Synapse releases Roy Frumkes’ definitive documentary on George A. Romero
In its opening moments, Roy Frumkes’s The Definitive Document of the Dead issues a disclaimer about the film’s collagist construction, explaining to viewers that it “was filmed over a 32-year period, originally in 16 & 35 mm, and eventually incorporating every video format known to man.” Frumkes’s documentary, which mostly offers intimate access to the step-by-step process that spawned George A. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, makes clear from the outset that it is indebted to a multiplicity of sources and stylistic influences, many of which are found far beyond the body of work of Romero himself. Just as Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror or Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead generate their premises and aesthetics from Romero’s ilk, Dawn of the Dead, Romero willfully admits, lifts from a number of Hollywood innovators before him, and Frumkes’s film owes its life to all of the above. Like the various video formats Document blends into its distinct fabric, all of these men’s work plays a part in breathing the documentary into existence.
Document of the Dead’s extended conceit is that reference and homage are not gimmicks, but rather endearing filmmaking modes, and that they define Romero as auteur. “If I’m parasitic of anybody, it’s more Welles, and some of the early Howard Hawks,” Romero tells Frumkes in an interview on the set of Dawn. (Not until prompted to consider sequences of Night of the Living Dead does he realize that film owes as much credit to the rhythmic cadences of Hitchcock). Meanwhile, Dawn producer Richard Rubinstein, speaking to Frumkes, credits critic Andrew Sarris as the originator of auteur theory. Is he aware that Sarris is also parasitic, of the writings of Francois Truffaut? In any case, Frumkes’s fixation in Document of the Dead on the notion that the men and women involved in Dawn’s production are each a part of something greater than themselves is ever-present throughout.
In fact, almost all interviews in Document with members of Dawn’s cast and crew find those subjects speaking about someone who is off camera, rather than their own individual work. If the making-of documentary of John Landis and Michael Jackson’s Thriller was a piece of propaganda geared toward reinforcing Jackson’s iconic status, Document offers the antithesis of such an approach. Document’s behind-the-scenes observations place an emphasis on the importance of the collective. When Frumkes does insert himself into his doc, he walks side by side with Romero. Frumkes’s positioning of himself on an equal plane with his subject reaffirms the film’s philosophical stance – that a filmmaker must be as willing to be taught as they are to teach. Frumkes’s profile of now-legendary make-up effects artist Tom Savini in his fledgling stages working on Dawn serves as a call to action for independent filmmakers to continue their learning process, as well; while Savini tells Frumkes in ’78 that there is no school to learn what he does, fans and students who watch today likely know fully well that Savini’s FX program at the Douglas Education Center is a leading educator in the field.
In his DVD commentary, Frumkes fondly recalls his joy at having captured moments in which Romero staunchly disagrees with Frumkes’s assessment of his Dead films – particularly, their command of space within a frame. In Romero and Frumkes’s disagreement and contention, new lessons are learned, and new perspectives considered. What endures, in spite of that necessary conflict, is an empathy between the two directors, whose common goal remains to engage their respective audiences.
Indeed, Document succeeds quite well at engaging its audience, a demographic which Frumkes clearly envisions as spanning from fans, to film students, to critics, to fledgling independent helmers. This is not to say, though, that the film doesn’t suffer from structural errors. Such issues derive in large part from the doc’s tacked on footage that chronicles the making of Romero’s post-Dawn installments of his Dead franchise. While Frumkes’s non-Dawn material is never boring, some of it feels like an afterthought, and rarely does it expand upon the thorough, thoughtful, and fully realized narrative of the material he and his crew produced at the time of Dawn’s filming, if at all. Fortunately for Frumkes, the moments of his documentary most lacking in substance are redeemed by the fact that they exist at all, in a filmic landscape in which serious-minded Romero-centric archives are hardly found in bulk.
Synapse Films’ restoration of Document of the Dead services the film’s original print in every way necessary. The documentary’s dealing with multiple formats is not lost to the grain or discoloration sometimes found in direct-to-video releases, but preserved sufficiently. That Frumkes’s footage spans over a number of decades does not hinder the presentational qualities of Document’s 1.33 Full Frame aspect ratio. The disc’s sound mix, too, is sustained with clarity, and captures the entirety of many sequences that detail moments of Dawn’s production in which a large number of events are taking place in one frame.
Synapse has included an all-New Audio Commentary from Roy Frumkes.
Frumkes is a fastidious documentarian, as his patience during the making of Document of the Dead, which spanned over 30 years, confirms. The result of that fastidiousness is a film that is equal parts adoring love letter and sustained close reading of an important genre filmmaker’s body of work. When it’s the former, the film oscillates between geeky fun and stock-pile Romero lionization. When it’s the latter, it offers an essential record of the production of a horror classic for filmmakers and scholars alike.
NOTE: Synapse is also making this film available as a limited-edition Blu-Ray/DVD combo which contains the new DVD version of The Definitive Document of the Dead, along with a high-definition Blu-ray of the original 1979 16mm version. Also included is a fold-out poster of the new George A. Romero painting used on the cover, created by Wes Benscoter. This edition is limited to 1500 Units.
– by Max Weinstein