Last year I revived an old tradition: watching the original Dawn of the Dead on Thanksgiving morning (the night continues to belong to End of Days). The tradition began on the holiday in 1994, when I watched the movie for the first time (on rented VHS). The satirical elements were lost on me at a young age, but once I got older and realized the sort of thing Romero was making fun of, I was actually pretty delighted at how perfect the timing was. It's pretty common to see images on the internet that compare Dawn to a shot of a Black Friday shopping mob, so that I saw it for the first time on the eve of the "holiday" without an awareness of the connection is just amazing. It'd be like if you wanted to kill time on Christmas Eve and opted to watch a Bruce Willis action movie called Die Hard that you didn't know anything about.
The version that I watched that morning in 1994 was the 127 minute one, which was pretty much the only one you could readily get in the US at that time. I wouldn't know about any alternate versions until later in the decade, when Anchor Bay put out a double VHS tape that contained the theatrical version and the longer (139 min) "director's cut."* Later, I'd learn about the 119 minute European, or "Argento" cut, as well as an AB snafu that sort of split the difference between the director's cut and the theatrical (it basically added back the Joe Pilato dock scene but little or nothing else). Oh and then there's a German version that combines every bit of footage ever seen into one mega, 156 minute cut. Add in the censored versions, and discrepancies over the runtimes themselves due to NTSC vs PAL conversions, and you have what may be the movie with the most different versions in existence, to the point where you might have no idea what you're watching if you're lucky enough to see it on film (or watching a bootleg DVD, which means you're a monster). But for the purposes of this article, I only recognize the three official releases, the ones contained on Anchor Bay's definitive 4 disc set from 2004: the Argento cut, the director's cut, and the original theatrical version.
The easiest way to tell which one you're watching (or at least, which version it once was before it may have been re-edited by someone) is to use the music as a guide. Argento's version omits all of the library music for a full blown Goblin score, whereas the director's cut is mostly the library stuff. The theatrical has a pretty good mix between the two; I know this is when Goblin was in their prime and thus the rational thought would be that their original compositions would trump whatever stuff Romero had pulled off a shelf, but his choices just work perfectly, and I really can't imagine the movie without the familiar circus-y music during the closing credits (the music that has since been re-purposed with chickens for the Robot Chicken end credits). Argento's version may be the fastest paced of the three, but I'll take Romero's lax editing if it means I get his inspired soundtrack selections along with it.
Argento's cut also renders two scenes confusing if you haven't seen either of the other versions. The first is the Johnstown (redneck hunters) sequence, which plays out more or less exactly the same but with one crucial difference - Argento inexplicably cut out Stephen's line that sets the whole thing up. They're flying over in their helicopter, and then without the context ("Those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing") it just suddenly cuts to a bunch of random people out of nowhere. Worse is the later sequence where Roger and Peter place trucks in front of the mall doors - Argento cuts out the first, successful trip, opting to start with the one where everything goes wrong. Not only does it remove the explanation for what they're actually doing, but it just makes Roger into a crazy person without much build up, as he's whooping and celebrating their now unseen victory. There are moments where he was right to speed things along, but here I think he was way wrong.
So that's definitely not my preferred version, but I really can't decide if I like the longer "director's cut" more than the theatrical. I quite like the dock scene; the original antagonistic nature of it makes Roger's advice to them (still present in the theatrical) more resonant - he's a good guy, even to the dudes who were planning to rob his friends. It's also fun to pretend Pilato is playing his Day of the Dead character, and that what was once a slightly dickish but rational thinking guy became a megalomaniacal asshole by the time 1985 rolled around. But there are other bits of dialogue and lax edits that admittedly slow the film down; even the theatrical version can be a bit draggy at times, and that problem is exacerbated here. And I miss some of those Goblin cues; I don't want them wall to wall, but I want them to have a presence as the composer, instead of just another artist contributing to the film's eclectic soundtrack.
Interestingly, it seems no one online has compiled a definitive list of the differences between the theatrical and extended versions; it's pretty easy to find one that compares (either version) to Argento's, but after searching for a while I couldn't turn up anything exhaustive. I assume it's because so many of the differences are so minor (despite the roughly 10 minute difference in runtime, the dock sequence only accounts for about 2 of those and that's the most prominent thing), but considering how anal people get when comparing to Argento (a sample line from one such comparison is "The helicopter's approach is longer," noting a .8 second difference), I'm quite surprised no one has done the legwork for these two versions. Or at least, made it easier for me to find via Google. But I suspect part of the problem is that it's a lot easier to discern Argento's from the other two, and with those versions having their own random cuts (like the aforementioned Anchor Bay mixup), it might just be too difficult a task, as you might be working from a "rogue" version in the first place. Also, the Argento version has a few scenes that neither of the other versions have, but there are (as far as I know) no scenes in the theatrical version that are absent from the longer cut. So it's simply not as interesting a comparison, either. One's longer, that's about it.
What IS interesting is that no one will really get angry if you prefer one over the other, like fans of other genre films tend to. Mention the D-cut of Aliens and you're bound to get someone lambasting it, saying that the movie is ruined by showing the inhabitants of LV-426 before the aliens show up ("it ruins the mystery!" they say, about a sequel to a movie about a killer alien that now has an S on the end of it to let you know that there will be more aliens in it). And absolutely no one in the world will defend the US ending of The Descent over the UK one (and if that person exists, they'll be mocked incessantly). But twice I've queried folks on Twitter about Dawn's various versions and while there are obviously some who prefer one over the other, it's a) pretty evenly split and b) doesn't really get anyone worked up when they see someone defending one over their personal favorite. It's important to remember that Argento's cut has been around just as long as Romero's (in fact it premiered first) and was something that Romero signed off on, so it's not like Dario recut the film on his own for some reason a few years down the road in response to an existing film - they've both been around forever. So there's no "right" version, no Lucas/Cameron-style revisionist thinking behind any edits - they're all the official one, and thus no matter which one you like, you can't really fault someone for liking another one better.
Another interesting thing is how the various versions ends up clouding people's memories. My Twitter query resulted in someone saying they prefer "the ambiguous ending of the original version to the bleakness of the director's cut." All three versions end exactly the same**, but the original planned ending had Peter shooting himself and Fran standing up into the helicopter blades - pretty damn dark. This version was never shot (or at least, not completely so), but its content has become such a common part of the film's lore that I suspect some people assume they've seen it! I myself get confused and mentally exaggerate things; I thought Argento's version had them get to the mall ten minutes faster than the Romero version, but it's actually less than six from his version to the director's cut (and only about 2:20 quicker than the theatrical version that I'm most familiar with!).
In short, they're all great. I have my reasons for preferring Romero's cuts to Argento's, but they're also the ones I grew up with - people in Europe probably didn't have access to Romero's versions until a decade or so ago either. None of the versions are censored in terms of gore (though Argento's lacks the awesome helicopter blade kill when they stop to refuel), and nothing is contradicted from one cut to the other. They're all just great zombie movies, something anywhere from 9 to 20 minutes' worth of different footage and music can't change.
*I put "director's cut" in quotes because this was his first edit, assembled for Cannes - the theatrical cut, which he edited himself, is his preferred one. So the D-cut moniker is more ceremonial than anything, it should be "extended cut" or something along those lines.
**Argento's version puts the credits over black instead of over shots of zombies wandering around the mall, but that's not really a different ending. Besides, the guy didn't even mention Argento's version.