DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978
After news of a zombie plague sweeping America becomes public, panic sets in as the living are in chaos and the dead start appearing around every corner. A team of news reporters and police officers escape to a zombie-infested shopping mall and attempt to survive the impending crisis as long as possible.
The commentary Romero provides in his Living Dead series is stuff worthy of academic study. In each of his films he tackles several issues relevant to the public during the era, and integrates them seamlessly enough into his films that the true fear factor can appear in many ways other than the shambling dead invading the city streets. In Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s second of the trilogy, he follows up his original masterpiece with an amazing sequel. He certainly does not disappoint, and created a classic that has survived the test of time.
In comparing Dawn to Night, much can be said on the improvements it did to its predecessor. The special effects, most notably, have been revamped to disturbing effect, and colour has been introduced into the film for visual appeal. Visual appeal is only one of the aspects this film possesses that proves its worth in film history. The film is thick with social commentary, character development and the classic zombie touch. It’s a film with lots to boast about, but still remains a modest achievement in the horror. Romero crafts it expertly and precisely in order to carry on the legacy that the film is able to hold to this day. It was no easy task, yet Romero succeeds with demonstrating his expertise in many different ways with this second instalment.
The most relevant point that this film brings to focus, and probably what makes it such an accomplished work, is its reflection of American consumerism in the late 70’s, and foreshadowing the boom of capitalism and consumer spending to dominate the 80’s. The setting is almost entirely pictured in a shopping mall, with plenty of untouched stores and large glass windows advertising bright clothes and accessories the world seems to not need any longer. Yet, with all the zombies that roam in this place, our characters are driven to seek refuge in a familiar landmark, and indulge in their consumerist fantasies by binging on the endless products that surround them. Romero mocks the consumerist nature eloquently by using his zombies as shadows of our former selves. Possibly the creepiest thing about these zombies trapped in the mall is the similarities between them and us. Even with no brain power, no intelligence to speak of, they find their way back to what they know best. As inhuman as they are, they are just shadows of us. By doing this, Romero creates fear in his audience with ways that you usually don’t find anymore.
As with his previous film, Romero maintains the touch he provides to all his films, past and future. Previously, the low budget and independent funding of his first production prevented any true effort in visual effects, yet the film still succeeded in countless ways. Having already proved his worth in the horror business, Romero gets a second chance with Dawn. His special effects artist Tom Savini works wonders in the film, with pure visceral gore dominating the visual aspects. Exploding heads and detached limbs are only a few of the weapons Savini possesses in his arsenal, and throughout the Living Dead series he continues to make audiences queasy with his mastery. Despite the visual feast provided by Dawn, the style and taste of horror gore has evolved through the years, and Savini’s style has grown stale to contemporary horror. His workings are still praised and imitated, but rarely ever successfully re-created or appreciated by younger, more conditioned audiences. However, Dawn of the Dead has not only become iconic for its social significance, but also its rawness of gore and effects.
Dawn is a perfect example of Romero’s dedication to what he creates. While it’s only his second of the series, the elements of zombie cinema represented have retained their significance and influence. Each of his films has specific commentary and classic visuals, yet his trilogy seems to offer something different each time. This film solidifies the zombie genre, and is the base of which most modern zombie films are built upon. While Romero gained cult success after the fact with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead caught the mainstream eye and is a mainstay in classic horror cinema.
While its praise is much deserved and its importance in cinema is undeniable, modern audiences may find themselves weary of its datedness and taste. It’s unfortunate that we’ve been conditioned my contemporary horror so much that certain classics can’t retain their appeal to all audiences as the years pass. Though this can be said for any classic horror flick, Dawn is part of a trio of films that are kept sacred by devoted and loyal fans, whose dedication has provided zombie pop culture with expanding identity. Dawn of the Dead is the bolded text in zombie history as the turning point in the fame that zombies have encountered during recent years. It was the catalyst, and possibly its greatest legacy that it holds, not only because of its cinematic importance, but the cultural one it has formed along the way.
This film is a horror fan’s film. It’s a Romero fan’s film and a zombie fan ’s film. It’s a movie buff’s film. Whether it’s a Living Dead series marathon, or a zombie gore-fest, or a horror fright-night, this film belongs there. It belongs in DVD collections and stashes of classics. It’s only part of Romero’s achievements and is a trophy that can be seen by everyone. This is his legacy, the zombie genre’s legacy, and horror’s legacy on film. It’s an example and a masterpiece and one of the greatest horrors to come along in cinematic history.