Dawn of the Dead (1978) — Not scary, but definitely a classic

“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill.”

Justin’s rating: The End Is Near! The End Is… arrgghhhh!!!!

Justin’s review: The question arises: If zombies were rampaging your neighborhood and slaughtering everyone in sight, where would you go? If you said The Gap or Orange Julius, then you might just be one of the survivors.

Dawn of the Dead is the sequel to the famous zombie fest Night of the Living Dead, and picks up more or less where the first left off. For some inexplicable reason — we’re guessing Mexican food — the dead have returned to feast on the living. Despite being slow as hot tar rolling down a slight incline, their sheer numbers are forcing the living to run for their lives.

Meanwhile, two members of a Philadelphia SWAT team defect with a traffic reporter and his girlfriend to a Pennsylvania shopping mall. Because… why not? The mall’s a better place than any. In their own fashion, they turn this zombie-infested center into their own paradise, holing up until the nightmare passes… or old age kills them.

At this point in cinema, nobody took zombies seriously. They stumble around like Happy Hour at Billie’s Bunker, and the only way you’re going to scare me with the image of the undead is if you kill and bring back the Spice Girls. Fortunately for us, director George Romero doesn’t think zombies are all that scary either, and plugs his tongue in his cheek during the entire movie. The SWAT guys, for instance, have WAY too much fun blowing zombies away and looting the mall. Hey, it’s just what we FPS addicts would do as well!

Not to say that there’s not a few tense moments, because there are. Despite being pretty safe from the zombies, our heroes keep finding reasons to venture outside and risking zombicide. These scenes function to test if we can yell “No, you fools!” loudly at the TV.

Bloody, jim-dandy, and constantly full of surprises, Dawn of the Dead is easily one of the most authoritative and fun zombie movies of all time. Rent it with a friend, and have fun licking your chops and glancing sideways while watching.

Kyle’s rating: Nowhere near “scary” but indisputably a “classic”

Kyle’s review: For me, the George Romero Dead films were to the horror genre as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was to everything else. That is, I was dying (figuratively) for a long, long time to see them all, and when I finally got around to seeing them it was like “Wait, this is it?”

It goes to show you how dangerous it can be to toss around that term “classic” like it’s going out of style. It’s one thing to argue the merits of whether or not films like Dawn of the Dead or Mannequin are classics among film scholars, film students, and idiots. It’s quite another to write something up as a classic in horror film guides and articles in Fangoria, where impressionable young future Mutant Reviewers will read it and assume it’s Truth. It’s the same with other words and phrases, like “the scariest film ever!” and “nightmare-inducing terror” and “thrillingly timeless masterpiece.” You’re entitled to use them as you will, but due to personal preferences and the complex diversities of all life forms, one person’s “masterpiece” is another person “drink coaster.”

So anyway, from the forbidden horror books and magazines I had read, from listening to my horror-loving grandparents and uncles, and from examining the super-forbidden films’ covers on the rental copies in the grocery stores’ rental rooms, I was convinced that the Dead films were the coolest “worst” possible thing ever; beyond even those (stupid) Faces of Death movies my friends Andres and Troy were always talking about.

It helped that my mom talked about Night of the Living Dead like it had mentally scarred her for life. She never said as much, but the way she would say “It was scary! I don’t think I made it through the whole thing!” made me realize it must’ve been horrific. My dad was like “Eh, it was okay,” which is what he says about every film he’s ever seen, so what can you do. But I was pumped. I figured when I finally got to see all three films (Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead) it would change my life, especially since there were many people who considered Romero’s films to be so influential that they belonged on “greatest films ever” lists. As it was, anything less than soul-searing horror was going to be hugely disappointing to me.

And so it was that upon initial viewing all three dead films were hugely disappointing to me. I mean HUGELY. It’s no wonder that I soon started to champion Return of the Living Dead, which made little sense but looked fantastic (at this point in my young life, I was less concerned with subtle humor and satire and more happy with cool-looking zombies and rampant hot punk girls constantly getting fully nude. Arguably, that’s true even today).

Viewing the original Dawn with my new, refined cinematic sensibilities, I can see how it really is a masterpiece of horror. In any other genre the performances and stuff wouldn’t be up to par, especially in the “romantic comedy” world (where people would be like “the love story was kind of touching, but the zombies made it all so creepy”). But the horror genre is so marginalized and full of clunkers that the gems shine even brighter, and Dawn is a gem. It’s interesting, full of (Romero’s best) social commentary, and clearly a product of its time yet somehow timelessly relevant. Consider it through the “hey, this is a horror movie after all” prism, and the performances are exemplary, the effects are even more fantastic, and the direction is brilliantly precise.

I’m really impressed with Dawn nowadays. The remake is more appropriate viewing for the young modern horror fan, but if you want to know what you’re talking about when it comes to the zombie renaissance, Dawn won’t waste your time like some other zombie flicks will. Be prepared for more human drama than zombie massacre to be sure, but be sure that you’re getting a more quality film than you’re expecting. I doubt it will scare your pants off, but it’ll probably make you want to go to the mall to buy some more.

Didja notice?

  • The primitive arcade
  • George Romero in a cameo as a TV director
  • Shag carpeting. Ew.
  • The evolution of their “safe room”
  • The length of time it takes for an infected human to turn into a zombie
  • The Hari Krishna zombie
  • Tom Savini as the zombie who breaks window of truck then is shot by Roger with revolver.
  • In the Extended Edition (available on both laserdisc and Anchor Bay’s “Ultimate Edition”), the music that is heard when Peter and Stephen are closing the gates of the mall in an effort to keep the bikers out is taken directly from the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail

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