Friday, July 20, 2012

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

... aka: Dawn of the Living Dead
... aka: George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead
... aka: Zombi
... aka: Zombie
... aka: Zombie: Dawn of the Dead
... aka: Zombies, The
... aka: Zombies: Dawn of the Dead

Directed by:
George A. Romero

Romero's follow-up to his trend-setting NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) is, quite simply, one of the finest horror films ever made. What started on a small scale in Night has exploded into a full-out epidemic of flesh-eating zombies. At a TV studio, a disorganized emergency news broadcast is underway, but the station workers are fleeing in droves. Fran (Gaylen Ross) gets word from her helicopter pilot boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) that they're going to do the same. The city is getting too dangerous and, after all, "Someone's got to survive." Meanwhile, after trying to help contain a zombie infestation in a tenement apartment, infantryman Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) - who's already been drafted to help escort Stephen and Fran out of the dangerous city - meets Peter (Ken Foree). Since there's going to be an extra seat on the copter and he could use an extra pair of hands anyway, Roger invites Peter along for the ride. The four take off that evening and fly through the night, passing a redneck posse blasting zombies and having an almost fatal run-in with the living dead while stopping to refuel the next day. Flying on a bit further, they stumble upon a large shopping mall. Though it's full of zombies, they're in desperate need of both rest and supplies. Peter and Roger go down below to get what they need, then come to the conclusion they may have stumbled onto a good thing.

Using semi trucks, they block all of the entrances, then go about locking the doors, welding them shut and killing off all the zombies currently inside. Though Roger is bitten and grows increasingly ill, the four now have a safe haven stocked with everything they could possibly need. There's food, clothing, shelter, medicine, a gun and ammunition store and even a video arcade and ice skating rink for their entertainment needs. For a short while, they're able to keep tabs on what's going on elsewhere tuning in to a pirate TV broadcast, but this connection to the outside world - a faint glimmer of hope that things might actually turn out OK - is short-lived. Roger passes away, Fran discovers she's pregnant and, after awhile, the surviving three come to the sad conclusion that life as they know it is over. Now faced with the option of fleeing into a devastated and dangerous world or rotting away in the mall, the three eke out a miserable existence until they're forced into action when a gang of gun-toting motorcyclists - who've been wily enough to survive on the road this entire time - decide to destroy their barricades and start looting, allowing a huge number of zombies to come in with them. Who will win out on capturing control of the commercial kingdom? Better yet, does it really even matter by that point?

Dawn wonderfully balances horror, action, drama and humor; from the blackest of comedy to clever sight gags to even broad slapstick, and manages to capture a grim apocalyptic feel better than films with a 100 million dollar special effects budget. Its clever use of metaphor has been duly noted over the years: You can see plenty of dead-eyed zombies mindlessly marching through the mall any time you choose. Same goes for its nihilistic worldview: If the end of life as we know it isn't even enough to make us all cooperate and get along, what is? Though undoubtedly bleak, it surprises with glimpses of warmth and humanity, such as a quiet scene where Peter shares some champagne with his fallen friend or Fran's joy in finally learning how to shoot guns or fly the helicopter. The central cast is fine playing characters who are well-intentioned yet flawed, courageous yet sometimes foolishly so, noble yet frustrating. Just like the rest of us.

Until-then unseen levels of splatter earned this a reputation as a gore-fest right away, and also established make-up man Tom Savini (who also appears in the film and did stunts) as the king of such effects. Threatened with an X-rating due to violence, Romero opted to release Dawn unrated instead. Though the X / unrated label was usually a kiss of death at the box office, Dawn is one of the rare occasions where the film became a hit irregardless. It did especially well in Europe. In addition to being financially successful, it also garnered mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics, even from those who'd shown contempt for the genre in the past. Even they seemed to realize that the movie can be enjoyed on a multitude of fronts.

I've always had a more difficult time writing reviews for films I really admire than for ones I hate or am completely indifferent about. I suppose part of that is the feeling I'm going to forget things I really should be saying but for the most part it's probably the worry that I won't be able to do the film justice in just a few short paragraphs. This is one of those cases. And it's why I'm just now sitting down to write a bit about a film that I grew up with and became an instant favorite of mine; one I've revisited many times over the years and will no doubt continue to revisit for the rest of my days. It's one of the first movies I had to own on VHS and, if you know me in real life and haven't yet seen it, rest assured you will before it's all said and done.

Seven years later Romero returned with DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). This even-bleaker tale about scientists and military men (who may very well be the last remaining humans on the planet) clashing in an underground military installation, failed to reach the critical or financial success of either Night or Dawn. Despite the cold initial reception, the film would eventually gain a strong - albeit belated - cult following. Twenty years after Day, likely thanks to the box office success of Zack Snyder's action-oriented Dawn remake and the wonderful British zom-com hit SHAUN OF THE DEAD (which directly referenced Dawn throughout), Romero returned with LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), his highest-budgeted movie to date. Two more zombie films: the polarizing, undervalued DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007) and the lesser but still worthwhile and quirky SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009), followed. Though some of these are better than others, each centers around a basic idea and contains something of relevance that's worth listening to. I've enjoyed all of them.

Dario Argento received credit for the music (along with Goblin) and as script consultant. He also had the film edited down to 117 minutes for the Italian release, which features a different score than other releases. The director's approved cut (which is what played in American theaters) runs 126 minutes, the extended cut runs 138 minutes and there's even an "ultimate cut" (released in Germany) that reputedly runs 156 minutes. On a budget of 650,000 dollars, the film grossed 55 million worldwide. The four disc "Ultimate Edition" set from Anchor Bay, which includes multiple cuts of the film and tons of supplements is about the best you're going to do DVD wise.

Massively influential over the years, and not solely within the horror genre, Dawn would go on to spawn numerous clones for years after its release; the most popular of which was probably Fulci's ZOMBI 2 (released overseas as [a bogus] sequel to Dawn). It was the subject of several feature length documentaries (including 1989's DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD and 2004's THE DEAD STILL WALK) and also spawned comic books, action figures, you name it. In recent years, zombies have seen a huge resurgence in popularity, from too-numerous to list hit video games, dozen of direct-to-video zombie film releases per year, lucrative film franchises such as the RESIDENT EVIL series and the current hugely popular The Walking Dead cable TV series. And we have Romero to thank for all of it.



cinemarchaeologist said...

This and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are my two all-time favorite horror pictures, and I would go even further and say they're also two of the best movies ever made.

I've dodged writing a piece about this one over the years for pretty much the same reasons you mention. When it comes to acknowledged classics that have been around for decades, it's always the case that a ton of commentary has already been committed to paper, and what are you going to say that hasn't already been said a million times, right?

Still, not every piece needs to have some earth-shattering new insight into a picture--this is something of which I often lose sight. There is a value in just spending a little time grooving on a movie one loves. That's what you're doing here. It's probably something I should do a lot more.

I have started, a few times, to write about Romero himself, when his more recent efforts are being trashed by louder-than-thoughtful "fans"--it's good to see them get some attention in this piece--but something always intervenes, and I never get back to it. I think George is a national treasure. He made his name decades ago, and he could have gone into semi-retirement, sat back and cashed in by lending his name to a string of "George Romero presents" movies. Instead, at nearly 70, he went to Canada and started shooting b-pictures on video. How many filmmakers, at his age, would even consider that, and how many, if they did, could still manage to tell good tales worthy of further discussion?

Random DAWN-related item, brought to mind because you brought up the Ultimate Edition DVD set: That's a great, great set, but it featured one major screw-up. Instead of getting the cast to do their commentary on the Cannes cut of the movie, Anchor Bay had them comment on the Italian cut, which removes most of the good character beats (and is, btw, a textbook on how a great film can be laid low by piss-poor editing). They ended up making fun of the cut, and talking about things that were missing, while Richard Rubenstein, who did his commentary on the Cannes cut, ran out of things to say well before it was over.

Zombie World said...

god I love zombies lol

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

It's really difficult to choose between Night and Dawn for me but I'd have both in My Top 10. Night wasn't one of the first genre films accepted into the National Film Registry for no reason and I believe Dawn will join it there eventually (at least if there's any justice).

I don't quite understand why Romero's latest films have been trashed so harshly and would love to read a piece on that. Based on browsing message boards, the haters haven't been able to really articulate their point or explain their sudden animosity for all things Romero. No clue what is going on there. I suppose it's just a reflection of expectations and changing tastes. Either way, it is kind of discouraging to see so many act offended by the inclusion of social commentary.

I wasn't a big fan of the Italian cut of Dawn either. It floors me that some people prefer it over the theatrical release or extended cuts.

Anonymous said...

I have to confess to being WAY late to the genre. But I just learned about Romero. I watched Dawn of the Dead not even realizing it was a remake, and really liked it. When I began talking about it, this guy I work with at Dish ‘educated’ me that under no uncertain terms could I go without seeing the original—I’m pretty sure there was a veiled threat somewhere in there LOL. So I tossed it in my Blockbuster @Home queue and rented it. Despite its age this movie is great! I already put a few of Romero’s other movies in my queue; if I had the money to buy them I would.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Better late than never! Aside from his zombie films, I'd recommend checking out out Martin, too.

Zombie said...

I think it is even beter than NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

spookyx3 said...

30th viewing. first time in HD. my preferred version, 139m (cannes). of course, after shelling out for & watching the japanese "happinet" disc, i learn that there's a UK 4K release coming later this year. oh, well. great news, 'cause this edition isn't the best, with significant framing issues (cropped at the top & bottom, though more on the sides), a few instances of moire patterning, & blown out whites. still, in terms of _clarity_ this is the best i've ever seen it look. i spent a lot of time picking out new detail, reading calendars, signs, notes (lots of this in the office at the private airport). one thing i love about this film is that i'm always seeing things i've forgotten over the years. when the bikers are initially trying to make radio contact, there's a shot of fran by a calendar with just under three months marked off. figuring out how much time had elapsed felt new to me.

this is the movie i've seen more times than any other. i'm still bowled over by it. how george hit every beat that the situation & location suggests, and that there are multiple memorable bits or pieces of business in each of those segments. it's absolutely perfect, and it'll never be topped.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I've watched this about once a year since I was a kid and it never, ever gets old. Like you, I always pick up on some detail or nuance I'd never even noticed before. Perfect movie for Black Friday, as well! I was hoping to stay in today and avoid all of the traffic but unfortunately have to make a 2 hour trip here in a few. Bleh!

Can't wait to see the 4K version. I'm not even sure what the longest version of this clocks in at. Youtube has one called the "extra long version" that's 2 hours 35 minutes.

spookyx3 said...

my favorite of george's films was NOTLD until the "cannes" version of DOTD came along and boosted DAWN to masterpiece status for me. wish this early cut was the one released theatrically.

> "extra long version"

i think that's the "extended mall hours" fan-edit which adds those unused dialogue scenes and miscellanea from argento's version to the 139m cut.

weirdly, the day this reply came up i saw ken foree on an episode of HUNTER (6x05). lousy role: he's part of a heist pulled off by white-supremacists, with predictable results. in the first season (1x16) foree played a mute killer who loses a police tail by going through a shopping mall! [same ep had this hilarious bit with a bookish monique gabrielle, appalled by cops loudly discussing a graphic murder case in the library.]

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I've not seen a single episode of Hunter but I'd probably watch it if they usually cast like that!

spookyx3 said...

i used to catch it sometimes in reruns. got the complete series this year. started taking notes after robert englund (2x08, LAPD auto-mechanic) & robert kerman (2x11, unnamed bureaucrat with a lot of dialogue!) but got lax. i remember christina whitaker (ASSAULT OF THE KILLER BIMBOS), claudia christian, kay lenz, james hong, lar park lincoln, the guy who played the priest in NIGHTMARE SISTERS...

i'm almost done now. it changed so much for the final season (cast/background/tone) that the guest stars are just about the only source of fun left. last couple had mitch pilegi, lynne thigpen (radio announcer in THE WARRIORS), and clint howard doing his usual scuzzball turn.

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