DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) – The Dungeon Review!
In 3 years of blogging I have failed to include reviews for a good chunk of my favourite horror films! They have appeared in slideshows and top ten lists but for some insane reason have never been given the full review treatment. Well I think it is high time I rectified that! Since it is zombie month and all I thought I would start with the film I named as my number one favourite of the sub-genre; George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Some minor spoilers ahead!!
I really loved post-apocalyptic films when I was younger. Not specifically zombie apocalypse; I loved them all! Escape from New York, Mad Max, Dead-End Drive In, The Warriors, and 2019: After the Fall of New York to name a few. I used to categorize Dawn of the Dead with these films because as far as I knew there weren’t a whole lot of other zombie films. Also, I have always enjoyed saying the word apocalypse. Ah yes, back in the day when I was seeing these films for the first time there were a hell of a lot less zombie films. I know! But it is true! In any case, zombie films are definitely horror but they do also tuck nicely into the apocalypse sub-genre. As a grown up I realize an apocalyptic event would not be a good thing. When I was younger however I used to dream up personas for myself. I envisioned myself as a sort of female Harmonica; Charles Bronson’s character in Once Upon A Time in the West. The idea of that has always stayed with me. In fact, I recently took up the harmonica! All these films have plenty of violence but none are as graphic or as terrifying as Dawn of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead was one of my first apocalyptic films, first zombie films and my first experience with serious gore. I also got to see this at the drive-in when I was just a kid! No bloody wonder Dawn of the Dead rocked (and continues to rock) my world!
Dawn of the Dead begins with a chaotic scene inside a T.V. Station. This is where we meet two of our four central characters; station employees Francine and Steve. Romero does a nice job of creating a tense atmosphere right from the get go. An interview with a scientist lets us know the reason for the chaos. The scientist explains that we are dealing with the living dead. He advises the only way to put down one of the living dead is by severe trauma to the head (aim for the head!!). From one chaotic scene to another, we move to a SWAT team closing in on a building where they believe a bad ass by the name of Martinez is holed up. Inside the building we get our first glance at the zombies. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead vary in quality. Some of the undead are quite elaborate and gory and others are just slightly discolored. I guess this could be looked at as a flaw, but I prefer to look at it as different stages of death. I assure you, Romero certainly does not skimp on the blood and gore; but more on that later. This is where we meet our other two central characters; SWAT team dudes Peter and Roger. Roger tells Peter that he is meeting a friend who will be leaving the city by helicopter that night. This is how our epic apocalyptic tale begins.
Romero gives us an efficient and effective setup. Our quartet are on their way but not before a brief encounter with some local cops also looking to split town quick. They fly for hours over cities and towns infested with the undead. Eventually they have to stop for fuel and we get a nice zombie sampling including two children that Peter has to shoot in the head. The balance of the film takes place in Suburbia’s great hell mouth; the mall. Its roof provides a nice landing pad for the helicopter. This will be their home for the next several months. There are a significant number of zombies milling about so every task they attempt is an exercise in intensity. They do manage to get inside the stores and bulk up on supplies. Hallelujah! This mall has got a gun shop! We are taken along on this journey into hell with these four people. We sit back in the comfort of our living rooms and watch their struggle for survival. What makes it work so well for me is the fact that I could actually identify with these characters. They never do anything extraordinary or superhuman; they simply deal with what they are confronted with in the most reasonable manner possible. The four actors have great chemistry which helps make the interaction between them more natural and easier to relate to. I must say here that it couldn’t hurt to have two SWAT guys with good dispositions with you during a zombie apocalypse! Peter and Roger are obviously pretty handy with a gun; weatherman Steve, not so much. When Steve attempts a few shots early in the film, Roger steps in front of him and takes the shot for him. In fairness, Steve shoots carelessly, but Roger’s neccessary intrusion could not be good for Steve’s ego. Steve and Francine will need to learn how to shoot with confidence and accuracy, and they’ll have lots of opportunity to practice. Francine is the lone female of the group who proves to be every bit as useful and productive as the rest of the quartet. Good call on Romero’s part not making Francine a helpless, wishy-washy useless whiner! Francine acts as an indicator of time passed. She marks an “X” on the days of the calendar, but it is her pregnant belly that is really telling. That is a wee spoiler but Romero really doesn’t dwell much on Francines’s pregnancy. It is just another bit of reality that they will need to deal with sooner or later.
There are so many zombies! They keep coming and coming! They manage to eliminate all of the zombies inside the mall but they continue to gather outside. Every day more of the undead appear outside the malls glass doors desperate to get in. I really do prefer these slow-moving zombies to the new super fast variety. I have come to terms with the fast zombies at this point, and they certainly are intimidating coming at you with speed and foaming at the mouth! That said, the slower type respond in a manner I would expect from a reanimated corpse; and in a solid film like Dawn of the Dead they are certainly no less effective! There is a ton of action in Dawn of the Dead! The action scenes are evenly distributed throughout the entire film. There is one particularly nasty blood bath towards the finale when a gang of bikers bust their way into the mall after spying the helicopter on the roof. Contending with zombies apparently wasn’t enough, now they get to deal with a bloody bike gang! This is the films goriest section and Romero also adds some humour to the mix. One of the gang members just can not resist putting his arm inside the “check your heart rate” machine and gets swarmed by zombies who drag him off leaving his arm behind! There is even a slapsticky bit with the gang throwing pies in the zombie’s faces. You know those bikers are going to have to pay for that stunt! Amoung the copious amounts of gore on display, there is a lingering scene of a group of zombies energetically pulling the entrails from a victim and greedily munching on them. Buckets of blood spilled, limbs torn off, flesh bitten, ripped, shredded and eaten and a coo-coo amount of zombie head trauma! It is not for the faint of heart! When I was a kid I would watch this section through the cracks of my fingers! Tom Savini who was responsible for the film’s makeup effects also makes an appearance as one of the bikers! The entire segment is a weird mix of humour and intensity that works beautifully!
I’ve probably spoiled enough of Dawn of the Dead for those who have not seen the film. Don’t worry, I’ve kept a few surprises for you to discover! I have cited Dawn of the Dead numerous times on this blog. On my fifty wishes: the horror film edition I wished there were more zombie films as good as Dawn of the Dead, I named it as one of the ten films that made me a horror fan for life, it received the #1 spot on my top ten favourite horror films from 1978, has long held a position in my top one hundred horror films of all time and George A. Romero was my #10 director in my dungeon director project: my fifty favourite directors. My love of Dawn of the Dead is probably teetering on the edge of obsessive. Dawn of the Dead is the perfect horror film in my opinion. Dawn of the Dead has a fascinating premise, likable characters you hope will survive, intensity, scares, gore and a few laughs and it is all wrapped up in this perfectly paced, perfectly staged package. Oh yeah, and it also has zombies, lots and lots and lots and lots of zombies!
Dungeon Rating: 5/5
Directed By: George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith, Tom Savini