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Dawn of the Dead   A+

Anchor Bay Entertainment

Year Released: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Cast: Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, Tom Savini.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

I've always had the fantasy of living in a shopping mall, having all of life's precious commodities at my very fingertips. If I wanted caviar and wine, all I would have to do is saunter on down to the food market and pick it up. Whenever I felt like new clothes, there they'd be on the racks, waiting for me. I could take my morning stroll up and down the fluorescent aisles, play a game of tennis up on the roof, then play a few video games at the arcade with recycled quarters which I could use over and over again.

Life would be simply grand, especially if I had my three best friends with me. We'd be like kings, living off of the fat of the capitalist dream.

Of course, an unsettling boredom would undoubtedly creep up on me, since there can be too much of a good thing, and we're always left wanting something more.

George A. Romero makes this the point of his cult classic, Dawn of the Dead.

"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."

As a no holds barred action/adventure story, it simply cannot be beat. The tense opening scenes move at a furious pace, opening with the frantic newsroom sequence where a talk show degenerates into a shouting match between the host, his guest and the entire news crew, many of whom are throwing their hands in the air and walking out in frustration.

Not wasting any time, Romero provides all the exposition we need during the broadcast. The dead have been rising from the grave. The people they kill will mindlessly get up and kill. These creatures feed on the flesh of the living, who turn into creatures themselves. A ghoul can be killed by a shot in the head. There is a state of martial law in effect in Philadelphia as in all other major cities.

Welcome to the bleak, "things fall apart" terrain familiar from Romero's previous film, Night of the Living Dead. The government doesn't seem to have a handle on the situation, the scientists can't figure out a vaccine, the rescue stations are being knocked out one by one and the legions of the undead grow slowly but surely.

Before we can catch our breath from the terse dialogue from this opening credits sequence ("The dead are rising from the grave -- they get up and kill! The people they kill get up and kill!") we're thrown headlong into a violent action sequence as a SWAT team lays siege upon a zombie infested apartment complex. As these special police officers move from one room to another, they are bombarded on all sides by pale zombies which lumber after them en masse.

Those who are interested in Dawn of the Dead for the gore will not be disappointed. In this first action setpiece alone, special effects wizard Tom Savini goes above and beyond the call of duty.

  • A head is blown off with a shotgun.

  • Several people (both human and zombie) are blasted with large, gaping gunshot wounds which make the violence much more unsettling than most action films.

  • Zombies take gruesome bites out of people, including that screaming woman in the doorway whose arm starts to spray crimson when her former lover attacks. He already sunk his teeth into the soft flesh of her neck...

  • Most impressive is the zombie "leper colony" feasting in the apartment basement as two SWAT team members look on in disbelief. One of them takes out his pistol and starts opening fire on them, one by one, as the music (by the definitive group to score gore classics, Goblin, and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento) begins to beat like an angry heart with swirls of chords dancing around it like a spider's cobwebs.
The Suburban Fantasy

After 15 or 20 minutes of nonstop tension and startling, visceral violence, George Romero gradually settles into his story. Two characters from the television studio and two others from the SWAT team escape in the news station helicopter. Their justification, in the midst of violence and chaos, is that "someone's got to survive."

It is here that Romero takes Dawn of the Dead from being a superb action driven horror film to a bona fide classic of social satire. Our heroes land the chopper on the roof of a shopping mall and, after careful inspection, decide that maybe they shouldn't be in a big hurry to leave. "There's a lot of stuff down there that we could use," one of them notes.

Step by step, our heroes make the shopping mall into their home. Romero goes to great detail to show them scout out the mall, make their first guerrilla attacks to secure a radio, television and other supplies they need, then figure out how to block the doors of the mall with trucks to prevent any other zombies from sneaking in. The mall becomes their home and, like a military pest control, they proceed to take it away from the living dead which have been drawn to this place which may have been an important part in their lives.

The fact that Romero sets almost his entire film in a shopping mall creates an interesting and ironic critique of consumerism within the violent, blood drenched world of bullets in the head and zombies hungering for human flesh. It is these very elements which place Dawn of the Dead a full head and shoulders above other horror films into the selective arena of genre classics.

  • Under the fluorescent light of the shopping center, the pale blue skin of the living dead doesn't look much different than the pallid skin of actual "zombies" which go shopping in real life. The undead in this film don't look so much different than consumers in the real world, drifting from store to store blankly.

  • The muzak which drones on and on in the background as our heroes scamper around the mall shooting zombies not only serves to counter the extreme violence of the film (which audiences seem to harden to after a while -- the endless shots to the head quickly become routine) but also foreshadows the eerie, deadening boredom which settles into our main characters once they "have it all."

  • There are long montages of our heroes not even dealing with the undead. They run around in department stores taking what they want, laughing like children. They go through almost every possible variable within the mall, but end up playing cards with $100 bills as though it meant nothing at all.
An audience would certainly feel cheated without the requisite zombie massacre at the end of the film, complete with bodies getting torn to pieces, entrails spilling out and limbs severed. Romero doesn't disappoint, creating a third act which returns to the action of the opening sequence as bikers (including Tom Savini as a machete wielding wild man) show up to claim a piece of the action. Suddenly, consumer is pitted against consumer and the living dead reclaim their prize.

Will our four heroes live to tell the tale? Guess you've got to watch the film to find out...

A Final Word About Our Four Heroes...

At over two hours of running time, Dawn of the Dead is something of an epic among horror films. This not only gives Romero ample opportunity for brilliant digressions showing how the outside world is dealing with the zombie phenomenon, montages of zombies shuffling around in the mall or our heroes indulging in their suburban dream -- it also gives him the necessary time for us to get to know and, ultimately, sympathize with our four main characters.

Many horror films skip this altogether, depending on shocking gore and dripping blood to keep us enthralled. Certainly, Romero and Savini do not skimp in that area. However, for all it's violence, Dawn of the Dead is a character driven movie. As Mike Bracken pointed out in his analysis, these guys don't do anything stupid throughout the film -- they behave more or less like you or I would in the situation, using common sense and a willingness to roll up their sleeves and work for what they want.

Tall, imposing Peter (Ken Foree, who has since appeared in a few other good horror movies) is the strong silent type. This no-nonsense SWAT trooper doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor, but he does have a sensitivity which goes deeper than his colleagues. His grandfather was a priest in Trinidad, and it is Peter who says the immortal tagline, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth." He's something of a quarterback when kicking zombie ass, too -- clearly the strongest and toughest in the bunch.

His pal, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), is the class clown -- a much needed source of comic relief in this bleak world. He's a cocky little shit, but he's faster than the others and has good common sense when it comes to hotwiring cars or creating military diversions. He and Peter make a great team, having both survived the violent apartment scene and lived to tell the tale.

Stephen (David Emge) seems at first to be the sullen jerk of the crew, perhaps because he hasn't had any sleep. We begin to wonder whether he'll be the annoying one who stupidly argues that they all go hide in the cellar (a la the creep from Night of the Living Dead), but we quickly learn that it's only because he's not at all trained in the art of combat as his SWAT team colleagues. Like Roger, he's got good common sense but also (as a pilot) a healthy respect for rules and blueprints. He's instrumental in their figuring out how to maneuver around the mall, and proves that even if he's a tightass, he'll fight by the side of his friends.

Finally, Francine (Gaylen Ross) is the character who goes through the most significant changes during the movie. She's representative of the '70s woman, emerging from her shell and making her voice heard -- a far cry from the catatonic female protagonist in Night of the Living Dead. She learns how to fly the chopper, shoot, and even have independence in her troubled relationship with Stephen. It's always good, too, to see a pregnant woman who can hold her own and kick much ass with the "men" -- she says herself that she ain't gonna be their denmother.

After the dark conclusion of Night of the Living Dead, we know the outcome is always in doubt. As they navigate through survival and ennui, we're with these guys every step of the way, rooting for them.

It may seem a waste of valuable space to devote so much time to each of these characters in the review, yet Dawn of the Dead clearly cares about them so much that it's worth the extra space. To George Romero's credit, we the audience truly care whether these people make it out alive. It's another one of the reasons he remains one of the best horror film directors we have.

Review published 10.27.2000.

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