#30 – Countdown to Halloween: DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

I love Halloween. Everything about it. The costumes, the candy, the parties. But most importantly? It’s the one time of the year where you get to watch as many horror movies as you want without people judging or thinking you’re a closet serial killer who’s studying the fine art of murder. But not all horror is about slow-walking, mask-wearing, virgin-hunting unkillable killers. Sometimes we get a look at the less structured side of horror.

Zombies. And if we are going to talk Zombies, then there is one film to rule them all, and in the darkness EAT YOUR BRAINS!!! And that movie is Dawn of the Dead. No, I’m not talking about the slightly entertaining remake Zack Snyder brought us in 2004. This is the original, the big daddy, the grand poombah of zombie horror. Written and directed by George A. Romero (widely considered to be the definitive zombie visionary), it’s actually a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. That’s also a great movie, and a great zombie flick, but Dawn of the Dead is where the real magic happens.

Sure, you’ve seen a lot of the newer style zombie movies, so you think you know what to expect, right? And a zombie jumping out at you is nothing new. Cliché, even. But keep in mind that DotD, and originally Night of the Living Dead started all of that. So while it may seem like this movie is using old techniques to bring about a scare, remember they were the pioneers. Zombie movies and characterizations today are all based off of the zombie rules set forth by Romero. So keep that in mind before you comment on the weak make up and the slow-moving zombies. But we’ll talk about that later.

DotD takes place a few weeks after the dead start to rise in NotLD, so right away we are thrust into the zombie phenomenon without much knowledge. Watching the reporters arguing on-screen it’s easy to relate as they themselves are working off very little knowledge. This sheds a light on the time and how scarce information was back in the 70’s. With no internet to spread the news quickly around the world the general public is of course waiting to hear from the news, which is clearly in disarray. We meet the first pair of our survivors; Traffic copter pilot Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), who decide to get out with the helicopter while the goings good.

“Come with me… to the SKY!”

We cut to the city streets of Philadelphia. Where we meet the final two members of our survivor group; Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and the biggest cop in the city (and the only actor still working today), Peter (Ken Foree). Both members of SWAT who are trying to deal with the hellish conditions the Zombie apocalypse has brought to the city. They too decide to leave the city along with Stephen and Francine, who Roger is friends with. We now have our team of four, which is an essential number if you plan on surviving a zombie apocalypse.

“BOOM! Headshot!”

The group flies to safety in the helicopter, leaving the war-torn streets of Philly for hopefully safer climates. A thought-provoking scene shows how the rural areas cope with the zombies, which is a stunning difference from the big city. Out in the open country it’s turned into an old-fashioned shoot ‘em up, rife with good times, apparently. A thinly veiled look at how a rural society deals with disaster compared to their urban counterparts.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life… Ever.”

When the group eventually arrives at their place of sanctuary, the mall, things start to look up. And why wouldn’t they? I mean, who hasn’t wanted to find themselves alone in a mall for an extended period of time, regardless of potential zombie destruction? Our survivors decide to camp out there, and proceed to block off the entrances and kill any straggler’s left in the mall. Cue character development.

“Is this where we talk about our feelings?”

I generalize when talking about it, but that’s one of the greatest strengths DotD carries over other zombie movies. You really start to care about the survivors, and each minute of the movie is crafted to increasing that feeling. Sure, they also love to cram in zombies, blood, guns, and post-apocalyptic living, but it all boils down to these four characters, and how they deal with the situation together. Some might call it boring, especially in a zombie movie, but I just call it great cinematic storytelling.

“I swear I wasn’t bit. Really. Just a bad can of fruit, that’s all. Guys?”

And when I talk about a zombie movie, DotD sometimes doesn’t totally fit. Yes, it’s the original zombie horror, but it touches on so many more aspects. I could devote this whole review to a study of the consumer consciousness prevalent throughout the film, but that’s boring. When Francine is discovered to be 4 months pregnant, that opens up a whole new set of societal issues; nature vs nurture, the morality of innocence when faced with the downfall of society, etc. I could throw a lot of big words but it all boils down to a simple term. It makes you think.

Let’s talk about what does make this the Zombie movie of all Zombie movies. The gore. It’s all about the gore baby. Effects are masterfully put together by Tom Savini (you may know him better as ‘Sex Machine’ in From Dusk Till Dawn) with old school props, gallons of fake blood, and cool camera tricks. Some of these effects would still surpass those done today. When they wanted a head shot off with a shotgun, they filled a prosthetic with ‘food parts’… and then SHOT IT WITH A SHOTGUN. The bright red blood spewing from every wound, decapitation and general zombie buggery only adds to the surreal elements of the film.

The zombie effects might not be considered world-class. There was a lot of whited out faces, and not much of the rotting decomposed bodies we get to experience today. Instead they had to rely on a little thing called acting. When the extras are doing their zombie shuffle, it’s easy to spot the ones who suck at it. But then your eye will drift to a few of them that were unnaturally believable as the risen dead. That instantly helps sell the movie.

Look at the guy top right… Zombie? Spectator? Clueless Extra?

I don’t want to spoil the ending, in case you are one of the few unenlightened who desperately need to go see this movie. But I will say this; the end scene when the mall is overrun by a biker gang really makes you ponder on who the real monsters left in this zombie filled world are. And what you would do to protect your sanctuary if outsiders wanted in. Big bullies want a piece of my mall? I don’t think so.

“On second thought… you can have it.”

Overall I have to give this movie 4 Great Pumpkin’s out of 5.

It’s a classic, a pioneer, a work of art. Sure, it might not be for everybody, but if you are a fan of the zombie genre and have yet to see this movie, hang your head in shame.

And then go watch this movie.

The Countdown to Halloween continues tomorrow!!!

Check here for the continued COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN!!

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