Posted on: October 26th, 2009 TEN of TERROR #8: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

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This film is not only my favorite film of all time, it is easily one of the greatest horror films ever made and one of the most inspired social commentaries the genre has ever seen. That film, George A. Romero’s true magnum opus, could be the best movie in this entire TEN of TERROR theme month, the eight entry… Dawn of the Dead.

dawn-of-the-dead-movie-poster-smallThe film opens with mass panic inside a television station in the throws of chaos brought on by a zombie outbreak. Argento sets the mood perfectly and brings us right down to street level, with help of the soundtrack – brilliantly provided by Italian prog-rock composers Goblin (with help from Italian horror director and Romero pal Dario Argento). From there we then literally hit the streets with a S.W.A.T. group on the undead front-lines. Their targets soon move from living drug dealers and thugs to walking corpses with a taste for flesh and it’s situation: no-win for these cats. When we see our main characters meet up, around the eighteen minute mark, they are en route to safety via helicopter. They are then forced to land in the one place they believe they can take refuge – the mall. The mall becomes its own character; everything you would need to keep alive, to start a contained social eco-system, is there, amidst the feeding dead. The film explores the ultimate fantasy and the ultimate nightmare: does one thrive on being the “last person on earth”, or does one continue running in search of hope and survivors? The zombies in this film are attracted to the mall because this was a place of utmost importance in their lives, and at the same time our survivors submit to that same state of complacency and comfort. Maybe not so much a subtle satire on commercialism from writer/director George Romero, but an inventive and daring approach to a gore-laden, predominantly senseless sub-genre.

I’m not even going to sugar-coat it, kids, nor am I going to censor my child-like adoration: I fucking adore this movie. This movie is completely, entirely and absolutely incredible. I’m a reasonable man, a subjective man; you have to be when it comes to the gritty world of film-blogging/reviewing. Quite simply, if you don’t see how this film is a masterpiece, on every level, then you have not the sense to be critiquing film. Dawn of the Dead is the “Dark Knight” of zombie movies, although dare I say that The Dark Knight is flawed, where Dawn of the Dead is a flat-out perfection.

The real star of the film is its atmosphere, its surroundings and environments. It is, after all, a tale of survival, of jarring the system and resetting the status quo. In order to do that properly, if at all, you must believe the world that our characters exist in; Romero has made everything come to life. Everything seems genuine, not just the performances. The quaint, dated set-design, the props, the type of film Romero shot on, everything just seems so real and visceral. Michael Gornick’s cinematography is stellar, capturing the vastness and depth of the mall inside, and the desolation and baron surface of the world beyond the glass doors. Soaring helicopter shots and tail-gating driving shots keep the audience up-close when the film calls for action, while the intimacy and growth of our four lone characters keep us immersed and caring for when the movie slows down. The the shopping centre itself, the Monroeville Mall located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the perfect environment to stage new life in the midst of a society crumbling to zombies.

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While the zombie effects themselves are quite crude, the blood a blinding red against blue-caked faces, the violence and gore is never over-done, nor is it in needless excess. Those wince-inducing moments of teeth-meet-flesh are just, reasonable, believable and flat-out entertaining and scary. Dawn of the Dead knows how to make things scary: if we care about the characters, we will care when they are attacked or hurt or God forbid killed. I keep using the Saw movies to argue good films, but this is the perfect example: we don’t care about most of the characters because they’re never developed; when they die, our experience is only their visually over-the-top death; in the case of Dawn of the Dead, we are surviving with our characters, and their fates are anchoring us to our seats. A fair amount of this can be credited to the impeccable writing, but recognition must be given to the film’s main leads.

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I can never understand how Ken Foree, who plays the strong soul of the group, Peter, didn’t explode into stardom once this was released. The man had everything you could have wanted in a lead actor; charm, looks, and way more than decent acting chops. Scott H. Reiniger, who plays the young and enthusiastic Roger, personifies the fantasy of the film; he’s no doubt closest to the true demographic of fans of the film, therefore the one we care about most. His fate in the movie, one of the most iconic scenes in the film, really does makes us as cold as the re-animated that wander the halls of the Monroeville Mall. The cast is perfectly book-ended by Francine (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge), aka “Flyboy”, as the troubled-in-love couple who represent perfect normalcy. The two of them may have a couple of “don’t do that you idiot” moments, but let’s face it: normal people are idiots and would probably do that. The two of them are the brick and mortar that keep the struggle of survival alive.

If all you know of Dawn of the Dead is Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake, you must realize that the original film is not a running, jumping, clawing, heart-pounding shocker. Although Snyder’s film is faithful to the concept of Romero’s, they are polar opposites in tone and theme. Snyder’s is a hard-rock music video while Romero’s Dawn is a slow-burn, real-time capture of survival and working within the confines of everything in your life up until that point in time. In comparison that may seem like Snyder has the winning ticket, but I guarantee you that the 1978 version will leave a far more indelible mark on your movie-memory over time.

I finish this entry of TEN of TERROR with a quote from Roger Ebert (who gave the film a four-out-of-four rating):

“It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling. Nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is just that: art. It’s a wonderfully crafted piece of storytelling with something to say. If you haven’t seen the film (and yet I’m sure you’ve seen the remake), get yourself to ye olde dvdery shoppe and make it happen. For you die-hards like me, be sure to pick up the “ultimate edition” – it comes with three different versions of the film (U.S. Theatrical version, extended version and European version), a ridiculous amount of documentaries and special features and insanely beautiful packaging.

Trivia

  • The film is known as Zombi in Italy.
  • Writer/Director George A. Romero has three cameos in the film – in the television studio, the Santa Claus biker and a background zombie in the mall.
  • The gun store was not an actual shop in the mall; the scene were the characters acquire their weapons was shot elsewhere and edited to look part of the mall.
  • Tom Savini, the legendary special effects artist and genre actor, cameos as one of the main bikers.
  • Two zombie kids attack Peter in the airport; they were played by Tom Savini’s niece and nephew, and are the only zombies in a Romero film to run.
  • The fake blood in the film was made from peanut butter, cane sugar syrup and red food coloring.
  • Because the film was shot in an actual mall (during the Christmas season no less), filming had to take place while it was shut, from the hours of 10pm to 6am. The mall’s music system would automatically turn on, and although the doors didn’t open until 9am, no one on set knew how to turn the music off.
  • The extras appearing in the film received a boxed lunch, $20 and a t-shirt.
  • The MPAA originally threatened George Romero with an X rating, a rating notoriously associated with pornography. Romero ultimately convinced distributors to release the film without a rating, though those under 17 would not be admitted.
  • Dario Argento was such a huge fan of Romero that he insisted Romero write the script in his hometown of Rome. George Romero finished the script in 3 weeks. Argento then went on to aid in shaping the film’s soundtrack, and even edited the film for foreign release.
  • The word “zombie” was never mentioned in Night of the Living Dead – Peter is the first person in the franchise to refer to the infected as such.
  • SPOILER: The film’s original ending was far more bleak than the slightly ambiguous one that was used – in the script, Peter shoots himself in the head and Fran sticks her head into the helicopter’s moving propeller blades.

We’re almost done folks, return tomorrow for TEN of TERROR #9!

3 Responses to “TEN of TERROR #8: Dawn of the Dead (1978)”

  1. Mac Ben Says:
    October 27th, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    I bought the soundtrack online. The soundtrack is actually called ‘Zombi’ and done by a progressive Italian band called ‘Goblin’ in the movie they are credited as ‘The Goblins’ of course, featuring the Italian horror master Dario Argento.

    The band does all the music except select tracks, such as the music playing when the rednecks are making a party of killing the zombie’s scene.
    Other than that, they did all the music, including the music playing in the mall; the music peter puts on the record player, etc.

    I give it easy 4.5 / 5. I recommend it for any horror fan looking to fall asleep to eerie music, inspiring zombie-killing dream fantasies.

    Fun fact: the track titled ‘zombi’ used in the airport/helicopter re-fuel scene was used in the opening credits of Shaun of the Dead

  2. Ryan Ferrier Says:
    October 27th, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Mac. I bought the soundtrack myself; that’s zombie baby-making music right there.

    Goblin also did the music for Argento’s Suspiria. Kick-ass.

  3. TEN of TERROR: Top 10 Horror Remakes « Giant Killer Squid - Film, Comics, News, Reviews and more Says:
    October 28th, 2009 at 9:23 am

    [...] Snyder remade George Romero’s classic (#8 on our TEN of TERROR) in 2004 to rave reviews. Even though the film was a major departure from the original, tonally and [...]

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