We all know that this Halloween will not look like other Halloweens from years past. And yet, the month of October waits for us all the same. It is about time we put the spirit of Halloween back into that abandoned department store that we call the year of 2020. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema have put together a curated, month-long series called Screen Screams. This time, we will be covering all things zombies. Today’s film takes us to arguably the most iconic zombie film of the 1970s: Dawn of the Dead. For reference, this review will cover the 127-minute American cut of the film.
Nowadays, it is easy for some to think of zombie movies as little more than fun genre exercises. Quite often, filmmakers take advantage of such a premise to revel in staging gruesome violence. In fact, perfecting the undead makeup is enough for a director to prioritize technical craft over telling a satisfying narrative. By no means does this suggest that newer attempts don’t provide an engaging story underneath the gallons of fake blood. Still, the idea of a zombie movie being delightful and intellectual is an exception to the rule. With that in mind, what makes this so fascinating is that we do know what that exception looks like. For over four decades, Dawn of the Dead has been a prime example of a zombie movie with more on its mind than mere spectacle.
Right from the opening scene, writer/director George A. Romero lets the audience know that the film will depict a society in disarray. Even before we see zombie devour humans one-by-one, we get a clear indication of the chaos that the impending apocalypse has created. The film first introduces television executive Francine (Gaylen Ross) as she maneuvers around a set full of people making a big commotion. As this happens, we hear an ongoing interview about what zombies are and how they function, which is barely audible in this cacophonous atmosphere. If that wasn’t enough, we have Goblin’s electronic score that blares as loudly as the onscreen characters. Thanks to all these individual elements, it creates a level of tension that remains present even as it gets quieter.
That said, “zombies make the world go wild” only marks the beginning of what Romero truly has in store. Like Night of the Living Dead before it, Dawn of the Dead uses the apocalypse to comment on societal issues in America. But while Romero’s first zombie movie mainly focused on racial tensions, this second attempt focuses on soulless consumerism. It is not a coincidence that Francine, her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge), and SWAT members Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) soon find shelter in a mall. As it turns out, the mall happens to be a common destination for many of the zombies. Furthermore, Peter theorizes that this fixation comes from the mall being a landmark in the undead’s previous lives. With this observation, the film equates the undead to people that mindlessly spend time at the mall.
Speaking of which, the movie spends time at the mall for the majority of its duration. Once our main characters find shelter, the film rarely goes beyond the confines of the shopping center. Because of that, Romero gives the characters an opportunity to take action in fascinating ways. Although it soon turns Francine into a basic damsel-in-distress, the others get to do things that beautifully underline Romero’s cynical worldview. In particular, the mall setting and the absence of a higher authority enable Peter and Roger to take products from a store. Keep in mind, they decide to steal in the midst of their plan to lure the zombies toward one location. Since they approach this idea with such casualness, the film argues that strong moral ground is the real casualty of a broken society.
Another source behind this uneasy feeling is how Dawn of the Dead slows to a crawl as soon as it reaches the shopping center. Over half of the film takes place in this one setting, but little actually happens in these sections. At most, it develops its characters with two plot points: the revelation of Francine’s pregnancy and the group dealing with an infected human. Outside of that, Romero fills this section with various wide shots of the undead roaming around the mall. In fact, this happens so often that the movie essentially transforms from a clear-cut narrative to a visual poem. At these moments, the film does the utmost to project its ideas of the undead as soulless humans. Quite frankly, these shots are where the film presents thought-provoking spectacle unlike anything else.
Now is a good time to spotlight the iconic undead make-up work courtesy of the legendary Tom Savini. Viewing this movie through a modern lens, it seems like a no-brainer for Savini’s team to portray zombies as pale creatures. And while the gray face paint does not fully capture a decrepit being, it surprisingly works to the film’s benefit. Going back to its goal of depicting the undead as human-shaped shells, the face paint makes the extras look more like items that a mall has in spades: mannequins. Considering that we get solid glimpses of mannequins in between the shots of the undead, this creative choice only makes its message shine even more. To be fair, this could be a side effect of what the make-up artists achieved. In any case, it allows their work to have an appeal that extends past technical competence.
None of these points, however, adequately describe what makes Dawn of the Dead such an endearing work. Quite possibly the movie’s greatest asset is Romero’s masterful handling of tone. It’s one thing for the film to have unsettling lines like “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth”. It’s another thing for those lines to share the same space with scenes that are not downbeat at all. In fact, some scenes portray a few characters at their most blissful. In one scene, we follow Roger as he spends the day in shelter by playing at the local arcade. At no point does he worry about the zombies outside the arcade. All he cares about is finishing a racing game without crashing the car. This scene should clash with the rest of the film, but it instead gives the film a sense of liveliness.
Better yet, this liveliness carries over to the film’s deeply amusing climax. On paper, a biker gang fooling around with the undead sounds like a premise for a zombie movie parody and not the real thing. In execution, Romero does almost nothing to hide the final act’s inherent silliness. But much like Roger’s time at the arcade, the finale’s light-heartedness is very much intentional. It is no accident that the bikers decide to throw pies at the faces of the undead before killing them. Romero lets the audience know outright that it can be easy for one to have fun in a joyless world. Although this message is hardly complex, its presence speaks to the measures the movie takes to not feel monotonous.
In retrospect, it is impressive that Dawn of the Dead works at all. Between the erratic tonal shifts and the slow pace, the film has so many elements that could have detracted from the overall experience. So it is even more amazing that Romero and company manage to wrangle everything together into one cohesive package. To top it off, the filmmakers surround this with a depiction of a broken society that resonates to this day. Could someone remake this with more contemporary sensibilities? Yes, and thanks to the efforts of one Zack Snyder, we have the evidence to prove it. Still, no amount of future attempts can overshadow Dawn of the Dead‘s many accomplishments as a piece of horror cinema. – Mark Tan
Dawn of the Dead (1978) is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The film stars David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Crawford, and David Early.