The Film: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The Principals: Directed by George A. Romero. Starring Ken Foree, David Emgee, Gaylen Ross, Scott H. Reininger.
The Premise: The civilized world as we know it has been plunged into chaos. The dead are coming back to life to feed on the living. Tired of human infighting, four people escape into the zombie infested outside world, taking refuge in a shopping mall which has been abandoned by the living but is still frequented by mindless zombie hordes who seem to have some dim memory that this was a place they once frequented. At first life in the mall is an adventure that affords the quartet amusement and luxury, but soon malaise sets in, and members of the group begin to take greater risks in order to gather supplies. The female of the group reveals that she is pregnant, and to make matters worse the mall is besieged by a gang of living bikers. The remaining survivors of the quartet have to decide between taking a stand to defend their new “home”, or to abandon the mall altogether for the uncertainty of the increasingly apocalyptic world outside.
Is It Good: Yes. The second film in Romero’s “Dead” trilogy confidently expands the scope of his classic Night of the Living Dead and forges into new territory as far as theme and metaphor. No one can dispute the importance of this film as both a zombie movie and a piece of apocalyptic fiction. This is a film of ideas, and as a satire of consumerism, it is unlikely that Romero’s Dawn of the Dead will ever be outmatched in terms of laser-like focus. It is the work of a filmmaker at his peak and is the crystallization of a beautiful and personal aesthetic, one with a healthy streak of rebellion social criticism at its core. It is a wonderful snowflake of a film, and though it has technically been “remade”, there will never be another film that can capture the unique quality and character of the 1978 Dawn of the Dead.
And that quality is so powerful that it can completely carry a film that is rife with technical flaws. But let’s back up a second. As a young horror fan, zombies simply were not my bag. I liked the monsters that had unique personalities, and since zombies are basically the antithesis of that, they just never appealed to me. So, the Romero films were never a part of my personal horror history. It was well into my adulthood that I began to explore this avenue of the genre, so I came to the Romero series as a jaded genre fan. Even then, the films impressed me, and I never had a problem seeing how they effectively worked their thesis. And with Night of the Living Dead, I felt Romero was wholly successful at creating a scary game-changer of a horror film while still managing to also make it a poignant piece of social commentary. It’s a film that managed to have its flesh and eat it too.
I personally do not feel that Dawn of the Dead is as successful in this regard. Sure, it works gangbusters as social commentary, but as a horror movie? Not so much. One of the main problems here is the zombies themselves. Much has been said about the bluish, unconvincing zombie make-up, and it’s especially disappointing when you consider that make-up effects guru Tom Savini had a huge hand in the film, even going so far to star as the lead biker. But even more so than the make-up, for me what sinks Dawn’s zombies is the goofy, slapstick performances and reactions from the zombie cast. Romero is clearly going for comedy here, and taken on the ‘metaphor for mindless consumers’ level, the zombies work. But taken as something that is meant to instill fear, these zombies do not work at all. They make googly eyes and silly faces in almost every shot and really just come across as bumbling clowns. Even one of the film’s most celebrated zombies, the Hare Krishna, is really just a goofy visual gag, which really undercuts the tension when he is groping at Ross as she attempts to escape into a crawlspace. And I don’t think budget is an excuse. Night of the Living Dead’s zombies were sparsely made up, but still managed to be terrifying. The doofy undead of Dawn are a deliberate artistic choice, and I would argue that they rob the film of any genuine terror.
Another touted element of the film that I think doesn’t hold up is the gore effects. I don’t know if it was the influence of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento or not, but the blood here has that bright, almost orangey quality seen so often in Italian genre films of the era, and again, I feel that it robs this film on the visceral level. It gives the zombie attacks a comicbooky quality that takes me right out of the mayhem. What should be shocking scenes of violence become reduced to what are essentially just gloopy food fights. It’s not a deal breaker by any means (and really nothing I mention in this article is), but it reinforces my position that taken strictly as a horror film, Dawn of the Dead ’78 is a failure.
But why am I nitpicking effects; this movie is about the characters, right? Well, not really. I have never had strong feelings about any of the principal characters of Dawn of the Dead. While I wouldn’t actually go as far as to call them ciphers, I don’t feel that Roger, Stephen, Peter and Fran are a terribly interesting or dynamic crew of protagonists. Even the names are hard to remember (but at least Stephen gets the nickname of “Flyboy”.) Horror icon Foree certainly cuts a recognizable figure as Peter, but there’s not anything in his character to match his visual uniqueness. At one point Roger goes a little loopy and Stephen goes from being kind of a jerk to more of a hero, but beyond that there isn’t much in the way of discernible character arcs. It’s funny because I’ve seen The Walking Dead get a lot of guff on the boards for “not enough character work”, but frankly I see more character work in your average 15 minute segment of the AMC zombie show than I see in the entire running time of Romero’s film, an irony considering what a direct descendant The Walking Dead is from Dawn. I have to lay a little of the blame here on the actors. The leads do the job well enough and acquit themselves without embarrassment, but I don’t think any of them manage to take the characters they are given and make them interesting. It’s telling that no one here goes on to do much career-wise.
My last bit of blasphemy concerning this classic is going to be directed at the running time. I feel that the film is fifteen minutes too long. There’s a point in the movie where I inevitably find myself tuning out, right around the segment where Roger and Peter commandeer the trucks and Roger gets himself bitten for acting like a jackass. This segment perfectly illustrates my frustration with the film’s pacing. There’s at least four different moments where you expect Roger to get bitten and he doesn’t, and when it finally happens it just feels anticlimactic and quick. There’s a difference between creating suspense and just dragging things out forever; this should have been trimmed in the editing room. And while I wouldn’t excise any of the plot points of the movie, I do feel like it just takes too long to get to them. There are a lot of extraneous scenes of running around the mall or climbing through vents before the climax of the biker gang invading finally arrives. I haven’t seen any of the shorter cuts of the film, so maybe I’d like the pacing in those better, but as far as the theatrical Romero cut of the film is concerned I think it’s simply too damn long.
I won’t continue to belabor my conditional criticisms of this seminal zombie film – I offer them up only as points of discussion. I love this film unconditionally and for its flaws; I just think that at the end of the day 1978’s Dawn of the Dead works better as satire and even comedy than horror. But I wouldn’t trade any of the bad make-up or general goofiness for a different film. Besides, if I want a more action/horror take on the same basic premise, I’ll watch Zack Snyder’s good-on-its –own-terms reimagining from 2004. So yeah, it’s almost Halloween, why aren’t you watching Dawn of the Dead?
Cinematic Soulmates: Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Juan of the Dead, Dead of the Dead, every zombie film made post 1968.
Random Anecdotes: Oh, I don’t know, I don’t have time for this today. You guys must know tons – post ’em in the talkbacks in between jabs at me.