Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Killer B's...Dawn of the Dead [1978]

When does an excessively violent zombie flick from the 1970s permit itself to be something more than a low grade horror movie?  I know it seems a bit counter-intuitive to begin this post describing the movie’s retraction from B status, but for as bad as some of the selections of The Killer B’s have been so far, I'd say it’s a far better start than most. 

Admired both as a great cinematic achievement and a terrific midnight fright, George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead received almost a universal appeal on its release backed by both critics and horror junkies alike. Even to this day some 30 years later, the movie still has a marvelous showing, despite the many remakes it has produced and itself being a sequel.  Romero’s classic zombie piece consistently remains towards the top of many lists concerning the greatest horror movies of all time.

Our fascination with the living dead is nothing new, even at this movie’s release.  Dawn of the Dead is in fact a sequel to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead released ten years prior to this one and still we can dig deeper.  White Zombie, considered the first true zombie picture ever made, came out in 1932.  But even before this so-called invention of the cinematic zombie there were precursors of the zombie craze, most notably the stiff, muted somnambulist of The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1921).  Dawn of the Dead provided nothing particularly revolutionary or innovative in its story or zombie depiction compared to previous movies of its kind.  There’s not much you can do actually.  When zombies enter, it always becomes a struggle for survival.  And other than Danny Boyle giving zombies the ability to run in 28 Days Later, the creativity of one such creature is limited.  Despite the rather atypical and unoriginal formula left for these movies, Romero’s second installment of the zombie trilogy was a huge success.  Many consider Dawn of the Dead to be the best zombie movie ever made and I would certainly agree.   So to circle back to the initial question posed, what makes Dawn of the Dead such a spectacular movie?

As everyone knows, a zombie movie typically demands a few lauded human souls to go down with the countless number of zombies that perish.  But these humans that fall—we do not merely root for their deaths and finding pleasure in zombie seating flesh.  There are movies where we do just that, and this is not one of them.  Unlike most zombie movies, Romero shows an eminent care for his characters, treating them as something more than just dead weight.  Dawn of the Dead is one of the few zombie movies where we know the character’s name before he or she dies.

Our movie concerns itself with a small group of individuals desperate for survival in a decrepit apocalyptic world where the dead now walk.  And once again unlike most movies of this kind, Dawn of the Dead is not just 90 minutes of mindless hysteria with people trying to flee for safety and killing herds of zombies in the mean time.  In fact the majority of the movie finds this group holed up in a shopping mall with little more than one large pane of glass separating them from the living dead.  In this context, the struggle for survival is more of a battle than a race. 

No one is guaranteed survival— it is kill or be killed.  Since the genre's inception it has always been a desperate and jarring flee for safety.  Despite that, Romero still manages to throw plenty of laughs into the mix easing the tension every so often.  There might be something said about the overall decision to set the movie in a large shopping mall.  As we watch these mindless zombies walk around the shopping center as if entranced by the ubiquitous elevator music, is there something slightly familiar to be seen in general consumer behavior?

These laughable scenes come with delight, giving the audience a break from what we and the characters both dread.  Given such high praise for his meticulous character study, Romero knew above all what his audience really wanted.  Dawn of the Dead is far bloodier, more violent and more disgusting than its predecessor.  Now in color might I add.  The first ten minutes, the most gruesome part of the movie, is almost an exploitation of itself before we settle down with the four survivors that make our movie.

With such high praise given on its release, Dawn of the Dead to this day is one of the finest films ever made for this holiday season.  Its age may show at times, especially with the white make up of the zombies, giving it more of a B-movie feel and classification.  Whatever, then I will say this: Dawn of the Dead is the gold standard of B-movies, from which every zombie movie hereafter will try and out do with no avail.

YEA! or NAY!



  1. Unusual for a zombie movie to have all that subtext about consumer behavior. I agree the make up was b-movie standard in places. Good review!

    1. Great movie, bad make-up- agreed. I haven't seen the last movie of the trilogy but that male up gets better.