Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dawn of the Dead: The Australian Cut

United Artists, the Australian distributor of "Dawn of the Dead" (the US distributor was United Film Distributors; UFD), went with the Italian art, not the iconic American art, to sell George Romero's horror watershed to down under audiences. Trailers saturated the radio and TV waves. Ad mats that made no excuses about what they were selling crowded newspaper entertainment sections. It was an enthusiastic, optismistic campaign from UA.

Unfortunately, the film that was released in Australia bore few similarities to the American or Dario Argento's Italian cut of the film. "Cut"is the only way to describe the abortion that played Ozzie drive-ins and a single, city hardtop (The Palace).

My first exposure to "Dawn" (as it came to be known) was the famous, gory still of the head being blown off that appeared in Fangoria magazine's premier issue. It was raw and violent and it said "Fuck you!" to the establishment. It also indicated a new, explicit direction for on-screen horror, a direction horror fans like my brother and myself were aching to embrace.

To us, George Romero -- the director of "Night of the Living Dead" and Martin" -- was a type of god, an independent filmmaker who was definitely marching to the beat of his own drum.

So, what was missing from the Australian cut of "Dawn"?

* The exploding head

* The basement zombies enthusiastically ripping into flesh

* The helicopter zombie getting the top of his head lopped off

* Tom Savini burying a machete in a zombie's head after saying: "Say goodbye, creep!"

* "Flyboy" being attacked and bitten in the elevator

* Zombies ripping intestines from a biker's belly

Shall I go on?

I sat in the mostly empty The Palace theatre on that Thursday afternoon feeling so angry and disappointed that I wanted to, quite literally, kill the Australian censors. I was like Okay, give me their address, I'll go 'round there, I'll take their fuckin' heads off!, I'll teach them to mess with Romero's masterpiece, the Fucks!!!

My hormonal rage was so far off the meter I was on the verge of a massive, adolescent coronary. What an absolute affront to freedom of speech this was -- in a so-called "Free Country", a "Lucky Country", as Australia liked to call itself. Well, I didn't feel one bit lucky as I stormed out of The Palace into the white glare and peak hour traffic of Bourke St. and headed for the train. I felt deflated, disillusioned, confused and disenfranchised.

So I got political. I vented to the newspapers, at three letters a day for two weeks, and I got one printed. They censored my anger and passion and reduced my rant to a few innocuous lines about Australian censorship being "out of touch" with reality. "Out of touch"? I didn't write things like that back in those days. I wrote things like "totally fucked" and "a pack of conservative, bureaucratic cunts with raisins for eyeballs ". Perhaps that's why my message got fogged?

Australia is a great place, but Australian governments of both persuasions have always been a censorious, ignorant bunch. Without being invited, they take a paternalistic role in the population's activities and operate in a state of righteous cluelessness when it comes to emerging technologies and shifts in pop culture. Cable TV was delayed for years because the government couldn't get its bureaucratic act together. R-rated video games are still banned and seen as a threat to beer-drinking, car-driving, child-raising, responsible adults. They even banned Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" once because it featured a long shot of a woman giving a blowjob to a cowboy holding a pistol. It doesn't surprise me at all that they are currently attempting to collectively censor "offensive" web content -- not specific websites, mind you, but "offensive content" in general. They're trying to force ISP's to apply a draconian filter to all streams going out to users. It's about as practical as stamping out sarcasm, the common cold, "subversive thoughts" and Terrorism. Now, nobody would assume they could do that, would they?

I finally saw the uncut "Dawn of the Dead" on a double bill with Romero's "Knightriders" at the Northgate cinema in Detroit. It was everything I dreamed it would be. And more.

Eventually, the film was released uncut on VHS in Australia, signaling a surprise shift in attitudes.

Not long after "Dawn" played at The Palace on Bourke St. the theatre became The Metro nightclub. The club was an instant success and attracted more patrons in one night than "Dawn" attracted in its two week run. Horror has never gotten much respect Down Under.


  1. Wow!!! The Northgate Cinema. A true grindhouse if ever there was one! I saw so many movies there back in the late 1970's and 80's. I found your blog while searching for information on the R-Rated cut of "Dawn of the Dead." I have a copy of what appears to be the Australian "R" cut. The running times match anyway. I'm trying to figure out if this is the same version they released in U.S. theaters on a double bill with Knightriders in 1981 and then with Creepshow the following year. I can't find any information on the running time of the U.S. R-Rated prints but, from what I remember of it and bits of info online, the edits seem identical. It would be odd for them to have done another R-Rated cut less than a year later for the U.S. market. Contact me if you have any info on the R-Rated version or the Northgate!

  2. Horror Rewind -- another Northgate fan! The DAWN I saw at the Northgate was the unrated US cut that I saw several times afterwards. It wasn't the R-rated cut/butchery screened in Australia. KNIGHTRIDERS was the long version, too. So the whole show ran close to five hours.