I finally saw the original zombie-mall masterpiece back in April.
It’s rather striking how much “Dawn of the Dead” feels like its own original film. Maybe its the move from black and white to color or the complete change in main characters, but outside of that, it’s entirely the same concept as its predecessor.
George A. Romero has made “Dawn of the Dead” true to its predecessor in its strengths and its flaws. Both, for example, are extremely boring in stretches, yet both make statements about human nature still rare in even today’s horror films.
Taking place right after “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn” follows two Philadelphia SWAT team officers, a traffic helicopter pilot and his TV producer girlfriend as they seek refuge in an area shopping mall.
I’ve seen tons of zombie films or survival films made since this one, yet the characters in “Dawn” seem less like stereotypes. We’re not made to hate any one character or get squarely behind any one character. They all have their faults and you want to scream at all of them at some point not to do something.
Stephen (David Emge), for example, can’t fire a weapon properly or accurately, yet insists on being a hero. Watching him fire a pistol in a boiler room where the bullet could ricochet and wound or kill him is excruciating, especially because he’s trying to kill just one zombie. His girlfriend Franny (Gaylen Ross) simply gets paralyzed with fear on countless occasions. It’s not screaming, so maybe that’s good, but in horror movies we look for the realization of fear in order to connect to the characters.
Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) are at least a fun to watch. Foree is intense, smart and someone you don’t want to mess with and Roger is just a plucky goofball. Considering how much time you have to spend with these guys, you do need to like them in some sense for the film to work.
“Night of the Living Dead” was more of an intimate study in human nature, whereas “Dawn” widens the scope and looks more at how we might respond in the wake of a cataclysmic event. The debate raging between the folks shown on TV puts the action we see in the mall in context. All the campy, gory mayhem hasn’t the slightest twinge of philosophical thinking, but as the film progresses, the TV debates put those ideas in the back of our minds.
At the same time, “Dawn” is clearly intended to be more of a satire and even a screwball comedy. Romero shows countless shots of contextual footage featuring gray makeup-clad zombies wandering stupidly and aimlessly up the escalator or just walking around period. It’s not scary at all; in fact, it comes off as a joke. It makes you really wonder Romero’s intent for much of the film—until the biker gang comes in the picture.
At that point we’re looking at ourselves as human beings with shocking disdain. It becomes no longer a survival film but a tragedy of sorts. After a rather tedious majority of the film, this is when “Dawn of the Dead” becomes a classic for more than just turning a shopping mall into an iconic image of horror cinema. Somehow, with the same thunderbolt, Romero makes lightning strike twice.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Written and Directed by George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger