Movies We Like
Dawn of The Dead
The original Dawn of the Dead from ’78 is still best viewed at a midnight show in an afterhours crappy mall multiplex, the way most people saw it in the pre-VHS domination era. George Romero’s first and best sequel to his seminal, groundbreaking zombie flick Night of The Living Dead came out ten years later, with a much larger budget and an even grander eye for detail. (Hereafter the film will be referred to on this page in its shortened form, the way most Romeroites refer to it, as just Dawn.) Dawn owes more to 1970s post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and No Blade of Grass than the old school setup of victims trapped in a house waiting to be picked off one after the other, which the first film employed. Much of Dawn’s well earned reputation among gore-aficionados comes from the film's opening prelude, which is truly nasty, with many head explosions (Romero exploring an FX path he first ventured into earlier in the decade with his under-appreciated shot-gun-to-the-head epic The Crazies). The beauty of Dawn is though the draw may be the zombies (now in glorious color!), unlike the wave of imitations to follow, this is actually an existential, character-driven drama where the threat of the undead becomes secondary and humans prove to be much more dangerous (a concept finally realized again years later in the too-talky TV series The Walking Dead).
It was Night that gave us the zombie movie rules that have been followed like a bible ever since: the dead, now lumbering mummy-like bores, have come back to life to eat the living. The only way to stop them and send them back to a bag-of-bones state is to destroy their one-track brain. Apparently pretty soon after the first film ended, Dawn picks up. The world has plunged into anarchy. Two SWAT team officers, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree ) become fast friends while trying to clear a zombie-and-resident-filled Philadelphia apartment building. (One guy is black, the other white--without vocalizing it--it continues some racial themes brought up most credibly in the first film.) Again the majority of the film’s gore content really does happen in that first scene. (The film was released without a rating to avoid the X it was threatened with.) Roger invites his new pal to join up with his buddy Stephen (David Emge, who later popped up in the under-seen horror masterpiece Hellmaster) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), two television station employees who have a plan to escape town in the station’s helicopter--after all, Stephen is known as “flyboy.” As pandemonium takes over the ground, the foursome take to the sky, eventually landing on the top of a suburban mall. Easily breaking in through the roof, they do a little exploring of the huge shopping mall to look for supplies; the place has been untouched so it’s complete with all supplies needed, including gun store and an ice rink!
Eventually, after clearing the zombies still lingering in it out of the mall the little team decides to make a home of it. And here is the best part of the movie: the fortress and family building. With a running time of over two hours (different cuts run at different lengths), Romero gives us the tiny survival details. Like a modern day Swiss Family Robinson, they must use the resources at hand to find stability and comfort. They block the doors with semi trucks, make food, search, build facades to cover-up their living quarters, practice shooting, create escape plans. To this day, when I have the unfortunate experience of being in a mall, I end up just fantasizing about how I would live in it if I had it to myself.
Though there are some scares and action, once you get past the gore, the film mostly relies on suspense. The big middle chunk of the film is about learning to live with each other and overcoming the obstacles that come up. Finally their utopia is interrupted by a group of bikers who attack the mall, wanting the booty inside for themselves (led by Tom Savini, who also served as the film's acclaimed effects artist). And this proves to be one of the great moments in zombie filmdom, as the vulgar bikers unwittingly bring zombies with them back into the mall--and the zombie world has now gone full circle-- you root for the zombies, even feeling sorry for them against such a ugly human horde.
Apparently, when it was announced Romero was going to finally make a followup to Night, he was invited by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento to come abroad and write the script. And in the look of the film there is a definite influence of Italy’s giallo cinema’s bright colors (often overexposed to give blood an even richer hue). Argento also secured much of the film's international distribution rights. His much faster and less effective cut comes in just under two hours; it’s not as effective, but he did bring in his usual musical collaborators Goblin to do the score, much of it retained to great effect in the American cut.
Most all-time great horror film lists will wisely put Dawn in the top ten. Like its predecessor, Night, the film’s impact was instantly felt in all the cheap rip-offs made around the world. (’78 was the same year as Halloween; would it be hyperbole to declare that the most influential year in modern horror film history?) Seven years later Romero would release his third zombie flick, Day of The Dead, which does have some horror hipsters who claim it’s great, but most viewers would find it shockingly amateurish. And then twenty years later he would quickly knock out three more Dead flicks, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, which all come off as lesser, unnecessary knockoffs of the first two Dead masterpieces. But interestingly, what shouldn’t have worked, but actually does really well, is director Zack Snyder’s exciting remake, which other then the title, zombies, and a mall setting has nothing to do with the original Dawn.
Dawn of The Dead falls in towards the end of the era of auteur theory cinema, when directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Altman and Ashby emerged with personal commercial cinema. It's an era that is more or less bookended by Romero’s first two Dead flicks, perhaps making Dead Romero’s Raging Bull or the Chinatown of '70s horror cinema. Yes, Dawn, is a visionary achievement; it may be genre film but the test of time shows it's just as important as its more celebrated film confederates.