Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets
singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire
Classic of the Week.
George A. Romero has gone back to the walking dead well a few too many times (though if anyone wants to mount a defense of “Diary of the Dead” or “Survival of the Dead,” be my guest), but he made an incalculable impact with the two best zombie movies ever made (and two more pretty good ones). Where his 1968 landmark “Night of the Living Dead” helped modernize the horror movie, he made his greatest contribution to horror history with his 1978 masterpiece “Dawn of the Dead,” a film that fused existential terror, gruesome comic book violence and a sharp satirical view of consumerism into one of the most influential horror movies ever made.
The film’s four heroes (two SWAT cops and a pair of TV news staff members) find the ideal place to stay in the wake of a zombie apocalypse: a mall, where they distract themselves from devastating real-life problems with furs, jewels, guns and more. But that makes them a bit too comfortable, and a bit too happy to overlook the dangers of the outside world, be they zombies or a violent biker gang that upsets their complacency.
Romero makes the first 40 minutes of “Dawn of the Dead” such a rush of adrenaline and violence (exploding heads, zombie children whose deaths deeply upset cop Ken Foree) that it’s more than understandable that our heroes might hide away in a place where they have enough room to ignore the horde of dead people at the gate, even pity them from a distance. But they’re also quick to overreach and grab for more, even at the risk of death, and when their bubble is invaded, some of them stop viewing the place as a holdover and more as territory that needs to be kept safe from the “others.” That view of hermetic societies turned defensive culminates in a finale that’s frequently as funny (pie fights with zombies, anyone) as it is brutal, and while “Dawn’s” ending isn’t as bleak as “Night’s,” it’s less of a pure note of triumph than one of uncertain, cautious optimism, and a suggestion that facing the terrible realities of the world is better than barricading them off and hoping they’ll simply go away.
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More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times/RogerEbert.com
More thoughts from the web:
David Graham, Eye for Film
After all the imaginative zombie slayings of the first two thirds, it comes as a shock to see actual people being eviscerated, in scenes of disgusting carnage and comeuppance that make the skin crawl in true EC Comics fashion. It’s a deliriously exciting finale that puts our heroes in danger right up to the last moment, and having invested so much in them throughout the previous two-plus hours it’s probably wise that Romero doesn’t repeat his nihilistic “Night Of The Living Dead” denouement as he’d initially planned. Read more.
Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
As countless undergrad thesis papers have already delved into in far greater detail, the cumulative effect of these thematic reversals points to Romero’s big message: that if the often bleak ’60s of “Night” were defined by their radical political activism, then the insipidly optimistic ’70s of “Dawn” are a testament to the politics of retrenchment, consumerist balm and self-immobilization. (Even “Dawn’s” Tempra paint blood is like eye candy—I’ve got to buy it!—compared to the brackish smears of chocolate syrup in “Night.”) Read more.
Tom Huddleston, Time Out London
Though “Night” changed the face of horror, this is the film he’ll be remembered for: the wildest, most deliriously exciting zombie flick of them all, and the movie which pretty much defines the concept of socially aware, politically astute horror cinema. Its influence has been felt in every zombie film since (and even on TV in “The Walking Dead”), and it remains a near-flawless piece of fist-pumping ultraviolence. Read more.
Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
The graphic special effects (which sometimes suggest a shotgun Jackson Pollock) are less upsetting than Romero’s way of drawing the audience into the violence. As four survivors of the zombie war barricade themselves inside a suburban shopping mall, our loyalties and human sympathies are made to shift with frightening ease. Romero’s sensibility approaches the Swiftian in its wit, accuracy, excess, and profound misanthropy. Read more.
Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
Throughout, Romero relies heavily on a library of stock B-movie music cues, and in a way, “Dawn Of The Dead” is a compendium of everything Romero loves about those movies, wrapped up in a tightly scripted package. It’s a nail-biting, stomach-turning, oddly enchanting experience that maintains its momentum for more than two hours. Read more.