Yes, I realize that my last few reviews have been nothing but fringe cult classics that, while good, do not exactly define modern cinema. There is a reason for this that will be forthcoming soon. Also, I am crippled by a lack of selection right now and am trying my best to at least have some running theme. Again, that will hopefully be made clear in a later article. While I work that out, here is Dawn of the Dead. No, not the Zack Snyder remake. This is the original version that ranks high on the list of “greatest cult film ever.”
And I must confess, it did help define a genre of B-level horror. It is to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead what Interview with a Vampire is to Dracula. The first offered an intriguing glimpse into a new genre (or rather repackaged old ideas in a new way), the second truly took those ideas and ran with them. They were improvements that introduced new themes and frankly had better messages and a better grasp on storytelling.
So what I am saying is that Dawn of the Dead is superior to Night of the Living Dead. In short, Dawn of the Dead may be the greatest piece of B-movie horror ever created.
Most know the plot already (even if it is from the remake): people trapped in giant shopping mall surrounded by zombies. That’s just the short version of it. During the zombie outbreak, two news anchors (Stephan and Fran, played by David Emge and Gaylen Ross) and two SWAT team members (Peter and Roger, played by Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger) attempt to fly the decaying society to Canada to escape the zombie hordes. It is never stated how long the outbreak has been occurring, but it is safe to say that hear the zombies appear as though they will win. They settle in a shopping mall in order to get supplies for their trip north. However, the longer they stay, the more they realize the do not want to leave, and begin fortifying the mall and making it their new home. Eventually, others come looking to take the mall for themselves, and this group of survivors realize that the mall has become just as much their prison as their slice of paradise.
First and foremost, the remake missed the point completely. It was fine as a stand alone film, but the original was hitting the bulls eye while the remake was somehow hitting the bathroom wall. The point was not that the survivors were trapped in the mall, or even that the zombies were particularly horrifying creatures. The zombies were nothing more that easily defeat-able creatures that were just one bullet away from not moving ever again. They lurch up the down escalator and try to endlessly walk through locked doors to no success. And the survivors in the mall could have left at any time. They had a helicopter and in fact were planning to leave.
No, like the other Romero films, the most frightening aspect are the survivors themselves. They try to take advantage of a decaying world, becoming scavengers and trying desperately to hold onto the lives they once had. It is worthless, but don’t tell them that. They will likely defend what they have with whatever they have. In some ways, the zombies are living a blissful life (if ignorance is bliss). They do not have to worry about the world and its troubles any more.
Romero shoots the film with that in mind. The mall does not resemble paradise…it resembles a mall. Indeed, some segments showing the mall could almost be a commercial rather than view of paradise. It makes the character’s actions seem more bizarre. But then, it seems understandable in some ways. Who would not try to do this sort of thing in a zombie apocalypse?
The biggest difference between the other Romero films is that the characters here are inherently likable. Day of the Dead was nothing but a bunch of military bravado people yelling at anyone who thought Mussolini was wrong. But the characters here, even though they fight, also have a history together and appear to get along. It’s, again, exactly how people who were friends would react to that situation. They would try to at least appear that they wanted to cooperate. Again, the remake did not entirely get this point, with some of the characters existing simply to be hated (and other existing simply not to be cared about). But you can almost feel the connection between the characters and the actors playing them. One exciting thing on the DVD set is a commentary track featuring all of the actors reuniting to talk about their experience. They speak like they are attending a high school reunion…sharing old memories, reminding everyone what had happened during filming. It was important because that is how they play the characters; like old friends who came together for a party. In a mall. With flesh eating corpses walking around outside.
Yes, the film does suffer from a few typical B-movie cliches. The special effects are…well, sometimes they are quite effective, but most of them are not. The music is very poor, and sounds like it was done entirely on what casio keyboard the producers rented. But you know what? That still doesn’t detract from the atmosphere. Romero created an effective horror satire that still resonates in today’s materialistic world.
That’s why I don’t understand the endless remakes being made. If the material cannot be improved, then why bother? I do not see Chris Ofili going out to “remake” the Mona Lisa out of the fecal matter left by dogs. The original stands as a wonderful testament to it’s time and looks just as fresh as the day it was unveiled. Just like Dawn of the Dead. I don’t hate the remake, but I still watch the original far more than I would ever watch the new version. Give me Romero or give me….no, I won’t resort to making the world’s worst pun by saying “undeath.” Just give me Romero.