Dawn of the Dead (1978)
When there’s no more room in HELL the dead will walk the EARTH…
The original Dawn of the Dead is a true masterpiece. It took me forever to discover this though. For years, I knew it only as was one of those movies with the really creepy box art that my mom wouldn’t let me rent.
The Horror section of the video store always intrigued me. Being led around by my mom, I would only catch glimpses of these films and every once in awhile I’d sneak a peek at the back of a box, only to be freaked out by a scary monster, or someone bleeding to death. As a kid these movies seemed so frightening. I just knew that the films where the scary images came from had to be pure nightmare fuel. As an adult I actually started watching these movies and, no surprise here, found that most of them were bad. REAL bad. The monster that was terrifying in a still image, was, in motion, nothing but a dude with no balance in a suit he couldn’t see out of. The movies were slow, and the acting was terrible… I realized that most of these video horror films had one cheap scare, and developed 89 minutes of padding.
It took me so long to finally rent Dawn of the Dead primarily because the box for the video didn’t even have images from the film on the back. I thought that if all of these movies with great scary images could turn out bad, a movie with no scary images had to be worse. I was very, very wrong.
Dawn of the Dead is one of those rare horror films that works on so many levels. George Romero’s 1978 story of four unlikely companions that take shelter in a mall after there has been a zombie outbreak remains a highlight of the genre. I think that one of the reasons it’s so hard to give this film a chance might be the thousands of crappy imitations that completely miss the point and horror of the original. So what is the point and where does the horror come from?
The set up for the film is also the tagline used on the posters, “When there’s no more room in HELL the dead will walk the EARTH.” So the movie opens in Philadelphia with chaos, as a local news station tries to deal with reporting this incident to the public. Tensions are high, and everyone is yelling. Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge) decide to take a helicopter to try and escape, and they are unwillingly joined by two police officers (Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger). The group decides to hole up in a local shopping mall and wait out the zombie outbreak.
The zombies in this film are slow and dealt with in the now classic “head shot” manner. They are also not immediately scary to look at, being basically greenish in skin tone. What makes the zombies scary is how similar they are to people. And that’s what makes this film many steps above the rest: subtle social commentary.
When the survivors take residence in a shopping mall, zombies fill the place. There are several shots of zombies wandering around with no purpose, and David gives the explanation that they are in the mall because it was a place that was important to them in the past. Not surprisingly, the goal of the survivors is now to get all of the zombies out so they can have the mall to themselves. This is a slow task, but one that is worth questioning because you start to see how empty the survivors lives are too. Once the mall is clear, they are bored. They have everything in the world they need, but with no threat and endless money and clothes, everything, they become increasingly similar to the zombies that they are running from. Later, a motorcycle gang tries to take over the mall, and suddenly the four survivors are defending their home from humans.
Many questions about human nature are raised, but there are no easy answers. The real horror is in seeing Romero’s vision of what the average person would do in a time of crisis. He made this movie before shopping malls were even popular, and before George W. Bush encouraged Americans to shop immediately following 9-11. Romero’s genius is in tapping into this instinct we have for owning things and the problems that it creates.
If you’ve avoided this movie, I’d seriously give it a chance. It has a great story, much humor, and an amazing soundtrack by Goblin (who I mentioned in my review of Deep Red). Sure there is plenty of gore and great make up effects by a young Tom Savini, but the true genius of the film is how it depicts the effect of consumerism on people in crisis.
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