31 Screams in October, #12: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Posted: October 12, 2014 in Movie Review
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Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director: George A. Romero

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross

From time to time, there comes a sequel that either equals or surpasses the original. It’s rare (except for in the science-fiction genre), but it does occur. Among horror films, it’s virtually impossible. In fact, the main thesis of “Scream 2” was that sequels are inferior by design. Too often, the emphasis is placed on “How do we top the last one?” in terms of gore and shock value, without managing to give the new film its own identity. 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead” is one such exception to the rule. In 1968, George Romero shocked audiences with his initial zombie outing, the classic black and white “Night of the Living Dead.” They hadn’t seen anything yet.

As the film begins, we see how the zombie epidemic from the previous film has spread (although no mention is ever made of the events of “Night of the Living Dead”): Survivors are told outright to no longer seek shelter in private homes (the primary setting of the previous film). At a Philadephia TV station, Francine (Gaylen Ross) voices her objection to the release of outdated information on safe zones to the public, whereas her co-workers seem more interested in ratings than in helping their fellow man to survive. Her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge), the traffic helicopter pilot, urges her to come with him to fly towards safety.

Elsewhere, a SWAT team is enforcing the martial law that is in effect upon an apartment building where the surviving residents are unwilling to release the bodies of their dead. The resulting firefight leaves several residents and SWAT team members killed, with a few zombies taking out a few others. SWAT team member Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) runs into Peter (Ken Foree), a member of another team. Together, they make the gruesome discovery of several reanimated corpses, and they take out most of them. Roger, who is in on Francine and Stephen’s escape plan, convinces Peter to come with him. They make a brief stop at a gas station where they encounter some trouble from the walking dead, including two zombified children and an adult zombie, the top of whose head gets too close to the helicopter’s propeller blades.

Ultimately, the four set down on the roof of a shopping mall, and take up residence there once they discover the place is well-stocked with food and even contains a gun store. It is never definitively established just how long the group stays at the mall, but it must have been a good long while based on how accustomed they get to their surroundings. New wrinkles to their situation are added fairly quickly. Early on, it is revealed that Francine is pregnant (which sort of begs the question as to why Stephen hasn’t been pressuring her to stop smoking). Later, in the process of using trucks to block the entrances from the outside zombie population, Roger is bitten more than once, which will ultimately lead to his demise. In the meantime, the four friends take time out to indulge their own selfish desires, never once thinking about what would happen if anyone found out what they were keeping to themselves, even as human society in the outside world continues to fall apart.

The ending of “Dawn of the Dead” is a bit more ambiguous than the nihilistic conclusion to “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s also a LOT more blood-soaked, owing to the talents of makeup effects maestro Tom Savini (who also has a role in the movie as one member of a gang of bikers which the four protagonists will have to fend off). People get torn apart in this movie. The laws of physics are always brought up by those who don’t believe it’s possible for the zombies to display the kind of strength they always seem to have. To that, I retaliate with the response that it’s a zombie movie, so the physics book might as well be chucked in the garbage.

In addition to the eye-popping violence, which outdoes anything seen in “Night of the Living Dead” by a wide margin, the soundtrack plays just as big a role in setting the mood. Romero’s friend, Italian horror director Dario Argento supplies the band Goblin (incorrectly billed as “The Goblins”), but some of the music is acquired elsewhere. For example, the film closes with Herbert Chappell’s “The Gonk,” more recently used for the closing credits of the stop-motion animated TV series, “Robot Chicken.” Several different versions of the film exist. In 2004, the Ultimate Edition DVD was released, a 4-disc collection containing three separate cuts of the film. I have only ever personally seen the 127-minute theatrical version.

35+ years since the film’s original release, “Dawn of the Dead” still holds up extraordinarily well. Granted, the bluish, mostly undamaged faces of the zombies look a little silly, but it gets the point across. The story itself is a lot of fun, owing to the mall setting, Romero’s consumerism themes, and also the way in which the zombies take turns as an ever-present threat and as the butt of jokes. They’re always there; might as well make fun of them once in a while. But, get the laughs in while you can, because when they come back, it’s always in greater numbers. “Dawn of the Dead” can and should always be counted among the greatest second chapters. It’s “The Godfather Part II” of zombie movies.

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