Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Dawn Of The Dead

Why Dawn of the Dead Disappeared

Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast

In 1968, amateur director George A. Romero changed the face of horror cinema forever with his shockingly modern, subgenre-spawning Night of the Living Dead. Then, a decade later, with its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, he did it again. While zombies in film predated Night of the Living Dead — Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie and RKO’s I Walked with a Zombie being notable examples — they’re a far cry from the reanimated cannibal corpses we think of as “zombies” today. Instead, these depictions drew from an outsider’s perspective on a concept in Haitian vodou that was at best misunderstood and at worst vilified and appropriated.

More than redefining the cultural understanding of what a zombie was, Night also combined horror and social commentary to great effect, particularly in its suggestion that the zombies were not representative of an “other” but rather reflections of ourselves. Tribalism, violent revolution, and over-reliance on flawed institutions — themes now so common in zombie media they feel obvious — were implicitly present within Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s casting of a Black man, Duane Jones, who gives a captivating performance, in the lead role was also quietly subversive. Though the resulting thematic resonances of this decision were apparently unintentional, it’s no wonder that Night of the Living Dead is now recognized not only as an engaging horror film, but also as an evocative conduit for the social anxieties of its era, whether that be race relations, the Vietnam War, or the burgeoning youth movement. 

Its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, was bigger, bolder, and took the flourishing zombie subgenre of horror cinema to new heights, visually and thematically. The now-established resonances of zombie horror are still there, with an even more prominent and cynical exploration of the government and military’s ineffective response to the undead uprising. Romero then expands the film’s scope of commentary, taking the opportunity to skewer the rampant consumer culture of the 1980s. Dawn also manages to fully realize the visceral horror of the flesh-eating zombies that was suggested in Night, without appearing gratuitous or exploitative. As Tom Savini, who was launched to prominence by the film, once said, “When you say the word ‘zombie’ to most people, Dawn of the Dead comes to mind. It is the zombie movie.” Its importance to horror history has long been solidified, so why are both digital and physical copies of the film so hard to find?

Compare this odd absence with Night of the Living Dead, a film that is exceedingly available on both streaming and physical media, including a 4K restoration by the Criterion Collection, overseen by Romero himself and funded by the Film Foundation. Part of its accessibility is no doubt due to its famous, if entirely accidental, entrance into the public domain. At the time of Night’s release, copyright law was still being dictated by protocol outlined in the Copyright Act of 1909, requiring that a notice of copyright be affixed to a given work in order for it to be protected. 

Although the film was initially due to be titled “Night of the Flesh Eaters,” producers decided on the now iconic, and far superior, Night of the Living Dead prior to its release. The distributors then rushed to create an updated title card for the opening credits, and in their hurry, forgot to include the copyright notice. Because of a last-minute mistake and the formalities required by an outdated copyright statute that would be replaced eight years after the film’s release, Night of the Living Dead is now and forever a part of the public domain. As such, the film itself often cameos in other movies. It appears in horror movies such as Halloween II, The House of The Devil, and Terrifier 2, as one might expect, but also in many films outside the genre like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Mysterious Skin, and The Big Sick, just to name a few. 

But Night of the Living Dead isn’t the only one of Romero’s movies that has weathered the turbulent changes brought about by the mainstream shift towards streaming and away from physical media. His other zombie films, including the trilogy-concluding Day of the Dead, as well as the far inferior second undead trilogy — consisting of Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead can be found easily enough. Even his other horror films, like the iconic Stephen King authored anthology, Creepshow, or the highly underrated Martin, are available to stream, rent, or buy on various online services, with physical releases of many currently in-print. From an outside perspective, there’s no reason why Dawn of the Dead should be any different. So why is it?

Dawn Of The Dead 3It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, for the vast majority of Dawn of the Dead’s existence it’s been readily buyable — if not streamable. Admittedly, streaming as we now know it didn’t yet exist. The film had several physical releases before this current dry spell. The most recent legitimate option for U.S. buyers came in 2007, with Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray featuring the U.S. theatrical cut. Releases of the Cannes and “Argento” cut, meanwhile, are far rarer in the States, last available for purchase in 2004 as a component of Anchor Bay’s “Ultimate Edition” of Dawn. The Ultimate Edition was a horror collector’s wet dream — featuring a three-disc box set, commentary tracks for each cut, and Roy Frumkes’ feature length making-of documentary, Document of the Dead.

Many of these discs even floated around Netflix’s now-defunct DVD rental service for years before quietly being pulled from the catalog. Unfortunately, both releases have long since gone out of print due to significant increases to the film’s home media licensing fee, with used copies retailing in the hundreds. You’re unlikely to get lucky and find this one while digging around in the bargain bins. There’s been one physical release since then, a limited-edition box set from UK-based Second Sight Films, released in November of 2020 and unfortunately geolocked.

Why are there so many different cuts of the film? And why did its licensing fees suddenly skyrocket in the late 2000s? Both of those questions can be answered by looking back at Dawn of the Dead’s history, all the way to what is perhaps the most unpleasant part of any film production: securing funding. From its very conception, Dawn of the Dead was shaping up to be a very different movie, on a very different scale, than its predecessor. While Night of the Living Dead was shockingly violent to contemporary audiences, the majority of its runtime is spent providing creeping, atmospheric scares, captured with evocative and conveniently inexpensive black-and-white cinematography. In contrast, Dawn of the Dead allows you to see the undead uprising in all of its colorful and bloody detail, giving the gorehounds in the audience something to sink their teeth into — courtesy of practical effects maestro Tom Savini. All totaled, Night of the Living cost, at most, $125,000 to make, while Dawn of the Dead cost around $640,000. 

Despite their many differences, and big gap in budgets, both films were largely independent productions, with no big Hollywood names or studios involved from the get-go. As a result, Dawn’s rights ended up scattered among several people, including Romero himself, Dario Argento of Giallo film fame, and prolific horror producer Richard P. Rubinstein, best known for his collaborations with Romero and producing several Stephen King adaptations. Romero and Rubinstein’s Laurel Group production company, co-founded by the pair in the mid-70s, was unable to secure funding in the U.S. and thus turned to Argento. He helped fund the film, worked on the script, and provided a score from Italian prog-rock outfit Goblin, his previous collaborators on Suspiria and Deep Red. In return, Argento would create a cut for Italian release, which was sometimes retitled as Zombi, and gain foreign distribution rights, hence why most overseas releases have the Argento cut in place of the U.S. theatrical cut. 

After the film’s release, Rubinstein took Laurel Group public. By 1984, Romero had left Laurel Group, and by 1995, the production group had been folded into Spelling Entertainment in a new partnership between Rubinstein and producer Aaron Spelling. Spelling Entertainment would then in turn be acquired by Viacom in 1999, seemingly leaving Richard P. Rubinstein as the sole holder of the film’s U.S. rights. These rights were left mostly untouched until, in 2007, Rubinstein focused his attention and money towards creating a 3D conversion of the foundational zombie classic.

Dawn Of The Dead 2The U.S. theatrical cut of Dawn of the Dead was given a 3D conversion by South Korea-based company DNext Media, under a frame-by-frame supervision by Rubinstein. The process of conversion began, at the earliest, in 2007, but according to a report by Deadline, it was still incomplete by July of 2013. In October of 2013, Dawn of the Dead 3D, as it is now titled, had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, with Richard Rubinstein in attendance. Then, despite years of teasing a theatrical run, Rubinstein did nothing with the final product for a good, long while.

Although the first reports anticipating a theatrical release of Dawn of the Dead 3D date back to 2015, it wouldn’t be until fall of 2022 that it finally returned to theaters for Halloween. So, what took so long? Changing trends might have something to do with it. While the 2022 theatrical run was by no means unsuccessful, extending its limited run of four nights in 250 theaters, it definitely missed the mark when attempting to capitalize on audiences’ fickle interest in 3D. Throughout cinema history, several temporary 3D “booms” have occurred. First, in the 1950s, often with pulpy sci-fi and horror flicks, then again in the 1980s; remember the schlocky 3D sequels to Jaws, Friday the 13th, and even The Amityville Horror?

Most recently, the 2000s saw a similar rise in films attempting to capitalize on the novelty of 3D, this wave probably reaching its peak with the visual splendor of James Cameron’s Avatar. Rubinstein likely began the 3D conversion in 2007 with hopes of cashing in on the then-current trend. In a 2018 interview with the now mostly defunct Birth.Movies.Death, an online film publication that originated from the Alamo Drafthouse cinephile culture, the producer stated his belief that 3D would breathe new life into the film, while allowing younger audiences to see it in theaters. Rubinstein went on to claim that he had shown the first seven minutes of the 3D conversion to director George A. Romero prior to his death in 2017. 

More than being late to a trend, Dawn of the Dead 3D was also an exorbitantly expensive endeavor. Multiple sources put the cost of the conversion at a hefty $6 million, a far cry from the film’s original production budget of $640,000. In the 2013 Deadline report, Rubinstein was quoted stating that none of the financing for the conversion came from distribution sources. This, along with the year the conversion began, 2007, coinciding with the last U.S. physical release of the film, all but confirms that Rubinstein, as the sole holder of the film’s rights, was responsible for raising Dawn of the Dead’s home media licensing fee and effectively driving it out of print. 

Despite all this, Rubinstein’s efforts were not completely in vain. Regal Cinemas stated that the initial theatrical re-release experienced “unprecedented” ticket sales, facilitating the aforementioned extension. The reception of critics and horror fans, however, was quite mixed. Prolific horror journalist Michael Gingold, former editor-in-chief at Fangoria, called it “sharp, clear and immersive, bringing extra atmosphere to Romero’s compositions,” while Brad Miska, co-founder of Bloody Disgusting, called it “ridiculous.” In the end, Dawn of the Dead 3D seems to have been a wash. A $6 million dollar, 15 years-in-the-making wash that kept the film off shelves and streamers for over a decade.

Dawn Of The Dead 4The promise of the streaming era was that anything and everything you could possibly want to watch would be available online, just a click — and often a hefty subscription fee — away. Overnight, physical media had allegedly become obsolete. The past few years have shown this promise to be at best wishful thinking and at worst a willful deception. Licensing quandaries, rights disputes, bad business strategies, and corporate greed are all to blame for the ever-shifting, unstable media landscape we find ourselves in, one in which movies and shows can be canceled or deleted entirely at will and creatives are constantly cheated out of their fair share of the profits they helped to generate. Even films that predate the streaming era aren’t sure to be preserved, conspicuously absent from the bottomless libraries of entertainment we were led to believe we were paying for.

Kevin Smith’s biting religious satire, Dogma, one of his greatest critical and commercial successes, is currently being held hostage by the disgraced former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein with a steep price tag in the millions. Elaine May’s romantic black comedy, The Heartbreak Kid, is currently owned by, of all people, Bristol Myers Squibb. The pharmaceutical giant held a majority stake in Palomar Pictures, the film’s original distributors, and seems content to let the wealth of films it inherited after Palomar was shuttered merely sit and collect dust. Cult favorites like The Fall and Wild at Heart have become similarly “un-streamable.” Only those who were lucky enough to buy physical copies of these movies when they were available can watch them now. Often, movies helmed by women and people of color are at a particular risk of being lost in the shuffle. Films such as Girlfight, the directorial debut of Karyn Kusama, and Mississippi Masala by Mira Nair were similarly considered “missing” for years before recently being recovered and restored by The Criterion Collection.

Pink Floyd’s multimedia high-concept magnum opus, The Wall, and William Friedkin’s gritty, stylized crime thriller, To Live and Die in L.A., are just a few of the un-streamable films The Frida Cinema has recently screened. Dawn of the Dead enters those ranks later this month, and we are joined in this endeavor by other independent theaters and drive-ins with a dedication to keeping film history alive, from Alamo Drafthouses across the country to the historical Monroeville Mall in which it was filmed. For now, it’s unclear whether Dawn’s resurfacing is temporary, a short-lived celebration of its 45th anniversary or if it could be the beginning of a return to both prominence and availability for the film. Is a new physical release on the horizon, or perhaps a streaming premiere? Only time will tell, but now thanks to The Frida Cinema, and other independent arthouse theaters like it, you have another chance to catch Dawn of the Dead on the big screen, as audiences in 1979 first saw it, without any gimmicky (if apparently crisp) 3D.

Dawn of the Dead screens starting Friday, April 12th.
Friday, Apr 12th – 7:45pm
Saturday, Apr 13th – 7:45pm
Sunday, Apr 14th – 7:30pm


More to explore