Wednesday, November 28, 2012


On the audio commentary for this latest iteration of his groundbreaking behind-the-scenes Document of the Dead, filmmaker Roy Frumkes compares his film to Michael Apted’s Up series (7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, etc.) in that he feels that his life has somehow become intertwined with that of his doc’s subject, George A. Romero. While a pronounced exaggeration alongside with Apted’s landmark half-century-and-counting achievement, Frumkes’ point is that with each new version, he has to choose what archival footage to excise in order to make room for the new. Sadly, the truth is that this 2012 release (dubbed “The Definitive Document of the Dead”) shows only too clearly that – arguably like Romero’s work itself – the past is where the good stuff lies.

While teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1978, Frumkes was looking for a documentary subject and decided that, while there had been several behind-the-scenes films made for Hollywood studio efforts, there had not been many (if any) that covered the making-of an independent feature. Denied the ability to shoot in NY or California due to union rules, the instructor learned of Romero’s impending Dawn of the Dead shoot at the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh. Thanks to an already existing relationship with Dawn producer Richard Rubenstein, Frumkes was granted access to the set where he and a small crew (comprised mainly of SVA students) shot for several nights alongside Romero, Tom Savini, Ken Foree, et al., capturing delicious celluloid tidbits of a masterpiece in the making.

Initially conceived as a teaching tool for SVA, Frumkes would later revisit, revise and augment the feature in 1989, visiting the set of Two Evil Eyes (Romero’s two-hander with Italian simpatico Dario Argento). The documentary would ultimately implement footage from Martin and Monkey Shines – Romero’s two features released prior to Frumkes’ two separate on-set visits – and be released on home video to much success and acclaim. For gorehounds existing in a time before DVD supplements, this kind of backstage access was manna from horror heaven. While the marriage of the two eras was hardly smooth or artful (the original 16mm footage vs. the SOV format, for starters), it was still an opportunity to get up close and personal with fright icons Savini and Romero.

But time has marched on. We now live in a world where audio commentaries are recorded before features ever reach multiplexes and even the smallest DIY microbudget filmmaking crews have DSLRs and iPhones rolling to provide future making-of segments. Frumkes’ achievement was undeniably laudable for its time, but probably should have remained within that context. Because, in an attempt to remain relevant as opposed to a mere museum piece, the documentarian has tacked on an artless third act that smacks of amateurism and an ever-growing chasm between the filmmaker and his subject. This epic stumble, committed to shiny silver disc and released by Synapse, is at best ill-advised and stinks of uninspired cash-grabbing at worst.

The first hour of this “Definitive” version, with the exception of a few clips featuring a modern day Romero addressing festival crowds and a stop-motion zombie scenario, is the original 1979 Document and it’s far and away the most compelling footage. Here we see fresh-faced versions of Dawn stars Foree, Scott Reiniger and David Emgee being directed by Uncle George in his laid-back fashion, while an excited Savini explains his techniques while making up Frumkes and co-producer Sukey Rafael for their spur-of-the-moment appearances as zombies in Dawn’s pie fight sequence.

With its rich 16mm textures, there is a gravitas and earnestness to the proceedings, the vision of a young artist attempting to capture the creative process of another, slightly older artist. The fact that this footage has been remastered from the original negative, rectifying a color-correction error that has irked Frumkes for over two decades, is just the icing on the cake.

However, as mentioned above, the jump-cut to a decade later, with an older, more frustrated Romero and Savini working out a gore effect for the “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” segment of Two Evil Eyes, is a bit clumsy. Frumkes doesn’t cover the miles that transpired between 1978 and 1989, a very colorful chapter in the career of his subject, so we just drop in – like Frumkes – with little context or introduction. While it’s not uninteresting to watch Ramy Zada’s latex chest punctured over and over again, it’s a pale recreation of the in-depth attention given to Dawn’s genesis. It feels tacked on, superfluous, unnecessary…

But the Two Evil Eyes segment’s somewhat dodgy inclusion is nothing compared to Document’s “new” final act, which goes completely off the rails as a work of serious journalism and becomes a slapdash pastiche of fan footage comparable to the average high school student’s video blog (if said student were of the horror convention-going variety). It’s clear that Frumkes no longer has unlimited access to Romero, as all the on-set footage from Land, Diary and Survival is captured from afar (although the clip of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright geeking out with one of Greg Nicotero’s animatronic zombie heads is undeniably cute). In his commentary, Frumkes justifies this unorthodox approach by saying that he was attempting to do something different than what the official making-of film crews were gathering themselves, but it rings a little hollow.

Even more egregious is his haphazard interviewing of Dead alumni at the 2010 Chiller Convention. Watching a drunker-than-he’d-probably-prefer-to-be-seen-on-camera Joe (Day’s Captain Rhodes) Pilato gracelessly hitting on Judith O’Dea doesn’t really tell Romero’s story, nor does watching William Lustig swipe Twizzlers from the snack table or Buddy Giovanazzo having his drink knocked out of his hand while recalling seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time. But one gets the impression this is all Frumkes now has to work with. That we see much more of George’s daughter Tina Romero in this third act than her famous papa is telling; unfortunately, she doesn’t really have anything insightful to offer other than the fact that she got her dad to appear in one of her short films. (There is a cute Santa Claus story that serves as an epilogue, but again, it feels like dressing to cover the holes.)

The threadbare quality extends to Frumkes’ attempts to revisit the question he put to Romero in 1989, whether his films have had any lasting social impact. With literally scores of examples that could be easily referenced (hello Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, the remakes of Dawn and Day, etc.), what do we have trotted out before us as proof positive? The internet video “George Bush vs. Zombies,” a bargain basement local stereo shop commercial with a zombie theme and (deep breath) the skin flick Night of the Giving Head.

Somehow, these examples lack the cultural relevance I think Frumkes was going for.

Document 2012 finally limps to an end with cursory footage from the set of Survival of the Dead (shot by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures and Shout! Factory), and not a moment too soon.

Frumkes’ personal 34-year journey from the Monroeville Mall in 1978 is worthy of examination, but it should have been its own story as opposed to trying to shoehorn additional chapters into a story that’s already been told. (Interestingly, the original 66-minute 1979 “teaching tool” version of Document of the Dead is available within Synapse’s limited edition Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack – only 1500 units – an intriguing marketing move to be sure.)

In the final analysis, Frumkes’ revisiting and rejiggering smacks of a painter approaching his watercolor canvas two decades later and deciding to “spruce it up for a new generation.” It just doesn’t work, marring what previously existed and leading onlookers to ask, “Why didn’t you leave it alone and paint something new?” Why indeed.

The Definitive Document of the Dead is available through the Synapse Films website.

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