As any lover of horror will tell you, picking a short list of favorite monsters is no easy feat. The most classic movie monsters are those with an element of tragedy; the ones who evoke empathy as well as horror. While I love the classics and admire the craft required to create a sympathetic monster, I don’t know that I can call them my favorites. To be my favorite, a monster must be truly frightening, something that makes you want to hide under the bed, if only you could be sure that there wasn’t something much, much worse lurking, just out of sight, down there. To help narrow the field to these most terrifically terrifying fiends, I’ve drawn from five fears of children and childhood to give you my favorite monsters of horror.
1. Creepy Kids
By subverting the notion of children as harmless innocents, creepy kids make for extraordinary effective monsters. Whether made evil by external intervention, as in The Exorcist or Pet Cemetery, or simply born bad like little Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, these children of horror are more perceptive than you, more devious, and without a single moral objection to your violent demise. Playing upon mankind’s perceived biological imperative to protect children, these monsters ruthlessly twist any act of mercy and care into a lethal mistake. The best of these (and my first favorite) is Samara from 2002’s The Ring. Rachel, our protagonist, sees poor Samara as a tragic figure, murdered by her own mother simply for being too different. Except no. She’s actually a sea monster rape-baby who gleefully wants to burn awful images into your mind until you die. She doesn’t “just want to be heard,” Rachel. She just wants to kill you.
Aidan: Is she still in the dark place?
Rachel: No. We set her free.
Aidan: You helped her?
Aidan: Why did you do that?
Rachel: What’s wrong, honey?
Aidan: You weren’t supposed to help her. Don’t you understand, Rachel? She never sleeps.
2. Scary Dolls
Psychologists recognize automatonophobia as the fear of anything falsely representing a sentient being, including robots, dolls, and ventriloquist dummies. Perhaps, like creepy kids and evil clowns, dolls make for terrifying monsters by representing the juxtaposition of the joyous things of childhood with the looming inevitability of death and decay. Scary dolls are like creepy kids, but littler, creepier, and therefore more likely to be tucked into hidden spaces, watching you. Watching and waiting…
Although horror offers plenty of scary dolls to chose from, including the disturbing Dolly from Dolly Dearest and sinister Hugo from Dead of Night, the eponymous dolls from 1987’s Dolls win in a multi-way tie for my favorite scary doll monster on sheer horrifying volume alone. Killed and imprisoned in toys to pay for their crimes, these dolls might be sympathetic if they weren’t so completely full of malevolent, unrepentant mischief, fully committed to killing you, even if it takes their tiny doll hands all night to do it.
3. The Monster in the Closet
That thing that’s lurking under the bed. Or possibly in the closet, or in the dark at the bottom of the basement stairs, where the light doesn’t quite reach. These monsters, easily dismissible in the light of day, gain a terrifying immediacy and presence in the dark, when you feel the sudden, irrational imperative to gauge the leap between the light switch and the relative safety of your bed.
Well represented by Lovecraft’s Night-Gaunts and The Whisperer in the Darkness, my favorite Monster in the Closet can be found in Stephen King’s short story The Boogeyman, which asked, “Did you look in the closet?” and left me unable to sleep alone for an entire summer. Since the latest short film version of the story hasn’t been released yet (and we don’t acknowledge the 1982 full length atrocity of an adaptation), I’ll use Drew Daywalt’s 2010 short There’s No Such Thing to illustrate my choice. Sleep tight, kittens.
4. Evil Clowns
Clowns were once considered gentle buffoons, the perfect choice to entertain crowds of children. Now we know better. As a society, we have recast clowns as monsters, lurid freaks and crazed killers, their painted-on smiles intense grins of maniacal joy. In The History and Psychology of Scary Clowns, Smithsonian Magazine notes that no less an authority than Andrew McConnell, English professor and coulrophobia historian, credits Charles Dickens with introducing the idea of the clown as a secret, sinister monster, “an off-duty clown…whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume.”
Whatever the reasons clowns make for fabulously frightening movie monsters, there are no shortage of candidates for a favorite. However, when it comes to childhood fears, the 1982 classic Poltergeist hits the nightmare trifecta of monster in the closet, something under the bed, and a scary clown that really, really, wanted to see you dead.
5. The Monster that Doesn’t Need an Explanation
As children, we fear many things that do not have a name. Some, horrifying abominations that defy definition, become no less repugnant as we age. These monsters push at the boundaries between dimensions, shrugging off all normal rules of physiology and rationality. The very alienness, the wrongness, of these creatures is exactly what makes them so completely terrifying. My favorite monster in this category needs little introduction and bears no explanation – the thing from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. Sure, it was based on a novella and there was an attempt at an extraterrestrial back story, but there’s really no amount of explaining that can rationalize a whip-mouthed spider dog monster that wants to be inside you. Monstrous, abhorrent, and viciously single-minded, this monster simply is. Best start running now.
To check out more from Eva Halloween, click here to visit her spooky website, The Year of Halloween.
by Raymond Esposito
Echoes in a Quiet Room
When Steve asked me to write an article for Anti-Film School, I was honored. When he said, the topic was “my” top five horror movies I thought, “Perfect. Two things that I love…horror and my opinion. I can write that in about ten minutes.” It took me almost five weeks…not to write the article but to choose the movies. For a horror fan and dark fiction author, asking me to pick my five favorites is like asking me to eat a single potato chip…I can do it, but it’s really difficult. There are, after all, so many great horror scenes spread out across so many movies. The challenge loomed even larger when I considered all those scenes that filled me with dread, but didn’t actually belong to a horror film. Take for example, Saving Private Ryan. It’s a war movie true, but there is one scene in that film that disturbs me more than most horror scenes I’ve watched. Near the end of the film an American soldier fights a Nazi. The Nazi gets the upper hand, pins the American’s arm and so begins the short struggle with a very large knife. The American soldier pleads while the Nazi slowly impales him all the while softly whispering. I always skip it. I’ve watched hundreds of other knife scenes that had no effect on me, but this one is different. Perhaps because there is nothing more frightening than watching another human plead for their life – not in screams of horror, but in the soft voice of reality.
So that was my dilemma. How does one decide the “best” or the “scariest”? Is it based on how many times one jumps in fear? Do you have to spend the entire film cowering in your seat? Does it matter if you were five or forty-five years old when you watched it? Can a movie from the seventies scare anyone these days? These were all difficult questions I needed to consider. I mean I can’t just “rank” things without a proper criteria – that’s anarchy. I spent a number of weeks contemplating these and many other questions. It was a quest not for my five scariest movies, but for the criteria to reduce a list of at least twenty five choices. (Steve said be creative, but I was certain he didn’t mean go ahead and make up my own rules.) Five. I needed just five.
Resonance. That was my final criteria. I decided it did not matter when the movie was made, how old I was when I saw it, or even if it was the overall scariest movie. It had to be a film that resonated long after I watched it. And resonate in a “bad way.” By that I mean I had to find myself in situations where I remembered the movie and maybe ran a little faster up the stairs, or closed the door a little quicker…and locked it, or actually decided not to do something because I remembered “that scene.” Now that level of fear may seem a little extreme for a forty six year old guy who writes horror stories. All I can say, in my own defense, is that an active imagination is both a gift and a curse. I feel sorry for people who are so pragmatic that a horror film could never scare them or those who can dismiss the darkness as just the world without light…people with imaginations understand that the darkness is so much more than just daytime’s counterpart. Those pragmatic souls may lead a braver life than me, but I don’t think they’re having as much fun. When it comes to horror, well I’m still ten years old.
Resonance. Like that scene from Saving Private Ryan. That helped. It brought my list down to eight films. Did I want to cheat? Hope that Steve would overlook my three “extra” films? Maybe he just threw out a number and didn’t really care about the actual count. I considered it. I realized however that not all eight films ranked the same in their resonance. I mean, The Strangers left me as enraged over the characters’ stupidity as I was filled with dread. That single line from the darkened doorstep, “Is Tamara here?” was creepy but it’s not like it made me pause each time the doorbell rang (well maybe for a couple of weeks.) The randomness of why the killers choose that couple, “Because you were home,” certainly confirmed my belief that the world can be dangerously random, but hey, that’s why I have a gun and a 135 pound dog. So The Strangers didn’t feel like top five material. So seven it was. And while I’ll admit I was a big fan of keeping the lights on after that opening scene of Darkness Falls, today it is hard to recall why I found it so frightening…it no longer resonates in emotion or in memory…so I was down to six.
I turned to the three films competing from my long spent youth. One was a keeper because it changed me so fundamentally that it had to be number one. The other two presented a real problem. The first film stayed with me for years and I can still recall that fear. Forty years later the “idea” still resonates. The other by and far was the scarier film and if I wanted to be popular, this would be the choice. The Exorcist should be on anyone’s list of scary films, but for me it would be number six because as crazy as it sounds, The Omega Man gave me more nightmares than the young Linda Blair and her friend Captain Howdy. It resonated longer and broader too. The hooded “white” people. Those crazy eyes. Jumping from windows onto Heston’s car and that primal requirement to “get inside before the sun set” were all the perfect fodder for my five year old imagination…and eight…and ten. Perhaps it was the combination of my age in 1971 (5), the fact that I saw it at a drive-in, and that my brother and I kept the scare alive by taking turns screaming… “Watch out for the white people,” while locking each other out of the house at sunset or in the dark basement. Today it can’t hold up to new films…but when I was five…oh boy!
So nine hundred and something words later I arrive at my top four. Number four is a little odd, for two reasons. The first is that once they cleaned up the film quality for DVD, the effects were sort of lost…I mean the gore looked fake.. The second, and bigger issue, is that following The Evil Dead were the Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness and both films turned the original into a sort of “horror-comedy trilogy.” This was not how I felt in my first viewing of The Evil Dead and I don’t believe Sam Raimi intended it as a comedy. Nonetheless, my seventeen-year-old self loved this movie and I still do, at least in memory. It stayed with me for a long time. Partly because of that “demon in the basement” scene…that is one of my primal fears…basements. But mostly because of the texture of the film and those cackling demons. Demons can talk, they can scream, hell I don’t care if they sing, but that damn giggling…that’s creepy and I want it to stop.
The film Paranormal Activity is more dividing than a presidential election. Audience opinion on Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 56%, which demonstrates that this film has only two camps…love it and hate it. The biggest criticism I hear from the haters is “it was stupid.” I’m not sure what that means, but perhaps they wanted more special effects. Maybe they needed to “see” the demon. Granted this low budget Indie only used a bag of flour and an old photo, but for me it comes in firmly in the number three position. It resonated. I jumped several times during the film and actually felt something I don’t often experience during horror films…fear. Sometimes it’s what we don’t see that frightens best. Years later I still worry that I may awake to find my wife standing over me in the darkness (I’m not worried that she’ll be dragged down the hall because I see that as my escape opportunity.) I thought about setting up a camera to assuage my fear but then thought, “wait I saw that movie…everybody dies.” We have an attic hatch in our laundry room. It’s a low ceiling attic, more like a crawl space and I’ve never been up there. I have no desire to come face to face with a spider in a place that I can’t run. (I have no facts to support that spiders live in our attic, but it’s prudent to err on the side of caution.) Sometimes at night when I pass that dark laundry room, I think about that hatch. I wonder if there is a photo of someone I know sitting amongst the installation. I often pick up my pace as I pass and try to keep my eyes forward, but at times…it’s just so difficult not to steal a glance.
Six months after I saw my number two film I was in a hotel traveling on business. Every now and again I get it in my head to take the stairs just to burn a few extra calories (I pretend twenty steps will offset that coffee cake muffin I ate). On this particular night, I took the two flights up to my room. It was a well-lit and well maintained stairway at the Hilton. Absolutely nothing to conjure thoughts of creepiness. Halfway up I remembered The Grudge and thought, “this is exactly why people die in horror films you idiot…now run!” I don’t often take my own advice, as my pragmatic self can be a real f-in kill-joy, but that night I did. Later… after I locked the door, turned on all the lights, checked under the bed and in the closet, and pulled back the bathtub curtain (don’t invite trouble leaving that closed) … I felt foolish for running up those stairs. The Grudge had so many great moments. Probably the “under the covers” scene was the worst, followed closely by “meow boy” and “whatever the hell that mouth noise was.” I still like to think about it from time to time. It doesn’t scare me as much today, but I can still remember how much it did frighten me. It still resonates at least in memory.
When a film touches a “primal” fear, when that film changes how you experience an activity, when it can transfer to any body of water…that is the ultimate definition of “resonates.” Before the summer of 1975 I was a water rat. We lived in Connecticut about thirty minutes from the beach and I loved the ocean. At the age of nine, I was certainly aware of sharks, but seldom thought about them beyond science class. After Jaws my love of the ocean was forever tainted. Besides being frightened of the sea, my nine year old self began to question the safety of ponds and lakes…and swimming pools. Several times I had a dream that my bed had been washed out to sea and the waves kept threatening to toss me into that dark green water where Jaws waited. I guess being in the ocean is like that attic crawl space…not much chance of escape. I live in Fort Myers Florida now and still go to the beach and I still swim in the warm gulf. Never though without consideration that perhaps at that very moment, a black-eyed death is charging silently towards me. And all these years later I still take a quick look at the deep end of my pool before I get in, I pretend I’m checking for snakes (they get in sometimes) and in part I am, but in truth I’m also looking for that fin. Jaws may not be a horror story in the classic sense, but its attack on primal fears, the way it forever changed my thoughts on the ocean, and for being an iconic symbol, it earns its place as number one on my list.
So those are my top five horror films…with some creative cheating to add the others…and it is what I love about the genre. It’s a personal experience – some things scare universally but most just individually. I don’t believe special effects cause fear. I’m not even certain it is the monsters on the screen. I believe the truly haunting moments, the terrifying things are just a reflection of the stuff we brought with us to that movie. The dark little thoughts our imaginations create and our rational minds work to hold at bay. And when every so often, if we’re lucky, a story stirs those fears, we hear the sounds like echoes in a quiet room, and they whisper to us… Yes, I understand.”
A little about Raymond:
American novelist, Raymond Esposito lives multiple lives. He is a husband, father of five, the executive vice president of an international professional services firm, proprietor of the website Nightmirrors.com, and when time allows, the voice of Graveyard Radio. His debut novel, “You and Me, Against the World,” is book one of his Creepers Trilogy and provides his own spin on the zombie apocalypse.
To purchase “You and Me, Against the World,” click here.
In these indolent times that are plaguing Hollywood, it’s such a refreshing experience seeing a film that is not a direct remake of an older, often times superior original. It’s usually an iconic film that studios use to simply milk money from our wallets. They repackage the film, tie it up with a big CGI bow, throw in half-baked 3D, and we flock to see it because we are familiar with it. If they aren’t desecrating an old gem, they are lifting the material from a book, comic book, or graphic novel. It makes me wonder if any of these writers or suits out there in the City of Angels remotely consider picking their own brains for a good story. The genre that especially can’t seem to help itself is the horror genre. It seems that absolutely no one can come up with an original and relentlessly scary little horror flick these days. Instead, studios just look to rebooting tired franchises whose knives and machetes are showing signs of rust (Yes, I am talking about you Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes!). It seems like every year we get one scary movie that is actually effective. Last year’s stylish American remake Let Me In was a standout. The year before saw the, in my humble opinion, good but not great haunted house thrill-ride Paranormal Activity. We’ve also seen an amped up remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the colorfully blood drenched Dawn of the Dead remake, the tribute to 50’s B-movie creature features The Mist, the claustrophobic monster movie The Descent, and the outstanding British zombie flick 28 Days Later, and the based-on-true-events chiller The Mothman Prophecies. That’s basically what we have had to work with since 2002. And three of those are remakes!!
While creativity is one portion of the problem, another reason why horror ultimately ran itself into the ground was the work of two men—James Wan and Leigh Whannell. They are the culprits who graced our movie screens with the torture porn clunker Saw. They ignited a frenzy of films that shamelessly bathed in body fluids and they also sparked a line of horrendous sequels that followed. While the only notable film in the series was Saw III, they influenced Hostel, Wolf Creek, and a slew of others that were less concerned about being scary and more concerned with making you squirm. And many of them were successful at making you cover your eyes but the genuine scares were non-existent. Yet in the past few years, torture porn has made itself scarce and horror has been attempting to embrace real fear again. It’s funny that the men who reduced horror to ashes, have played Dr. Frankenstein and risen it like a phoenix. Insidious is that phoenix.
Insidious is one of the scariest movies I have seen in quite sometime and is simply one of the best horror movies in years. Yeah, I said it. And it’s also original! Sure, it’s an unholy fusion of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, but these days, we have to be carful when we criticize something that attempts to break new ground. Alas, Insidious does not but it sure makes a valiant attempt. Instead, Insidious conjures up some truly hellish images that are guaranteed to linger in your head for days after witnessing them. The film follows Josh (Played by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Played by 28 Weeks Later’s Rose Byrne) Lambert and their three children as they move into their new home. All seems well until strange noises are heard throughout the home, objects are moved, and one of their children, Dalton, falls into a coma (Ya know, the usual!). But after a seriously spooky night in their home, they begin to wonder if the reason their son has fallen into this enigmatic coma is supernatural rather than medical. The Lambert’s call in a group of paranormal investigators who quickly determine that Dalton is trapped in a ghostly parallel universe called The Further.
If it sounds like you’ve heard all of this before, you have, as Wan has crafted a loving tribute to the horror films of old. He throws reference after reference at the audience and one could almost make the film into a game of spot that horror reference. It’s all quite fun but it’s the 180-degree shift in the quality of the work here that is really quite impressive. Wan’s chiaroscuro industrial aesthetic still lingers but the film itself is much more patient than Saw. It feels like there is discipline here and I think much of that may stem from the producers who were also responsible for Paranormal Activity. There is no over-reliance on blood and guts (The film is rated PG-13) and instead relies on loud bangs, growls, shadowy figures, and sudden music blasts to make you soil your shorts. But Wan also fries your nerves through some seriously haunting images; most striking of all is a shadowy apparition standing behind a baby’s crib and a demon lurking in the corner of poor Dalton’s room. Even Whannell’s script provides a few blasts of heebie-jeebies. One scene includes a character describing a dream that she had and all I will say is that it turned my insides to ice cubes. It gives me chills just think back to it! This scene demonstrates the beauty of your imagination getting the best of you.
What’s even more impressive about the film is the performances that Wan manages to capture. He has positioned two very talented actors at the core of the film and it doesn’t hurt either that Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) shows up as a concerned grandmother. Lin Shaye pops up and provides a fine performance as the psychic Elise Rainier. While sometimes the acting does dip and head into cheesy territory mostly from his child actors, it’s forgivable. What does end up hurting the film and causes it to loose some of its momentum is the final act, which falls victim to the you-never-show-the-monster syndrome. It causes the film to descend into the fun house realm. Someone should have explained to Wan that it’s what you don’t see that ends up being the most horrifying.
While the ending suffers a bit, the film is still astonishing in how uncompromising it is in its attempts to send you screaming from the theater. It will get you at least once. The film sadly chooses the same path that the final minutes of Paranormal Activity did and embrace the CGI trickery. In Insidious, however, you overlook it because the final minutes of this demon are unpredictable. Just get ready for an I-did-not-see-that-coming twist. But the first three fourths of the film is so good, that Insidious haunts its way onto the must see list. The film also redeems any potential talent that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have and it leaves me intrigued for what they do next. I will leave you with is this: Any film that makes me walk into a darkened room and quickly flip on the light is one you have to see (Seriously, it really did that to me.). Insidious is an inspired creep-out that will haunt your dreams. Grade: A
Insidious is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
By now you probably understand that I believe George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is a towering achievement in independent and blockbuster filmmaking. It’s so sprawling and was achieved with very little. When the recent fixation with horror remakes started to show their ugly mugs, I crossed my fingers that Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be touched. I had seen what Tom Savini did to Romero’s first outing with the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Inevitably, the news came that Dawn of the Dead would be getting a makeover, and it came as a personal blow. How can they do this to a classic? It’s like remaking The Exorcist? Any real fan of Romero would oppose this blasphemous decision! I sulked to the theater after school on a cool spring day to be a witness to this travesty, eager to see what new they’ve done with the classic and nervous about what they got wrong. I heard that the original cast members make small appearances, it was more action packed, and not as bright as the brainy original. The lights went down in the surprisingly packed theater, the opening moments flashed across the screen, a CGI model of the original film’s helicopter glided through a war zone, sprinting zombies dashed around like marathon runners, and then came the stock footage heavy opening credits set the apocalyptic moans of Johnny Cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were getting it right and giving it it’s own hellish life.
I have to applaud director Zack Snyder, who seems to be a big fanboy at heart, for respecting the original film. He had the decency to make a film with some thought and originality rather than lazily making a shot for shot duplication of a film that was already good enough. Some people like shot for shot remakes, but in terms of a horror film, if you’ve seen the original and then you see the shot-for-shot remake, there is absolutely nothing in the way of surprise. There is plenty to be surprised about in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a thrashing and teeth gnashing zombie film that is both undeniably freaky and coated with a thin layer of black humor. One moment you’ll be giggling over a sniper sequence, in which characters pick which zombies to shoot from the roof of the mall based on their resemblance to celebrities and the next moment, your knuckles will be white for a thrilling rescue mission that turns into a chaotic escape through a sea of zombies. The film should be described as a roller coaster ride, but the misstep of the film is the blatant lack of a social commentary. The consumerism exploration is only touched upon, seemingly to satisfy those who enjoyed the underlying message of the original, but then it’s back to entertaining the screaming tweens in the front row who snuck into it.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 begins with what could very well be the best opening sequence in any motion picture in the last ten years. Nurse Ana (Played by Sarah Polley) arrives home after a long day in the ER, where an unusually large number of people are being admitted for strange illnesses and bites. The next morning, the little neighbor girl awakes Ana and her husband while lurking in their bedroom. After her husband takes a nasty bite to the neck and is turned into a shrieking ghoul (the zombies are very similar to the infected in 28 Days Later), she flees her collapsing neighborhood and hits the raucous streets to find safety. She ends up bumping into a bad ass, shotgun wielding cop Kenneth (Played by Ving Rhames), a television salesman Michael (Played by Jake Weber), and a terrified couple Andre and Luda (Played by Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They decide the safest place to take refuge is the local mall, where they stumble upon a group of trigger happy security guards led by the domineering CJ (Played by Michael Kelly). The group begins to coexist and soon another truckload of desperate survivors comes banging on the delivery doors to be let in. They are lead by valiant Tucker (Played by Boyd Banks) and cowardly Steve (Played by Modern Family‘s Ty Burell). The group fortifies the mall so the rotting stenches can’t force their way in, but as the group begins to crumble apart, they must make a daring escape through the zombie army just outside the doors.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 revolves around more characters than the original 1978 film did. Rather than the measly four main protagonists, we have a large group, ranging from the usual good guys to the royal pains in the ass that any group like this would be made up of. This is a smart move on Snyder’s part, but it also hinders the viewer in their attempt to allow themselves to grow attached to any specific character. It’s the quality that really drove the original film. I cared about the original characters and when one bit the dust, we mourned them as if they were real and not a part of the cinematic realm. There are likable characters to be found in this jazzed up remake, mostly Ana, Kenneth, and Michael. The reluctant CJ finally comes around in the final stretch of the film and proves himself a hero. Getting the character set up correct is an integral part for a re-envisioning of Dawn of the Dead, and this one comes up half right.
What little remains from the original is the bright colors that are used in the film, running with the claim that Romero made way back when about it being his comic book film. Here Snyder uses Dawn of the Dead to announce his chiaroscuro approach to his work. It’s always really brightly lit or shrouded in darkness. It makes the film into a funhouse, which I admired, but sometimes felt like Snyder sees the original film as pure pulp filmmaking. It’s a trait that bothers me even to this day, and I’m sure that Romero was not pleased about it either. Romero has expressed some strong feelings about the film, mainly that they never even consulted with him or asked his permission to remake it. Sure, Romero intended to make something fun, but he also used the film to say something about our society. Well, at least they kept the ending gloomy.
I like Zack Snyder’s vision here and I the entertainment value on Dawn of the Dead ’04 is out of this world. One Christmas Eve on year, my cousins and I sat around sipping beers and wallowing in the aggressive temperament of this film. It does pack a few creep out moments and the mandatory jump scare, which every horror film feels the need to apply. It is stylishly made, designed to make all who watch it will walk away deeming it “cool”. And that is precisely how to evaluate Snyder’s body of work. He does things because he thinks its “cool” and everyone will like it. This is, however, Snyder’s strongest film he’s made. Despite its flaws, it’s original and just like one of Romero’s zombies, has an immensely likable personality. If for no other reason, it wins for its opening sequence and end credits. In this case, cool is king and surprisingly scary. Grade: A-
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+