete DOTD experience was that in a seat a few rows in front of me sat a man and woman. They were really enjoying the film. Their enthusiasm would build when suddenly one of these cuts would appear. They verbally made sounds reflecting their utter confusion. Instead of opening DOTD to a wider audience, it simply alienated itself.
Luckily, it was pulled from the theaters quickly. United Film Distribution released a press release stating, "Because of the radical rejection from the long time cult followers of Dawn of the Dead" they have relinquished the R rating and will only release it in its entirety.
Japanese Theatrical Version:
Almost as bad as the R rated version was the original Japanese Theatrical Version. This film was a censored version of Dario Argento's cut. The Argento version in its original form couldn't pass the strict Japanese censor board. (Scenes of sexual violence against women are fine in Japan, but fantasy ones of zombies killing people are a no-no. Go figure.) What does make this version interesting is how the censors dealt with the film's graphic content. When the moment a gore scene occurred, the film stopped on the frame prior the violence and froze, with the sound playing through. Then, a second or two later, when the 'offending' moment had passed, the film jumped back into motion. It is disconcerting to watch and this continues through out the entire version.
What sets the Japanese Theatrical Version apart from all the other versions is the inclusion in the beginning of an explanation. Herald Films, the Japanese distributor of DOTD, felt that the Japanese, a people not generally renowned for great imagination, would be unable to accept the ambiguous setting of zombies on Earth that Romero had so skillfully left unanswered. Instead, they felt the Japanese audience must have an answer or else they wouldn't be able to get the story. They accomplished this by sticking the following white words on to a black background that typed across the screen while a heavy clicking came from the soundtrack:
"In the year...." (Sorry, As soon as I dig my video out from where ever I put it I'll finish this.)
On a side note, egotist Dario Argento did his damnedest to convince everyone in Japan that this was his film. The 1978 Japanese program book listed the film as an Italian movie, as did laser and video versions up until the Gaga release of 1995. (Credit must be given to Gaga because they addressed this gross injustice in both the '95 theater program book and in the laser's liner notes.) I particularly like the original 1978 program which list production credits as follow:
produced by......................Claudio Argento, Alfredo Cuomo
directed by.........................Dario Argento, George A. Romero
a film written by..................George A. Romero
special effects by.................Tom Savini
Japanese Television Version:
The film, heavily edited, made it to prime time TV twice in Japan. The first time it appeared, all the music by Goblin was replaced by the soundtrack from the film Susperia. This version was only shown once on TV. After many complaints, it was pulled and the original music reinstated. Ironically, today in Japan, one of the most highly sought after collector's item is a video copy of this TV version.
The legacy of Dario Argento's huge ego even made its way to the Japanese TV version of DOTD. In Japan, when films are shown on a prime station, a host introduces the film. In 1984 when DOTD played, the host stated that the film was made by Italian director Dario Argento, director of such films as Susperia and Deep Red. After telling of Argento's illustrious film accomplishments, the host then went on to note that, despite it being an Italian film, it oddly enough has an American feel. (When I heard this the first time, I felt like throwing a heavy object through the TV!) The credits that appear over the opening scene in WGON are all written in Japanese with the final credit being a double director bill with Argento's name appearing over Romero's. What motivation Mr. Argento had behind this is something that fans can only speculate on and his analyst can only know for sure.
The TV version, unlike the sub-titled theatrical version, is dubbed into Japanese. In this way the dubbers were able to even more change the themes of the film. The opening scene at WGON has Dr. Foster telling of a meteor that exploded above the Earth and whose radiation has brought all the dead back to life. The dubbed voices are hysterical and the dialog, for those who understand Japanese, sounds like the person who wrote it was just making up whatever they could that would match the scene on the screen. Almost all the gore was removed.
INTERVISION VIDEO RELEASE
The original British release of DOTD was on the Intervision label. This version was the same as the cinema release. Originally, Argento's cut of the movie was submitted to the British censors, the BBFC, who demanded over 10 minutes of cuts be made. Then, the UK distributors decided to submit Romero's original cut instead. The censors were more favorable to this version, and only removed 3 minutes. Supposedly the censors were more receptive to Romero's social message and humor which the Argento version lacked, feeling Romero's edit countered some of the more extreme scenes of violence in the film. Retitled ZOMBIES (with the DOTD title blacked out of the end credits), Romero's version suffered the following cuts:
· A shot of a head exploding during the tenement raid · A male zombie biting a woman's shoulder · A zombie eating a human arm during the basement massacre · Roger inserting a screwdriver into the zombie janitor's ear · Roger shooting several zombies as the mall door opens · Roger shooting the zombie hanging on to the back of the car · Peter shooting a zombie (seen through the scope of his rifle) · Tom Savini being knocked off his bike by a zombie and Savini burying a machete in its head · Savini sticking a knife into a zombie's neck · Two shots of the biker on the blood pressure machine losing his arm · 19 shots showing a biker having his intestines pulled out · Part of Steven's death in the elevator
ENTERTAINMENT IN VIDEO
The mid-eighties reissue was missing the same footage as the above, plus...
· A few frames from the shooting of a female zombie in the opening scene at the apartment building· The male zombie biting the woman's arm · a few frames from the shooting of a female zombie in the shopping mall · A female zombie's blood splattering over Roger in the truck · Several shots of zombies gathered around the trucks being killed · A zombie pressing its fingers into Roger's bandaged leg, and its death · A zombie being shot in the head as the bikers enter the mall
The title card was changed back to DOTD, but instead of the standard writing, a crudely superimposed card (the same as the writing found on the US poster), taken from the DAY OF THE DEAD trailer, was placed over the shot of sleeping Fran. The end credit card removed the black line to reveal the original title.
4-Front/Polygram release of DOTD is the same as the Entertainment Video, but is missing...
· The killing of the zombie children (Completely removed)
BMG ("Director's cut")
This released suffered only 6 seconds of cuts...
· Head exploding in the tenement · Male zombie biting Woman's shoulder · The killing of the zombie children (trimmed)
UK TV VERSION
This version of the workprint (remastered) is heavily cut, just about every gore scene has been shortened, if not removed altogether. However, after the closing of the zombies in the mall, an animated picture of the US poster appeared. This was broadcast on BBC 2.
UK SATELLITE VERSION
The UK TV version also played on Satellite (UK Gold), but the full, uncut version of the workprint has also been shown (Bravo). The Romero cut was aired years ago on UK Satellite channels Sky Movies Plus and Sky Movies Gold, I'm not sure what was cut, but I believe it was the same as the Entertainment In Video or 4-Front/Polygram video release (at the time, all films shown on Sky TV were first approved by the BBFC).
(The above information on the various UK versions was supplied by Chris O'Neil. Thanks!)