Roy Frumkes has had a fascinating career in the world of film, writing and producing everything from underground favorites (Street Trash) to box-office hits (The Substitute). The thread that has run throughout his career is his documentarian/filmmaker relationship with George Romero: it began when he showed up as a professor to follow the production of Dawn Of The Dead and hasn’t stopped, with Frumkes continuing to visit Romero’s film sets over the ensuing decades.
The first fruits of these labors arrived with Document Of The Dead, a fan-beloved documentary that focused solely on Dawn Of The Dead. The majority of it acts as the heart of The Definitive Document Of the Dead. This footage consists of footage shot on the set during the filming of the big “bikers vs. zombies” setpiece, fleshed out with additional interviews that allow it to give a concise portrait of the film’s development, production, editing and distribution challenges.
No matter what form you see it in, this footage is always a joy for Romero fans to revisit. It captures the director in the midst of the comeback that would make the remainder of his directing career possible and his love of filmmaking comes through strongly. Tom Savini is similarly ebullient when he pops up in this documentary and the proceedings feature a treasure trove of on-set footage, including Frumkes and another documentarian getting transformed into zombies by Savini so they can appear in the film’s pie fight sequence. To top it all off, Susan Tyrrell provides the narration for this material!
However, this original documentary footage is merely the largest module of footage in The Definitive Document Of The Dead. It assumes a place of prominence in what has become a sort of cinéma vérité collage of documentary material that indirectly chronicles the Dawn-to-the-present story of Romero while also turning a mirror to Frumkes, who grows from a young professor into a film business vet before our eyes.
The result is a free-form, sometimes rambling journey when compared to the tight, focused nature of the original Document Of The Dead — and yet, perhaps this is by design. As time moved on, Frumkes transitioned from student to filmmaker and it is obvious that Document Of The Dead became more a diary-styled extension of his adventures with Romero rather than a pure documentary project. As such, it doesn’t need to tell a full story or come to concrete conclusions. Instead, it offers impressions of what life is like for Romero, his actors, his collaborators and Frumkes himself. What it lacks it in story structure it makes up in texture.
On this level, The Definitive Document Of The Dead is well worth the time for hardcore horror buffs as it delivers a steady string of interesting anecdotes along the way. Highlights include Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg goofing around with a zombie puppet and making it speak like Arnold Schwarzenegger, a reunion of several Day Of The Dead cast members at a horror convention and Romero’s daughter Tina talking about what it was like to grow up with a titan of terror for a dad (she tells a great story about his love of Christmas).
To sum up, how much you get out of The Definitive Document Of The Dead depends on how you approach it. If you don’t know much about Romero’s career and want a classically-styled career retrospective, look elsewhere because that isn’t the purpose of this film. However, if you are already a Romero fan and intrigued by the idea of a fly-on-the-wall, impressionistic portrait of Romero as a zombie auteur, The Definitive Document Of The Dead offers plenty of rewards in its own unique, stream-of-consciousness style.