The Good – Dawn of The Dead (1978)
By Jozef Hamilton
“It’s really all over…isn’t it?”
The contemporary zombie has become as recognisably domestic as the common pet dog or cat. We cannot turn a corner these days without seeing one of the flesh eating ghouls paraded on a DVD or game cover. The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, is that although these creatures are still very entertaining threats when presented in the right manner, for the most part, they have been dumbed down (that’s saying something) and diluted from their original incarnations. Their legacy spans over forty years of cinematic presence, thanks to the genius of George A. Romero, known as the ‘Godfather of Gore’ to those within the horror community for creating what we have come to know as the flesh eating zombie.
Of course the conceivement of the dead returning to life, hell bent on feasting on the flesh of the living came around with the 1968 classic ‘Night of the Living Dead’ wherein a group of survivors in the midst of the sudden zombie apocalypse take shelter in an abandoned farm house, hoping to survive the night’s barragement of undead ghouls. What’s to note also, is that the term ‘zombie’ is never once uttered in this black and white classic. Of course, as you know, the film was an absolute smash hit and widely recognised by film academics as a landmark of cinematic history.
However, at the time of release, ‘Night’ didn’t belong to the time in which sequels would be pumped out every year to make a quick profit (that would come two decades later), so a period of ten years went from the release of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (long enough these days to reboot a whole franchise!) before its sibling arrived on the scene, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ a film made with a much higher budget, more subtext and of course, more undead.
‘Dawn of the Dead’, is a sequel to ‘Night’ but in name and universe only, it follows a completely different group of survivors after an undisclosed time from its predecessor. What’s interesting about this film is that there exists three cuts of it; the theatrical release, the Romero directors cut and even legendary horror film maker Dario Argento spliced together a version of the film which was more fast paced rather than Romero’s cut which had heavy character development and humour. The version that I’m focusing on here, is the Romero cut.
We open in a television studio where we are already shot right into the chaos. Society is still under siege from the zombie threat and it seems like there is no sign of it being stopped. Arguments over the best possible survival strategies are overheard from all directions. We are already thrown into a hopeless and panic ridden world where the odds are heavily stacked against humanity. Our four protagonists are Peter, Roger, Stephen and Francine, all whom eventually encounter one another, deciding to group together in order to seek a safe place to secure survival. Luckily, Stephen just so happens to be a helicopter pilot earning him the nickname ‘fly boy’, however, he is also given the role as the ‘every man’ within this film, the role that we the audience are meant to identify with, often stumbling to reload a gun or falling over when trying to bash a zombies’ brains in. He’s a much less glamorous character when compared to the likes of Peter and Roger who are ex-SWAT members with trained combat experience. It’s Ken Foree’s role as Peter which steals the show in this picture, Romero again opting to use a black male lead gives ‘Dawn’ a nice sense of consistency within the series. The four seek refuge in an huge abandoned shopping mall, it seems like it’s the absolute perfect place to hold up, gather supplies and move on before attracting any unwanted protection.
Of course, the longer the group stays at the mall, the more enticing it becomes. The stores, the security and all the supplies they could ever want are under one roof. Despite Francine falling pregnant to Stephen and the clear hostility rising within the group, it eventually reaches a point where we have to question if they are choosing to stay there at will, or have they been trapped by the materialism that litters each floor of the building? That being said, we don’t have long to reflect upon this before a group of Raiders are alerted by the presence of human activity within the mall, also drawn by the . What follows is a bloody climax between three parties; our heroes, the raiders and the hundreds of zombies which have now been set loose inside the building.
Tom Savini, one the most famous make-up artists of our time really had a lot of room to play with in this film, although there are really botched make-up jobs within the film due to budgeting which basically means that half of the zombie extras have a quick smear of blue/green/grey face paint all over them. No distinguishing wounds or gory bits hanging from them. However, that is more than compensated for with the amazing zombie deaths and iconic zombies themselves who appear in the film, one of which, the zombie with half of his face torn off, appears on the poster. I really don’t want to spoil this for anyone who happens to have not managed to see this film, but trust me, some of the most famous images in zombie pop culture appear within this film. One criticism of the film I would give however is that the blood quality is very lacklustre, a minor nit-pick, I know, but when you have the amazing effect of a machete being driven into a zombies skull as its eyes still roll around in its head, as what can only be described as cheap red houseware paint trickles from the wound, it does take you away from some of the immersion and serious intentions of the scene. That being said, there is plenty of gore here to satisfy any gore hound, if you like seeing people ripped in half by a crowd of ravenous undead, this is the film for you.
The soundtrack of this film is done by none other than Goblin, a clear indication of Argento’s involvement with the making of ‘Dawn’. For those of you who don’t know, Goblin have created some of the most iconic scores within horror. ‘Suspiria’. ’nuff said! Their presence helps to create the eerie atmosphere that this film so rightfully craves. The action scenes do have the upbeat and fast paced score that you would expect, but the haunting approach as the survivors first discover the mall will forever be etched into my memory. The score does add to the ageing of the film, but at the same time, it also adds to the charm and it’s iconic in its own right. The sound effects however, do feel off in some places, at least in the Romero cut of the film, most notably the gunshot sounds which sound like they’re more Tom and Jerry and less horror film.
I mentioned subtext earlier in this review. Although ‘Night’ dealt with racial discrimination and America’s morale during the Vietnam war, ‘Dawn’ instead focuses on consumerism and materialism, heavily evident from the fact that the undead are continuously, for some reason unknown to anyone, herding towards the Monroeville Mall in which our heroes have secured themselves within. What is left of the person before they died and succumbed to the plague that caused them to reanimate is drawing them towards the shopping mall, that also raises a lot of questions, although the person before has gone, is there any form of subconscious left within them? Naughty Dog’s recent horror title ‘The Last of Us’ was a video game that had numerous enemies types all of which were heavily inspired by zombies, and those creatures were all still aware of what was happening to them, they were just unable to control their actions. The zombies are a clear visual metaphor for us as a society, needlessly wandering into places that flash bright colours and advertise low prices, trying to appease an unmeasurable hunger, whenever it feels like the survivors have managed to clear out what zombies have managed to make it inside the building, hundreds more appear on the outside, increasing in size and aggressiveness as the days go on.
Another aspect of ‘Dawn’ which differs from its predecessor is that the role of Francine, as the female of the group, has a much more active role than that of Barbara in ‘Night’. For the entirety of the film, Barbara was in a catatonic state and was a very passive character before meeting her doom at the very end of the film when she snaps back to reality and attempts to help fend off the invading hoard of flesh eaters. Francine is more involved in the plot than Barbara is, although not as kick-ass as Ripley in ‘Aliens’ or the Barbara which appeared in the 1990 remake of ‘Night of the Living Dead’, females are definitely portrayed with a lot more backbone compared to the decade before, Francine even gets to wield a sniper rifle at one point. It doesn’t quite reach the final girl concept of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode but it’s close, Francine does evolve as more of a fighter, but she still relies on the men of the group in a lot of instances, rather than taking a solo approach to the situation.
It’s hard to tell you everything that there is about this film without spoiling for those who haven’t seen it, most of the film itself is character development and the reactions of the characters to society’s downfall, it isn’t exactly a plot heavy feature. That being said, I still do find this film to be a timeless classic and pure entertainment from start to finish, the directors cut does drag on for a few moments in specific scenes and the sound editing isn’t quite as polished as in the theatrical cut, but I do find the added character development and sense of overwhelming dread to add so much more to the atmosphere of watching. The zombies within this film, unlike the 2004 remake of the same name, walk instead of run. They don’t hiss and they don’t have uncontrollable aggression at the sight of human prey. Instead, they slowly approach. They never tire, they never sleep and they never stop until they get a hold of you. It’s this idea of uncontrollable determination of the zombie hoard that is truly terrifying, rather than . No matter what, we all have to die some day. Let’s just hope we don’t wake up shortly after the blood stops pumping through our veins, hungry for flesh.
‘Dawn of the Dead’ truly is THE zombie film. Although ‘Night’ is fantastic and important to cinematic history, ‘Dawn’ just delivers so much more to the table. ‘Night’ was just the appetiser and ‘Dawn’ is definitely the expensive main course, for lack of a better metaphor. I really can’t praise this film for what it has done to both the zombie genre and the horror genre. It’s not without its faults, but even then, those faults add to its charm. Although other zombie films show decay as time goes on, ‘Dawn’ continues to stay strong and feel as fresh as a newly bitten wound.
Five Hare Krishna zombies out of five.
Follow Jozef on Twitter: @TheEvilBread
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