I recently saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time, and at that time I established that zombie filmmaking, as part of the larger horror genre, is not, typically something that I’m particularly interested in. With that said, there was instantly something fascinating to me about George Romero as a filmmaker, even if my opinion of the genre hadn’t changed.
I’m glad I stuck with Romero, because here I’m rewarded with Dawn of the Dead, an absolute masterpiece of a film.
If we see Night of the Living Dead as the depiction of the nascent stage of a zombie apocalypse, Dawn of the Dead is the crescendo, the wave that follows. In Dawn of the Dead, we see how some of the last human survivors get by in a full-fledge zombie apocalypse, with a real and practical imagination of how they might attempt to survive. The genius of a film like this is that the genesis of its conception is simultaneously instantly clear, obvious, and self evident, and yet the creativity and original thought contained here is clearly the work of a genius.
Of course, the execution of this film is just spot on too. This is a well-shot film, filled with exciting action. The kitschy stock music cues provide both an ideal match for a mall setting as well as stylish pep. The editing is sharp, tight, and funny. Almost every element of this film gets it just right.
There are even moments of levity in Dawn of the Dead; while more comedic moments might have felt out of place in the unrelenting dread of Night of the Living Dead, the more humorous moments of this film, like a sequence where the four survivors take advantage of the amenities available to them in the mall they’ve taken refuge in, allow this film to breathe a little bit within its expanded run-time. The characters even have the opportunity to deal with moments of boredom in the refuge they’ve built for themselves; it’s easy to imagine that even with all the amenities available in a mall, such an existence would lose its thrill quickly.
If I had one complaint, it’s that once again Romero chose to work with maybe not the most talented actors, to put it kindly; I don’t think it particularly takes away from the film, but I do wonder what it might be like with better actors. In a way, the most compelling and charismatic actor to appear in Dawn of the Dead is makeup artist Tom Savini, who has a small appearance near the end of the film as a member of a roving biker gang; I would love to see a movie about him and his crew in a zombie apocalypse! As reluctant as I generally feel about Zach Snyder, the thought of seeing Dawn of the Dead with more talented actors actually makes me excited to watch that modern remake, to see a new, alternate take on this fantastic film.
Dawn of the Dead is clearly the template for so many modern movies, video games, TV shows, et cetera – it’s instantly recognizable and iconic. This is clearly the inspiration, for instance, for a video game series like Valve’s Left 4 Dead; the exact scenario of four disparate survivors, trapped in a location, obviously comes from this. Though I haven’t seen this film before, I instantly recognized so many moments of cinematic iconography, here in their original context. This is certainly one of the most widely referenced films I’ve ever seen.
Also worth commenting on is something I commented upon in my review of Night of the Living Dead: Once again, George Romero manages to show respect for diversity in an era in which diversity wasn’t yet a prerequisite; once again, he creates a core group more representative and representational than even many contemporary filmmakers, and in so doing, manages to create a film that plays against many genre tropes by virtue of its very existence. In another such film, the black character played by Ken Foree would almost certainly have been the first of the main characters to die, fulfilling a classic trope about black characters in horror films; here we see this trend bucked. It’s not perfect, but it’s wildly ahead of its time.
Dawn of the Dead is a film that improves on its predecessor by leaps and bounds in much the same way that The Road Warrior improved on the original Mad Max, expanding every thought and original idea contained therein to its logical conclusion. Though I still maintain that horror is not a genre for me, my appreciation for Dawn of the Dead far surpasses how I felt about Night of the Living Dead. George Romero’s raw talent was clear to me from that first film, but this is a masterwork.
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