About a year ago I came across a box of old videotapes filled with classic movies that I had recorded from cable TV over the years. One of the movies I was fortunate enough to have taped was George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Before all the Michaels and Jasons, before the lovelorn vampires and conflicted werewolves, and especially before the AMC phenomenon The Walking Dead, there was Romero and his zombies. Watching the film again last night, I am pleased to say it not only stands the test of time but gets better with age.
I remember first seeing this film in the theater and people going wild. After all, we had waited ten years since Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. Despite that film’s simplistic power, the “sequel” (if you can call it that because no one from the first film is present) has a bit of an edge on the original. Filmed in “living” color for all those wonderful gory scenes of squiggling intestines, devoured limbs, and machetes to the head, we follow the story of four survivors who barricade themselves in a suburban shopping mall.
Having escaped the insanity of an unraveling Philadelphia in a stolen helicopter, Stephen (David Emge), Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott Reiniger), and Fran (Gaylen Ross) fly over the widespread conflict that they note “is everywhere.” While the power of the first film was being trapped in a small farmhouse and not being privy to what was happening in the world (except through brief glimpses on TV), here we understand that the National Guard and the Army are involved but slowly losing the battle.
Landing on the roof of the mall to give pilot Stephen a chance to rest, Peter and Roger (both AWOL guardsmen) see the benefits of staying put for a while and doing some shopping – lots and lots of shopping. Besides having all the amenities they could possibly want, the mall also provides a secure location – if only they can get rid of all the zombies roaming the place.
I won’t spoil the fun for you if you have never seen this film, but there is plenty of action and zombie kills. Romero spoofs the original in the sense that these survivors taunt the zombies with punches, karate chops, and even pies in the face. There is also a wry commentary on our nature as consumers, with the zombies being the ultimate all-night shoppers. Fran asks, “Why do they come here?” Stephen replies, “This was an important place in their lives,” and apparently in their deaths as well.
The best comment comes from Peter (the excellent Foree who should have gone on to be a huge star), who tells them about what his grandfather (a voodoo priest) once told him. “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” I guess Satan seriously overbooked his guestrooms.
While all the blood and gore should satisfy the horror purists, what makes this movie a cut above the usual slasher-pics is that we have four main characters that are fully developed. We actually care about them, get to understand their motivations, and we really don’t want to see any of them die. When Roger and Peter go out on a mission (to take tractor trailers and block the entrances of the mall), there is a palpable sense of foreboding that something will go wrong.
The Walking Dead is a fine successor to Romero’s work, but he got it right first and is still the master. If we like that show because of the human interactions more than the zombie kills, it is because they learned from Romero that you have to care about the survivors in order to make the whole thing count. When Jason and Michael are dispatching hapless victims, we almost cheer the killers because each one is as expendable as the last. Not so in Romero’s world, which is why his films (particularly Dawn) are still the gold standard of horror.
Do yourself a favor this Halloween (or any other time of the year), and go rent George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I guarantee you it will have some tricks but a good deal more treats for your viewing pleasure.
Photo credits: poster-wikipedia, gun scene-basementrejects.com; zombies-studentarchive.com