Roy Frumkes set out to make a documentary about Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead back while Dawn was being made. Frumkes followed George Romero around on the set, asking questions of him, his production crew, and exploring the makeup and effects of Tom Savini. The original Document of the Dead, released in 1985, was plagued with problems and ended up coming out nearly a decade after Dawn of the Dead released. The Definitive Document of the Dead encompasses that earlier documentary, but it also adds some new footage from Frumkes over thirty years later, with interviews from the cast of Land of the Dead as well as Diary of the Dead.
For some, Frumkes' ambitions might seem almost obsessive. For him to set out to document Dawn of the Dead back in the '70s is surprisingly insightful - Romero had made an impact with Night of the Living Dead, of course, but even back then it would have been difficult to see the mass cult status of Romero's work. And then to have Frumkes tackle an update to the project three decades later smacks of a compulsive complex.
The entire first part of this film is taken mostly from the original Document of the Dead, which is fairly hit-or-miss depending on the footage being shown. That documentary highlights Romero's skills at writing and filming using Night of the Living Dead, Martin, and Dawn of the Dead; and Frumkes' certainly shows his love for the director with the prosaic dialogue, which comes off more like an ode to the director than an unbiased look at his work.
But Document of the Dead isn't edited very well, and there are moments where the film goes off on tangents that lead nowhere. Frumkes struggles to keep the point of his documentary from devolving into fanatic promotion of Romero, and the footage is often messy or unrelated in places. It doesn't help that a lot of the footage was shot at different times; that can be sensed here by the beginning narration, which drops out only a half an hour into the documentary.
The newer content, too, strays from that old footage. At least in Document of the Dead, the majority of Frumkes' interviews were relevant; once The Definitive Document of the Dead moves on to Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, the focus really takes a dive. Land of the Dead is barely touched upon except for an interview with Romero's daughter; various interviews at what seems like a Romero revival party do nothing to enlighten the viewer on the making of the films besides featuring little anecdotes from the actors. And once Frumkes gets to Diary of the Dead, the whole thing drops out from under him. At this point, it even feels like Romero has stopped caring about movie-making entirely; he acts as though the newer films are just ways to make revenue.
Still, if you missed out on seeing the original Document of the Dead, this updated documentary is worth at least one watch thanks to a few interesting interviews, especially footage of special effects with Tom Savini (who is always fun to watch). This isn't as definitive as the title pretends it is, but that has as much to do with the waning relevance of Romero's later works as it does Frumkes' documentation.
The Definitive Document of the Dead on Rotten Tomatoes