Also check out my review of the American cut

As most everyone with even a passing interest in horror or indie movies knows, in 1968, young George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead with the thinnest of budgets and an ungodly amount of creativity, and triggered a seismic event in the genre's history; not a half-dozen films can claim Night's influence over horror directors. Over the next few years, the filmmaker spent some time feeling around the artsy edges of the grind house before he finally returned to the undead in 1978, with the social satire and envelope-shattering gore fest Dawn of the Dead. In America, Dawn was a victim of its own success: a brilliantly smart picture that used some of the most grotesque make-up effects yet seen on film (thanks to the master of the field, Tom Savini) to further its satiric aims, and those very effects banished it to the darkest regions of the underground film scene when Romero refused to edit it down to a level that the MPAA would approve. The more things change, and all that. But we are not here to discuss what happened to Dawn of the Dead in America.

We are here to discuss what happened when Dawn of the Dead was snapped up for distribution in Europe. At this time, the European country most invested in the horror genre was Italy, home of the proto-slashers called gialli, and the most artistically important Italian horror director (though neither the most prolific, nor the most bankable) was Dario Argento, then coming off of art house horror hits like Suspiria and Deep Red. Having already served as script consultant on Dawn, as well as taking a role in creating the film's instant-classic score with his band Goblin, Argento was as good a choice as anyone to re-edit the film according to "European tastes."

Now, I really should hold the rest of this story for later, but it's too weird, and I'll probably repeat it. Dawn of the Dead, given the simple and direct new title Zombi, was a massive hit. In Italy in the 1970s, a massive hit guaranteed one of two things: sequels or rip-offs. The more things change, and all that. Anyway, Zombi: Dawn of the Dead got rip-offs, more than could be counted, but the powers-that-be wanted to use that marvelously simple and iconic title again. Except that Romero, who brought out new zombie films only as a matter of great forethought and planning, wouldn't make Day of the Dead for another seven years. So Zombi 2 was hustled out by a somewhat less-reputable horror maven (though hardly a hack, in the scheme of things), Lucio Fulci. The rest of the title-related follies of the series are too deep to go into right now, but let's just say that Zombi 2 kick-started a trilogy of Italian zombie films set in the tropics.

That's for next week. Right now we've got the mostly-unrelated film whose primary importance (in this context) was inspiring a whole generation of Italians to make tawdry movies about the cannibalistic undead. Now, Dawn of the Dead comes in three main flavors, not counting all the minor tweaking done by local censors (there are probably as many distinct "UK cuts" as there are civic jurisdictions in England): the 139-minute premiere cut from the 1978 Cannes film festival; the 126 minute North American theatrical release from 1978 which I believe adds no footage whatsoever and cuts back quite a lot on the gore in favor of character moments, and includes a more complete Goblin score; and Zombi, which cuts back on the character moments in favor of the gore, some of which appears in neither of the Dawn OTD cuts , and has a full Goblin score containing a great deal of new music (IMDb refers to a 156 German cut; this was assembled apparently without consulting either Romero or Argento, and I do not believe that it was released theatrically). The "official" cut, the one that most fully reflects Romero's wishes and is most easily found on video, is the 126 minute American cut, and for the rest of this aggressively wandering essay, I'll be referring back to that most familiar version. If you haven't seen it, dear God, fix that; this is the gore movie that people who don't like gore need to sack up and watch. It's one of the great American films of the 1970s, and deserves legitimate respect.

So, Zombi: a film mostly interesting for how it is not Dawn, or rather how the changes made to it make it more "European/Italian" in its impact. The plot, all things considered, is identical: it opens in a Pennsylvania newsroom; cuts to a few SWAT team members conducting a raid against a group of minorities hiding dead bodies in the basement; follows as two SWAT officers, a news helicopter pilot and a TV executive escape to a shopping mall, where the kill all the zombies before treating themselves to an anarcho-consumerist spree; ending with a raid on the mall by a group of motorcycle-riding thugs who prove to be more dangerous than any braineater. The closest Zombi comes to chopping up the narrative meaning comes only through re-ordering some of the final shots: instead of a group of maybe-survivors leaving the mall to the undead, it offers a much starker, "these people are all going to die" shock cut to the credits.

The bigger difference is one of tone. Of Romero's three four five zombie pictures, Dawn is probably the farthest from classical "horror" territory - it's hard to imagine anyone being kept awake by it - but it's still a horror film according to any reasonable definition of that phrase. Zombi is "horror" insofar as its whole plot is driven by the living dead, but in almost every possible way, it has been re-edited as an action movie. Think of the way that James Cameron turned the haunted house monster from Alien into a war movie villain in Aliens, and you're on the right track. And of course, being an Italian filmmaker in the '70s, Argento made sure to keep plenty of gore - most of the gore from the 139 minute cut stuffed into a 20-minute-shorter bag. The result feels extremely dense, particularly in the opening 20 minutes and closing half-hour.

This leads us to a real chicken-egg situation, because in order to fit all that gore in, Argento cut most of the character moments. Those character moments were the crux of Romero's version of the film, which did not ask, "how do we fight zombies?" but like all of his work, asks instead "what do we as humans do to make sure that the zombies will win?" Dawn was a forthright satire of materialism centered around the then-new concept of a giant indoor shopping playland. Some of that remains in Zombi - it would have to, the plot would disintegrate without it - but most of Dawn's most knowing satirical punches have been removed, although oddly, not the famous giveaway moment where Romero shows his hand:

"Why do they come [to the mall]?"
"Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."

Gone with the satire is most of the film's playfulness. Ask enough people who have seen the film a couple of times what the most iconic elements are, and you'll find quite a few mention "the mall music," a gaudy muzak march that sounds like Nino Rota hitting his face against a Casio keyboard. It appears twice in Dawn, the second appearance giving the film its absolute best laugh, and it has been entirely removed from Zombi. This leaves the Argento cut a much more savage and unpleasant beast indeed - the muzak is replaced largely by a driving electronic score that would have seemed clichΓ©d in the mid-'80s, but works fairly well in the 1978 film for its given purpose of making the film more pulse-pounding and action-packed.

Here's what I'm not sure about: did Argento cut all the non-action material to make the film as quick-moving and exciting as he could, and did he take out all the humor to keep the action tone consistent, or did he removed those elements because a satire of American materialism isn't what Italian gorehounds were clamoring for in 1978, and all he could do with the remainder was make it an action picture? That the film is mostly for the blood-lusty is obvious, even though Dawn's most famous single effect, the machete-in-the-head that Savini loved so much he recreated it a few times, has been removed (the Italian censors also had their limits, apparently, although the notorious "intestine scene" is seemingly untouched).

Short version: the Zombi cut is the shallowest way to experience Dawn of the Dead, and it's most interesting as a case study in how very drastically editing can change the meaning of a film without affecting the narrative. But it's also culturally important, igniting the most fervid period of gore production in cinema history, leading to the unthinkably huge Italian zombie subgenre that was one of the streams feeding the much smaller but mythologically nasty cannibal film craze. And without the Italians going so mondo crazy with gore, America might never have had the same slasher film wave that we did, and if not for the slashers and the cannibal films, the torture porn fad would have been unthinkable, and then, my dear beloved readers, there would have been no Scary Movie 4, and that is a world none of us should like to contemplate.

Reviews in this series
Dawn of the Dead / Zombi (Romero, 1978)
Zombi 2 / Zombie / Zombie Flesh Eaters] (Fulci, 1979)
Zombi 3 (Fulci / Mattei, 1988)
Zombi 4: After Death (Fragasso, 1988)