In January 1978, zombies were running loose in a Pittsburgh shopping mall, followed by two film crews. One was under the direction of George Romero, shooting the "Dawn of the Dead" sequel to his seminal low-budget shocker "Night of the Living Dead." The other was led by documentarian Roy Frumkes of New York's School of the Visual Arts, tracing the travails of the independent filmmaker.
Romero had the satisfaction of a critical and commercial success when "Dawn of the Dead" reached movie theaters later that year. But Frumkes' "Document of the Dead" was seen only at film festivals. Unable to find a distributor, he put the film on a shelf in 1982.Now video has come to the rescue. Studio Entertainment, a small alternative label founded this year, has revived this excellent "making of" movie and has gone a step farther by financing new footage that includes discussion of Romero's "Monkey Shines" (1988) and the yet-to-be-released "Two Evil Eyes." "Document of the Dead" (76 minutes, $79.95) appears in video stores this week.
With horror films enjoying a wide video audience, "Document" may find a degree of popularity undreamed of 10 years ago. But the film does not cater to the lowest common denominator of horror fan. It's a serious essay on an independent filmmaker who happens to work in a sensational, sometimes vilified genre. Any student of filmmaking will find it worth his attention.
Frumkes apparently had unusual freedom on the "Dawn" set, interviewing actors, the lighting director, the casting director, the special effects and makeup man, the producer and Romero himself. He also got to portray a zombie extra, and in one fascinating sequence we see makeup artist Tom Savini transform Frumkes into a hideous creature. The hourslong process is condensed, by speeding up the film, into a 30-second burst of activity.
The result of the accumulated interviews and behind-the-scenes footage is as complete a picture of the filmmaking process as can be found outside a textbook. The actors praise Romero's flexibility in allowing creative contributions. The lighting man discusses the difficulty of lighting the wide-open, glass-lined spaces of a mall. The producer describes the struggle with financial backers and a dispute with the motion picture ratings board ("Dawn" was eventually released unrated rather than submit to an X). And Romero touches on many subjects, from script writing to the final editing.
The interviews are interspersed with specific analyses of Romero's film technique, all helpfully illustrated with carefully chosen clips from "Night of the Living Dead" and his second feature, "Martin." For viewers who enjoy the study of composition and montage, "Document" is rich in aesthetic insight, although it does occasionally cross into excess with comments such as "Romero's use of dual linear movement fleshes out the two dimensions of film into three."
The gore quota is supplied through glimpses of stunt work, slice and dice "gags" and gunshot splatter effects. The most elaborate setup is in the update segment, which unlike the primary section was produced on videotape rather than film. The scene from "Two Evil Eyes" calls for a metal pyramid to plunge into the chest of a reclining man. To capture about five seconds of film, the effect requires most of the shooting day and several takes. In one attempt, the false torso moves unrealistically. In another, insufficient blood has sprayed the actor's face.
So horror, it turns out, can be tedious, even though this film never is. Romero's admirers should be thrilled at this insider's view of a popular filmmaker who insists on working outside the system.
JOURNEY BACK TO OZ - It's been 50 years since the release of the original "Wizard of Oz" - and chances are you know all about Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. But do you know Pumkinhead? Woodenhead? Mombi? They are all part of the animated cast of Oz characters featured in a Wizard follow-up, "Journey Back to Oz," originally released in the early '70s. This cartoon had the potential to be a cheap rip-off of the classic. But a rich musical score, bright - if not impeccable - animation and an engaging cast elevate it to something that can stand alone. It may never rival the 1939 classic, but "Journey Back to Oz" is a decently entertaining romp over the rainbow. 60 minutes. United America Video. $14.95. - Mike Pearson (Scripps Howard)
CHECKING OUT - Ray Macklin is perfectly healthy but obsessed with the certainty he's about to die. His pursuit of an illness to cure makes "Checking Out" very funny and very strange, just right for a night at home. Jeff Daniels, with his classic good looks, is wonderful as Macklin, whose life is thrown off kilter when his jokester pal drops dead at a barbecue just before telling the punchline. Jokes about death pervade the movie, and if they are a bit off-putting at the start, they become endearing and actually in the end serve to celebrate the joy of life. Melanie Mayron (TV's "thirtysomething") plays Daniels' wife, and Michael Tucker ("L.A. Law") is his boss; careful viewers can catch David Byrne of the Talking Heads in a small role as a bartender. Virgin Vision. Rated R. $89.95. - By Mary MacVean (Associated Press)