When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a low-budget classic, there is no disputing that. His second zombie feature Dawn of the Dead , however, is a bigger and more audacious film. Not exactly a sequel, Dawn of the Dead explores parallel themes with an expanded budget. I chose it over the first because one imagines that this is the film Romero wanted to make in the first place. And I for one am glad he did. It builds on the spirit and ideas of the original while establishing an identity of its own.
The film has all the elements crucial to effective storytelling: great atmosphere, sympathetic characters and urgent pacing. It is this delicate crafting that allows some films to transcend mere horror. The characters ask the questions we would ask and take the steps we would take, and without being predictable it manages to always choose the most sensible path.
As civil society breaks down amid the worldwide rise of the living dead, SWAT team members Peter Washington (KenForee) and Roger Demarco (Scott H. Reiniger), and traffic reporters Stephen Andrews (David Emge) and Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross), escape in a helicopter. They come across a deserted suburban Philadelphia shopping mall and break in through the roof.
After fighting the zombies they manage to secure the mall and stock up on supplies, until they find themselves besieged by a motorcycle gang, who would rather kill them in order to loot the mall than band together against the zombies.
Setting the standoff in a shopping mall is simply a brilliant choice. It creates apocalyptic menace in a usually benign setting; the stores give the characters a variety of resources for defending themselves and, not least, it delivers an intentional and hilarious social comment. When is the last time you heard anyone debate the political subtext of an American film, let alone a horror film? Given the variety of interpretations, the obvious dichotomy between a barricaded few who are stocked and well armed and those who are a horde of the poor and hungry makes for a brutal conflict.
Horror films in which everybody can become the monster always seem to have higher stakes. It is a fate worse than death; it is denigration and the loss of one’s will. It’s hard not to have sympathy for the zombies. Their only fault is to be resurrected and wander in blind craving. The humans meanwhile operate out of choice and display remarkable greed. The moral heart of the film, for me, is best represented by an old priest who surprises two of the characters in a tenement basement: ‘When the dead walk, we must stop the killing, or we lose the war.’
Don’t get me wrong in praising the subtext; the film is also gloriously, delightfully excessive. Horror make-up and special effects master Tom Savini splatters his mark all over this one. The film is actually so violent and gruesome that it was released unrated in the United States for fear of being slapped with an X Rating. Yet other moments are downright sublime. At one point Peter and Stephen respectfully walk around the ropes used for queuing in a completely abandoned bank. In another instance, one of the bikers gets his intestines torn out by a zombie because he stops to get his blood pressure checked.
Dawn of the Dead was a collaboration made in ‘horror heaven’. Italian horror maestro Dario Argento helped secure funding for the film, in exchange for the right to oversee the international cut of the film. Dario Argento also served as an uncredited writer and helped with the score using his band The Goblins. But ultimately it is George Romero’s direction that makes this film a classic.
Director: George A. Romero
Writer(s): George A. Romero, Dario Argento (uncredited)
Runtime(s): 126 minutes, 156 minutes (Germany, complete version), 117 minutes (Italy, Dario Argento’s European/Italian cut), 139 minutes (USA, director’s cut)
Country: USA, Italy
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.