Dawn of the Dead (1979)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 04/23/04 22:10:04

"There's a sale at Penneys! 25% off all lower intestines and entrails"
5 stars (Awesome)

When George Romero re-invigorated the zombie flick with his black and white nightmare classic, 'Night of the Living Dead', it was over a decade before he attempted a sequel. Wisely avoiding the pitfall of rushing out a by-the-numbers sequel, he bided his time until he had the right story. And this it, a perfect sequel, by which I mean he took what was great about the first magnified it and changed so it wasn't just a dull photocopy. Another, which judging by the current remake, is still a benchmark in horror.

So after the horribly cruel ending to 'Night of the Living Dead', mankind is still no closer to solving the problem of the zombie plague sweeping the globe. In fact things are worse. Cities are in panic and society is crumbling, while people flee their homes to try and find some kind of refuge. People such as tv journalist Franny (Gaylen Ross) and her chopper pilot boyfriend Stephen (David Emge). Taking the tv stations chopper they head to the skies pausing only to pick up Stephen's SWAT friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and his disillusioned fellow SWAT Peter (Ken Foree).

Together the foursome head out until they come to an abandoned shopping mall, which when cleared of zombies would be the perfect shelter with provisions and shelter. Things don't go as smoothly as that obviously otherwise we'd be watching a peculiar end-of the-world sitcom.

My first viewing of 'Dawn of the Dead' was back as a 13 year old before my taste in film had developed, and my over-riding impression was "yawn". Since then my memory has always been of a pretty slow follow up to the tense brilliance of the first.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Having shamefully not re-watched it until just recently, I realised that I must have been confused by my hormone-addled teenage mind. 'Dawn of the Dead' is a superb build on the first, using all the effective tools of the first and creating something more expansive and more chilling.

At the end of 'Night...' there was a feeling that the authorities had got on top of the situation and the immediate threat was over. This couldn't be more wrong however. Romero takes great care to show us the panic setting into the big cities instead of merely being confined to the isolated farmlands. From a fraught tv station, full of employees running out in terror to an ethnic housing block refusing to release its dead, it's clear that this isn't a mere skirmish with the dead, it's now a full-scale war. It's a frantic opening that shows how Romero has developed as a director. Whereas 'Night' was limited to nervy hand-held shots of the zombies clawing at the farmhouse, 'Dawn' shows that Romero has grown huge hairy balls as an action director and the raid on the housing block comes across as a proto-Aliens dust-up. When scenes like this are later combined with expansive shots from the top of the mall, showing the zombie hordes milling about in the mall carpark, a chilling sense of finality is achieved. It's entirely plausible that our four heroes are the only humans left alive, and it's an unsettling vision of the end of the world.

Romero also has the confidence to take things onto a grander stage. Being set in a huge mall could have neutralised the tension entirely, but this simply widens the action and makes the tension more expansive. The humans may have more escape routes to run through, but there's also more places for a zombie to be lurking.

This also gives a chance for the characters to be better defined than their predecessors in 'Night'. With their only being four, there's no sense that they're only zombie fodder, so we're more caught up in their bid for survival because, simply...there's so few of them left. A lot of the power of 'Dawn' comes from the quieter moments where the humans enjoy the pleasures that the mall offers, be it a candle-lit supper for two or an ice-rink empty of annoying teenagers. And like 'Night', there's fine performances here from some generally unknown actors. Emge and Reiniger are both able suporting characters, but it's Ross and Foree who come off as the stronger characters, and who carry the film. It's a trick that Romero was unable to repeat for the limp 'Day of the Dead'.

You could mention the digs at consumerism that Romero has (zombies blindly wandering around the shops like Sunday shoppers), but that's to deny the simple pleasure of having an entire mall to yourself to run around shooting zombies up. Come on, who hasn't secretly wanted to do that?

Because despite my fuddled memory, 'Dawn of the Dead' is just action-packed as the first, although it takes a longer running time for the set-pieces to roll out. But by the end however, you'll be gnawing your knuckles as much as you were during the first, despite some over-blown action man heroic music. It very nearly descends into 'A-Team' silliness. But not quite thankfully.

Arguably, the zombies don't look as scary in colour as they do in black-and-white, and exactly how scary can a zombie be when you can throw a pie in his face and run away laughing? But despite this when they're lunging hungrily into a lift towards one trapped human at the end, you'll be uncomfortably reminded of the windows and doors splintering into dust in that farmhouse ten years previously.

'Dawn of the Dead' bears considerable comparison to the Alien quadrilogy. A tense, claustrophobic first was opened into a more ambitious, action-filled second and both stand as classics of the genre. However, the film-makers overplayed their hands in both cases coming up with third portions that were neither entertaining enough or scary enough. But at least Romero wisely knew it was time to quit after 'Day of the Dead'. But never mind, because no matter how lacklustre the third stage of his dead invasion was, it doesn't dislodge the disturbing, apocalyptic vision he displays here. It's a literal hell on earth.

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