Dawn of the Dead (1978)
by Steve Habrat
No film has scared me like Dawn of the Dead did when I first laid my unsuspecting eyes on it. I had seen some brutal films before, but I had never experienced the onslaught of carnage that tore at me with unstoppable force. I was electrified by the film, vaguely aware that there was much more going on behind the stationary scenes of gut munching. The film is, yes, a full-fledged assault on the view. This is why it scares us. Director George Romero just does not let up, backing us against the wall and indirectly beating us into submission. I believe that Dawn of the Dead and I were bound to be together. The strange ways I kept stumbling upon the film in my youth and the ways in which I would end up seeing it. Sometimes it seemed to defy coincidence. I first heard about Dawn of the Dead when I was around eleven years old. My dad purchased me a horror magazine that contained a list of the 50 Scariest Movies Ever Made. I had to have it. I was drawn to monsters and horror films after having seen Dracula, Frankenstein, and Night of the Living Dead at the tender age of about five years old. One evening, my brother-in-law at the time was flipping through the horror magazine and everyone seated at the dinner table was yakking about horror films. As he flipped through the pages and the debate about what was the scariest film of all time raged on—everyone had their own opinion, my sister and mother both argued it was The Exorcist, as my mother said she would leave the room when the TV spot would play on the tube—he suddenly halted on Dawn of the Dead. He turned the magazine around to face the dinner table and asked if anyone there had seen it. Everyone shook their heads and said no. He then began to describe the film to everyone, saying the film actually showed its characters having their stomachs ripped open and the innards devoured. I was mesmerized.
A few weeks later, on Halloween night, I spent the night at my sister’s apartment. My brother-in-law suggested that we order pizza, grab some caffeine heavy soda, hit the video store, and rent some classic horror movies. A triple feature (now you have a clue where my undying love for double and triple features of gritty, scratchy classic horror films on Halloween comes from)! He told me to pick one out and I ended up with Salem’s Lot in my hot little hands. I had seen a picture of the main vampire in the film and was cast under the spell of his glowing yellow eyes. I thought he was really spooky. My sister grabbed Se7en, another movie I had never seen and was mostly unfamiliar with. My brother-in-law suddenly exclaimed, “OH AWESOME! Dawn of the Dead! This is the movie I told you about!” I was apprehensive. I didn’t know if I was ready to see people getting ripped limb from limb. All while eating pizza, might I add. He insisted that I had to see it, as it was the sequel to Night of the Living Dead and it was a must-see.
We saved Dawn of the Dead for the last movie we watched that night. It began with Se7en, bridged with Salem’s Lot, and ended with me pinned to the big comfy chair that I sat in while I watched a man’s head explode, bikers have their stomachs torn open as easily as someone rips a piece of paper in two, a zombie get the top of his head chopped of by helicopter blades, and multiple gunshots to ghouls heads that leaked rotting brains. All in shocking color. I liked Se7en and Salem’s Lot, but Dawn of the Dead made it hard for me to sleep that night. Only two other films have affected me the way that film did and I have made it my quest to seek out other gore heavy horror films in a personal quest to see if I still hold on to some sort of sensitivity to extreme gore within a film. To this day, the closest I have come to being repulsed is while watching Cannibal Holocaust, a film that upon it’s purchase, the cashier asked me if I was sure I wanted to purchase it. I replied yes, that I collect gore heavy exploitation films and I make it a point to see as many in my lifetime as possible. She said okay and bagged the purchase. It didn’t compare to seeing Romero’s masterpiece the first time. I am beginning to think that nothing ever will compare to the life altering moment. Seeing Dawn of the Dead also made me realize that I truly loved movies and I never wanted to be without them.
Two years went by between my viewings of Dawn of the Dead. I never forgot the movie and I always thought back to it. The horror of being surrounded by an endless sea of zombies desperately wanting to eat your brains was horrifying to me. Even the tagline “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth” frightened the bejesus out of me. Then, by chance, after one of my friends loaned me a recorded version of Romeo & Juliet on VHS, I noticed that the label on the side stated that there was another film on that tape. Dawn of the Dead ’78. I made it another double feature the night I received that tape. I had originally wanted to see the contemporary update of the Bard’s tragedy, but I ended up wanting the film to hurry up and end so I could scare myself again with the blue tinted zombies desperately trying to find a way in to the Monroeville Mall. Dawn of the Dead and I had found each other yet again. It was a match made in horror movie heaven.
I watched Dawn of the Dead several times while I had that tape. I lost count at how many times I studied it, marveled at it, and pulled the covers a little higher over my head the night after watching it. The next time I found myself blessed with a copy of the film was when it was getting the special edition treatment on DVD. A four-disc set that contained the original cut, the director’s cut, and the European version, which was slimmed down to focus more on the action and gore than character development, was finally bestowing itself upon fans. I still to this day don’t care much for the European version of the film. I like the characters, Roger, Fran, Stephen, and Peter. Peter, next to Batman, is the ultimate bad ass in my eyes. Thank you, Ken Foree, you are a living God. One Saturday, my friends and I took a trip to the mall and we began exploring the FYE that was still thriving at that particular time. I always moseyed over to the horror section to make a mental note of which horror movies to see or which ones I had to add to my rapidly growing collection of fright flicks. On that day, I found the four-disc collectors edition of Dawn of the Dead. The set wasn’t supposed to be released until that coming Tuesday. I could barely control my excitement. I immediately snatched it up and dashed to the register. I emerged from the mall that day as one of the happiest human beings on the planet. I finally had my own, glorious copy of my favorite film. I probably resembled one of the consumer-obsessed zombies of the film that wonderful Saturday, but I didn’t care. I spent that night watching the documentaries, watching Romero lovingly recall making the film, and flipping through the comic book that came with the elaborate set. I still to this day will not lend the set out to anyone for fear it will get broken, stolen, or dinged up. My version is still as perfect as it was the day I brought it home before anyone else had it in his or her careless possession. We were together forever. And Dawn of the Dead could scare me all it wanted to.
I’ve chosen to avoid breaking apart the actual film for this review simply because, like Night of the Living Dead, it has been analyzed over by countless other film historians and critics. Heck, if anyone was to doubt that I don’t fully understand this film inside and out, just contact my old roommate who watched the film with me one evening over a couple of beers. He experienced as I enlightened to the tiny details one may not pick up on while seeing it for the first time. The film is sensory overload. There are still moments that creep me out big time while I watch in a daze. Stephen aka Flyboy (Played by David Emge) being stalked by a zombie through the boiler room of the mall ranks as one of the most traumatic. Or how about Frannie’s (Played by Gaylen Ross) encounter with a Hare Krishna zombie hell-bent on sucking the meat from her bones? She doesn’t even have a gun to blow the ghoul to smithereens. Or how about the blacked out final siege, which finds countless characters getting chewed to bits. It’s tense, peculiarly claustrophobic, and inexorably unpredictable. Romero only lightens up once through the whole thing, when he literally hits his zombies in the face with pies. Don’t get too chummy, his brief sense of humor quickly turns back into a stone-faced glare and the horror explodes at the viewer.
The film is multi-layered and extremely influential. It seemed appropriate to me that it would be remade in 2004, as we are now, more than ever, obsessed with consumerism. Romero was ahead of the curve and it seems like many don’t want to give him the credit he deserves. The master has also described this film’s approach as more of a comic book than it’s predecessor. While it is heavier on the action, it still manages to scare the shit out of you once or twice. I understand that today it is unintentionally funny, as many will get a few belly laughs over the blue zombies and obvious make-up lines. But if we take the film on it’s own terms, as a serious, pensive, and pulverizing, we can find much to shake our very core. Entertainment Weekly called this film “Devastating”, and I have to agree. With it’s bleak ending (not as bleak as Night) and carnage it leaves the viewer steeped in, you will walk away from this in pieces. Romero chews you up, spits you out, and puts you through the wringer. Just like one of his zombies would do to you if they had their way. It’s also what any good horror film should do to its viewer. Dawn of the Dead is an undisputable masterpiece that is a must-see for anyone who loves zombie films, and more importantly, worships at the altar of horror. Grade: A+