Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dir. George Romero (1978)
Two SWAT team members and a traffic reporter, along with his girlfriend, hole up in a mall to try to escape a zombie outbreak.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
There were a lot of gripes from the more politically-oblivious sides of social media when Jordan Peele directed his breakout hit Get Out in 2017. "How dare you make horror political?", the naysayers said. "Can't we just have one safe space away from the Radical Left™?", these people demanded. As uninformed as these people may generally be about the world around them, they were even more uninformed about the history of horror, perhaps best represented by legendary director George Romero in his seminal 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. Thankfully, old George never shied away from including "radical" political thought in his films, and 1978's Dawn of the Dead continued his tradition of discussing socially important topics through an undead lens.
Most of the commentary surrounding this film talks about consumerism, and how the mall in general and the living dead specifically is a critique on Americans' desire to keep up with the Joneses. The beginning of the film, however, where the SWAT team is storming a tenement building where poor families are refusing to evacuate and give up their dead (and undead) is a direct condemnation of the racist housing and policing policies of the 60's and 70's. One only needs to read about the protests and riots of those periods to understand how much of an impact these events must have had on the socially liberal Romero. In fact, those days found the "regular" liberals not much better than their conservative brethren, as they redlined their own districts and tried their best to keep their "negro" constituents in check. (Side note: I highly recommend the book Nixonland to learn more about how the two sides were not all that different during that period especially.) Romero clearly takes issue with these policies, taking aim at his native Pennsylvania as often as his characters do the zombies.
While it is difficult to say that Dawn of the Dead holds up today as it did when it was made, it is a vitally important film in the zombie mythology. This film saw the dead using crude tools, seeming to have rudimentary plans for their actions rather than just stumbling along and eating people when they could. It also gives a little more backstory to the original, discussing how society was crumbling as the dead started to increase in number. Romero said that this was the period in which the number of the dead was roughly equal to the number of the living, increasing every-so-slightly to the tipping point when humanity was outnumbered. As much of a fan as I am of Romero, I can state unequivocally that if I was to be in a room with any horror movie villain, Romero's slow, shambling dead seem to be about the least threatening version that you could find yourself fighting. That is where the movie struggles to maintain pace with modern day.
There are endless debates to be had about which zombies you prefer, which you find scarier, etc. Many people state that the sheer number of the Romero undead would negate any disadvantage that they would have due to their lack of speed. It's difficult for me to imagine, however, that they initial outbreak would not be easily dispensed, even if the first people to encounter them would be hesitant to understand what exactly was happening. Once society reaches this stage, however, the number does become overwhelming, with mobs of zombies congregating in places that they would normally frequent. Unfortunately for humanity, these places tend to be the places with supplies, food, and other essential tools for survival in the new world in which you would find yourself. Dawn of the Dead deals with this through its use of the mall, a brilliant satire of consumerism upon which most critics focus their reviews.
The other large gripe that I would have with this film is the violence therein. The blood is cartoonishly red and the zombies are a strange shade of grey. Savini himself critiqued this choice, while Romero insisted that it achieved the "comic book" look that he desired. While Savini did an amazing job of creating some truly unique (at the time) and disgusting effects, a lot of it loses its luster simply due to the Giallo-like color saturation found within the scenes. Had the movie used blood that actually looked like blood, it could have been much more effective with modern-day audiences. Of course, this is all said almost fifty years later, so hindsight isn't completely fair.
To be completely honest with you, dear reader, I must admit that this is the first time that I've actually watched the original film. I have seen Snyder's version multiple times, and it's unflinching (and often truly scary) scenes of zombie mayhem has quickly made it a favorite in my household. When viewing the two films side by side, I honestly think that the reverence for 78's Dawn is largely due to nostalgia and originality, because Snyder's version is an infinitely more watchable and entertaining film. It views the subject matter through a much more serious lens, and it looks as realistic as a zombie outbreak can look. The zombies are also, of course, fast zombies, which to me is a much scarier option if you have a horde of the undead chasing you through a suburban mall. While I know that some reading this may very well be offended by these assertions, I would definitely posit that it would be difficult to remove the nostalgia present for the original to be able to accurately discuss which of the films is a more effective film.
At the end of the day, it is important, regardless of the critiques of the film, to acknowledge how important Romero's Dead Trilogy was in the zombie lore. Night, Dawn, and Day were tremendously impactful on horror in general, and have influenced thousands of filmmakers in the eras that came later. Even Argento, who helped produce this film due to his reverence of the original, was influenced by Romero, and it is impossible to predict what the horror landscape would look like today without Romero's considerable influence to every genre that currently exists. It started with Night and Dawn, and that lone makes this a worthwhile film and one that must be viewed by every horror fan who wants to gain a true appreciation of the history of the genre that they love.
Who this movie is for: Zombie fans, Romero enthusiasts, Biker gangs
Bottom line: A true piece of horror history that perhaps might not stand up well with people just watching it today, Dawn of the Dead is a seminal film that every horror fan should see. The comedic choices worked but were odd nonetheless, and the effects are a bit more cartoonish than they should be. It is still a fantastic film, and it works perfect for a Halloween lineup. Watch this one back to back with the Zack Snyder remake to truly appreciate how far horror has come since the halcyon days of the 60's and 70's. Hell, forget Snyder's version: just watch Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead and see Romero's true vision for what zombie movies could be.