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.

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