Halloween's coming up in two days, so what better film to watch and review than the Citizen Kane of the zombie genre? Furthermore, I reviewed the remake of Dawn of the Dead a couple of years ago, and I was wondering if the original held up as much as I remembered it when I was writing that review. So I threw it in to find out. The answer? Read on...
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George A. Romero's zombie classic Dawn of the Dead deserves all of the praise that it's received over the last thirty-five years or so. Whereas Night of the Living Dead helped invent a lot of the tropes and conventions of zombie movies, Dawn crystallized them with its tale about a zombie apocalypse in which the real enemy isn't necessarily the undead. It's long, but it almost never feels like it, and when it does slow down it's not because Romero is padding for time, but rather, to serve the story. And speaking of the story, this movie is far above a lot of the schlock that it inspired. We get four rich characters of the sort that few works of zombie fiction come close to matching (and oh, how they have tried), brought to life by four solid actors. The film is underlaid with commentary on consumerism, race relations, and the sort of "me culture" that, even by the late '70s, had truly dug its claws into the American psyche, paving the way for the excesses of the following decade -- the image of the zombies at the mall representing mindless consumerist drones being just the tip of the iceberg. And on top of all of that, it's thrilling, gory, and action-packed from start to finish, especially during the final fight between our heroes, the zombies, and the biker gang that's looking to loot the mall. I'll give the remake credit for being a badass action/horror flick, but the original still stands head and shoulders above it in the rankings of the greatest horror movies of all time.
The film opens with panic in a Philadelphia newsroom, where two crew members, helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), plan to take the news chopper and escape the city. Meanwhile, two Philly SWAT members, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), abandon their posts after a raid on a zombie-infested apartment project in the ghetto ends in a gun battle with the remaining surviving residents and a lot more zombies than there were before. The four of them get together and fly off, hoping to get to Canada but making do at a mall in suburban Pittsburgh when they run low on fuel. The breakdown of society in these opening scenes is not only intense, but well-textured, with public services in panic, redneck militias turning zombie hunting into a party, people keeping their infected relatives locked up because they can't bring themselves to pull the trigger on their loved ones, and even a racist cop who uses the zombie apocalypse as an excuse to shoot minorities. So much of this stuff has become the defining image of what the zombie apocalypse would look like, yet not only is it still amazing to watch, but Romero's use of the situation to comment on then-contemporary issues that still surround us means that it still feels fresh after all these years. I said during my review of Lucio Fulci's Zombie, which was made the following year, that that film felt horribly dated by virtue of its over-reliance on special effects and, consequently, the rest of the film not holding up nearly as well. Comparing Zombie and Dawn of the Dead stands as a case study of what happens when the same film is made by somebody who is interested in more than just visceral thrills and chills.
This intelligence extends well beyond the opening scenes all the way through the film's two hours. Upon reaching the mall (a setting that the film makes excellent use of), the four survivors run amok, having all the fun in the world in a place where the rules of the outside world no longer exist. It is like a dream come true for them (and probably for most of us as well), having an entire mall to themselves, dressing in the nicest clothes, eating the finest food, and equipping their safehouse with all the fanciest furniture once they secure the place. But it's not all fun and games, as we also get to see that, for all of their luxury, they're getting bored and scared in their gilded cage, as news reports and emergency broadcasts become increasingly sporadic and the zombies start to pile up outside. Eventually, their worst nightmare arrives in the form of a well-armed biker gang that raids the mall in order to score some booty. It is with these bikers, led by Tom Savini (also the film's special effects artist) as "Blades", that we see the film's true colors shine through. The survivors' safety is destroyed by greed, the scene in which the gang raids the mall playing out like a dark mirror of the survivors' earlier escapades. They loot the department stores for money, designer clothing, and jewelry, none of which hold any value in a post-apocalyptic world, get into a raging gun battle with Peter and Stephen, and gleefully pie zombies in the face for shits and giggles. It's a decidedly different take on the comparatively civilized behavior of our protagonists when they first arrived at the mall... but was it only "civilized" because they were the heroes? After all, they looted the mall themselves for food, ammo, and furniture, the only difference being that, in their case, there were no other survivors to stop them. What would they have done had they found other people at the mall? (The remake raises this question with the security guards, but it otherwise doesn't come up that much for the rest of the film.)
All these questions, and I still haven't gotten to the most important point: is this movie scary, fun, or otherwise watchable? To answer all three questions: hell yes. Dawn of the Dead may be far more intelligent than most zombie flicks, but it's still a zombie flick, and it delivers the most important visceral aspects of its genre just as well as it handles its more satirical side. The gore effects by Tom Savini are breathtaking, in that you'll gasp in shock at some of them; even with the unnaturally bright-colored blood, there's a reason why Savini has gone on to be recognized as a master special effects artist. From gunshots to exploding heads to eviscerations, this movie is like Christmas morning for gorehounds. Zombie scenes contain a mix of dread-filled moments on one hand (especially early on), and action-packed zombie mayhem on the other (chiefly in the second half). When the film is going, it rolls. It is helped by a great cast, led by Ken Foree as Peter, a proto-Sam Jackson who epitomizes badass '70s cool. Seriously -- this guy absolutely owns. Gaylen Ross as Francine starts out as a fairly annoying damsel, but fortunately, both she and the film recognize this, and take steps to ensure that she can hold her own afterwards. She doesn't get to kick ass like Sarah Polley did in the remake, but she overcomes her initial problems admirably. David Emge and Scott Reiniger didn't leave the same impression that Foree and Ross did, but they too were fun to watch, especially after certain scenes that I won't spoil. The relationships built between these four characters, be it the romance between Stephen and Francine or the bromance between Peter and Roger, kept me invested in whether they lived or died, and even knowing who was and wasn't gonna make it, their deaths were still tragic and carried actual weight to them. The funky soundtrack here also created a feeling of levity, almost black comedy at times, meaning that, even though this is a zombie film, it never gets so unrelentingly bleak that it becomes depressing to watch.
Score: 5 out of 5
This is the sort of film that you can talk about and dissect for hours, loaded with satirical commentary on American culture and, in hindsight, a lot of the conventions of the zombie genre. But if you're not in the mood for all of that, this is still a fun, gore-soaked zombie film that's filled with many memorable moments. Whether you're with some friends and a six-pack of beers, or you're interested in something that "explores the human condition," Dawn of the Dead makes for some great Halloween viewing, and any-other-time-of-year viewing for that matter.