Dawn of the Dead
by Gary Schultz
When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.
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George Romero, a horror film icon and cult legend wrote and directed the greatest American zombie trilogy ever, starting with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, then Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and finally the highly underrated Day of the Dead in 1985. All three films set the standard for zombie horror, helped to create advancements in the genre of horror and have all become a social commentary of the decade they represent. There is hardly another zombie film that doesn’t steal something from George Romero. The living dead is his genre, one that I love and will always respect and steal ideas from as well. The film Night of the Living Dead was made on a shoestring budget of $120,000. Even for 1968 that was nothing for a film budget. Night of the Living Dead created a turning point in the horror genre. It took the horror genre from focusing on giant bugs invading the earth, and rubber suit monsters and brought horror into a different world where people are the monsters. Although Night of the Living Dead is arguably the greatest American horror film ever, it is Dawn of the Dead that is considered to be George Romero’s fan favorite masterpiece and the film that took zombie horror to the extreme next level.
Following in pace with its predecessor Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead begins with an epidemic of zombies killing everyone. It follows two Philadelphia SWAT team members, a traffic reporter and his girlfriend as they seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall. Newcomers play these parts brilliantly, Stephen Andrews, Peter Washington, Roger DeMarco and our main character Francine Parker played by Gaylen Ross. Dawn of the Dead is a horror comic book come to life, with the challenge being survival. Imagine if you will, the dead are rising from their graves with no certain reasoning but that they are hungry to fest on the flesh of the living. And everyone they kill becomes like them, a mindless zombie surviving on instinct and hungry for the warm flesh of living mankind. The dead are everywhere. There’s so many of them. The entire world is at war with the dead. People are evacuating and leaving for the country but most won’t make it out of the large cites alive. So much as a vicious bite tearing into your flesh can spread the disease. The armies are over run. Towns are put into a state of warfare; there is seemingly no hope. And this is where the story of Dawn of the Dead begins.
Dawn of the Dead features special FX buy the wizard of gore himself Tom Savini. Tom is a long time partner of Romero’s and this was his biggest task to that date. By today’s standards, and Tom Savini’s standards most of the zombies are fairly tame looking in the film with skin discoloration being the most obvious visual disfiguration. But what you have to realize is there was no previous standard before this. Night of the Living Dead had only one flesh eating sequence, which was more than enough to freak audiences out in 1968, but Dawn of the Dead is where is got messy. The open sequences feature a raid on an apartment complex infested with the living dead. And is loaded full of gunshots and flesh tearing. The end sequences are amazingly blooding as the zombies overcome and tear victims apart. (As a side note I believe that Day of the Dead features Tom Savini’s best splatter special FX ever captured on film. He says this is due to the fact that he did Dawn of the Dead first, then Friday the 13th and Creepshow, so he had a lot of practice. There isn’t a single bad FX in Day of the Dead.) Tom is a huge contributor to this film as well as the zombie and horror genre. He designed the zombies for Dawn of the Dead, and perfected the look in Day of the Dead.
Dawn of the Dead is a dated film. It takes place in the seventies, feels like the seventies and makes social commentaries on the issues of that day, including the women’s liberation movement, war and foreign affairs. The bulk of the film even takes place in a shopping mall centering on how corporate America was taking over the small businesses and all these mega shopping complexes were opening up everywhere. There’s seemingly danger in every aspect of the world. So if you are in the situation of our main characters with really no hope and survival being all that you can live for then the idea of holding up in an abandoned shopping mall could be the greatest salvation. There you have access to endless supplies, temporary shelter and a place to secure a plan. Problem is it’s infested with zombies. And even if you re-kill all the zombies and board up the doors you’re still sitting on one of the greatest bulk of supplies available and a prime target for other survivalists and small armies. Again no hope is in sight.
Dawn of the Dead explores the end of mankind, being destroyed by mankind physically represented by zombies. This film explores man vs man and how we deal with our own mortality and the horror of becoming mindless and uncontrolled. A close crew that worked together outside of the major studio system made this film on a small production budget of 1.5 million before the days of CGI. I’m tired of films being remade in general, this film in particular because Dawn of the Dead is a zombie masterpiece that doesn’t need to be touched. That fact that this film is being remade does contribute to its longevity and the impact it’s made in the horror genre. I just wish people would stop remaking classic horror films and move on with new ideas within the genre. It’s okay to borrow what you love from the masters, but present it in a new way, and under a new title. Dawn of the Dead is a classic horror film and should be considered and treated that way. It’s an intense film that explores the dark human nature, often at a slower pace than most modern horror films but still if you stay with the films pace and enjoy the character’s struggle, you find that this is a ground breaking zombie film, that doesn’t need a happy ending.
So in typical Gary fashion here’s what we’ve learned so far - Dawn of the Dead kicks ass. Everything I learned about zombie films I learned from George Romero. Everything I’m still learning about zombie films I’m still learning from George Romero. Shopping malls in the seventies had ice rinks and gun shops. Romero zombies are slow moving and weak (they’re dead, remember?) but there’s and endless number of them. Dawn of the Dead is essentially a horror comic book come to life. Oh, and if you didn’t know - When there’s no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth.
Gary Schultz is a filmmaker from Chicago. Soon, you will all get to see his zombie feature steal Romero’s ideas.
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