Dawn Of The Dead

Dawn Of The Dead

*****

Reviewed by: David Graham

Having broken the Val Lewton voodoo mould with Night Of The Living Dead (and to a less acknowledged extent the vampire mould with 1976's ingenious Martin), George A Romero reset it again with his 1978 instant classic Dawn Of The Dead. One of the goriest films to have ever gained widespread critical acclaim and a massive worldwide success, Romero cannily infused his undead epic with a pitch-black vein of socio-political commentary and satire, savagely attacking everything from TV networks to the military, good ol' boys to Hell's Angels, while choosing America's ballooning consumer culture as its main course. With many excruciatingly tense sequences, some brilliant Boy's Own adventure elements and a deeply affecting personal story at its core, Dawn Of The Dead is an astounding work that holds up to this day.

In a TV station working overtime to cover the ongoing zombie apocalypse, Stephen and his girlfriend Fran are making plans to escape via helicopter before they go off the air and a stampede for the exit breaks out. Meanwhile, soldiers Peter and Roger are fighting a losing battle to contain the spread of the undead through high-rise projects, and are hatching a similar plan to get out while they can. Taking off together, the foursome soon run low on gas, so decide to land on a recently abandoned shopping mall. They realise they may be on to a good thing if they can clean the place out, with seemingly endless supplies and the potential to set up a makeshift home. But the zombies know they're inside and are gathering in ever greater masses; as cabin fever sets in, the survivors realise they may have to move on before their treasure trove becomes a tomb.

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Opening with bedlam in the studio and mayhem in the cramped high rises where the number of black zombies already evidences some astute social comment, Romero immediately pushes the envelope in terms of flesh-ripping, head-shattering gore, bombarding the viewer with perhaps the most visceral cinematic carnage that had been seen at the time of release. The frenetic editing, bombastic score and atmosphere of chaos combine to get the blood pumping, before more downbeat moments creep in to really unsettle the viewer, all aided by the amazing Goblin score. It's a hell of an opening that even finds time for some pathos and humour via a one-legged priest and some bumbling cops respectively, while Romero expertly establishes four diverse characters you instantly care about.

As they negotiate backwater USA, looking for somewhere quiet to plan their next move, we see gatherings of back-slapping rednecks to whom this is all an excuse for a get-together and some target practice. Romero doesn't judge these yokels as harshly as he did the lynch mob at the end of Night, but there's deadpan criticism underpinning scenes of them nonchalantly toasting the end times and taking competitive pot-shots at zombies who were probably once their neighbours. As with his earlier work The Crazies, Romero shows both a fondness for the simplicity but also a disdain for the inhumanity that allows these people to turn a blind eye to the greater problem while they indulge their baser instincts.

A pit-stop at a disused gas station shows the director at the height of his suspense-building powers, with three separate incidents occurring simultaneously, each one playing on different fears: something sneaking up on you unawares; watching helplessly while a loved one is attacked; and having to fend off something you can't bring yourself to kill. Romero's script constantly throws up such inventive situations that make the viewer question how they themselves would react, and his heightened comic book style combines with Tom Savini's ground-breaking gore effects to really get the adrenaline going.

The masterstroke, however, is undoubtedly the use of the mall location. A relatively new phenomenon at the time but one that already reeked of capitalism and consumerism run wild, Romero skewers the mindlessness of America's shoppers when his characters ponder why the zombies return to this deserted place ('They don't know why, they just... want to be in here.'). As our heroes tentatively explore their new-found paradise, many exciting scenes of peril play out, Romero again multi-tasking between predicaments to maximize the tension. Once they've finally mucked the place out - images of piled-up bodies on carts and stacked in freezers offer a cold reminder of how dehumanising the zombie-slaying must be - their initial comfort gives way to a numb sense of defeat. They've got everything they could ever want, but it's meaningless now that they're on their own.

Romero deliberately drags this section of the film out uncomfortably, giving us time to further invest in the characters while the suspense builds as to when their bubble will burst. Parallel plot points force the viewer to consider both encroaching mortality and the prospect of new life (in more ways than one), while the previously passive Fran realizes she has to learn to look after herself lest anything should happen to Stephen. As the mood sours and their spoils lose their lustre, Romero shows how the mall could well become a prison, with them chained by their appetites for the material when they should be out in the world looking for other people. Maybe the rednecks had the right idea...

After the uninterrupted longeur of this very humanist stretch of drama, Romero builds towards a Western-style siege climax, where our heroes must defend their fort from the army of other humans who wish to seize it. After all the imaginative zombie slayings of the first two thirds, it comes as a shock to see actual people being eviscerated, in scenes of disgusting carnage and comeuppance that make the skin crawl in true EC Comics fashion. It's a deliriously exciting finale that puts our heroes in danger right up to the last moment, and having invested so much in them throughout the previous two-plus hours it's probably wise that Romero doesn't repeat his nihilistic Night Of The Living Dead denouement as he'd initially planned. There's still hope for the future at the end, even if the start of Day Of The Dead might contradict this.

There are three different versions of the film available, including Dario Argento's vastly different European cut, where the tone is completely changed by dropping half an hour of slow scenes and placing greater emphasis on action and the rockier aspects of Goblin's score. While Romero himself prefers the 127-minute US theatrical cut, the 139-minute cut is the one to watch, with lots of subtle character detail and more of the anti-consumer satire retained.

However you choose to approach it, you're guaranteed to be impressed. With excellent, multi-layered performances from leads Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge and Scott Reiniger, Romero follows up John Amplas' highly sympathetic vampire Martin with similarly likable, down-to-earth characters involved in bittersweet and even tragic relationships that give the film real resonance. On the other hand, Savini's Vietnam-inspired SFX and the personalities of the zombies - they're possibly the most varied, human and intentionally funny bunch of corpses ever assembled - will bring you back to the film time and again. Savini even turns up in an amusing support role as a moustache-combing biker villain, resurrected in Tarantino's From Dusk Til Dawn as the show-stopping Sex Machine.

Perhaps the jewel in Romero's crown (although he really didn't put a foot wrong until after Day Of The Dead), Dawn Of The Dead is a prescient and still relevant reflection of society's all-consuming greed as well as a rip-roaring horror yarn that's as purely enjoyable as anything the genre has to offer. The zombies' infamous and iconic blue make-up may mean they haven't aged as well as Lucio Fulci's crusty Flesh Eaters, but they still retain the power to shock, surprise and entertain. If there's one zombie movie to take to a desert island, it's probably this; just remember to make sure the helicopter's been fueled up before you leave.

Reviewed on: 17 Dec 2012
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During a zombie apocalypse, a small group of survivors seeks refuge in an abandoned shopping mall.
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Director: George A Romero

Writer: George A Romero

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, Scott H. Reiniger, Daniel Dietrich, James A Baffico

Year: 1978

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy, US

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