DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
Director: George A. Romero

When George Romero's nihilistic zombie film Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, it became an instant cult classic, and could be credited for creating the late-night B-movie Creature Feature shows. So of course, it only made sense to do a sequel, and a sequel is what we got in Romero's 1978 movie Dawn of the Dead. The second chapter of Romero's famed "Dead Series," Dawn of the Dead has become just as legendary and beloved as its predecessor in the three decades since its first release, often hailed by many critics as the definitive zombie movie. But I'm here to ask, is it worthy of its reputation?

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)Apparently set a few days after Night of the Living Dead, the world is starting to go to hell. Martial law has been declared in most major American cities. Amidst reports that the dead are returning from the grave and attacking the living, the crew at Philadelphia TV station WGON has no idea how long they'll be able to stay on the air, if at all. A man who I can only assume is some kind of scientist or city official argues with a news anchorman, claiming his warnings about the zombie attacks have gone unnoticed. Station manager Francine (Gaylen Ross) struggles with other crew members as she tries to relay information about rescue stations to viewers, but she's soon given an offer that strikes her interest. Her boyfriend Steve (David Emge), WGON's traffic reporter, asks her to meet him on the roof of the building later in the evening, so they can both escape in the station's traffic helicopter.

Meanwhile, in a poor section of town, a SWAT team surrounds a housing project that's been taken over by a gang of thugs. After a violent shootout, the team enters the building. Unfortunately, Wooley (Jim Baffico), the trigger-happy and racist leader of the team, goes haywire and starts firing at every minority he sees. One of his men shoots him down, but not before he can kick in the door of one of the apartments, which is littered with human body parts. Turns out the gang isn't the only thing the SWAT team has to worry about, as the building is also populated by a huge group of zombies that start taking everyone out. As the zombies start to wreak havoc, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), one of the SWAT team members, retreats to the basement for a reprieve. Peter (Ken Foree), another SWAT team member, finds him, and Roger invites Peter to join him, Steve, and Francine on the helicopter. After taking out a group of zombies a priest had just given last rites to, they meet up with Steve and Francine at a police station before taking off into the night.

Long story short, the group ends up at a huge shopping mall. The mall is stocked with everything from food to weapons, but it's too bad that the place is chock full of zombies too. They block the doors with a bunch of 18-wheelers they found in the parking lot, then kill all the zombies inside and get the place all to themselves. As the film progresses, we watch as the characters interact with each other and their surroundings. They start out enjoying life in the mall. They try out fancy clothes, help themselves to all the food and candy they can stomach, go wild at the arcade, and even break into a bank branch inside the mall and take huge stacks of money while posing for the security cameras. However, Roger soon succumbs to the zombie bites inflicted while was blocking the doors, and the three remaining survivors begin to grow weary of their listless existence inside the mall. Before cabin fever can set in, they're discovered by a huge gang of bikers (led by makeup wizard Tom Savini). The bikers, followed by a mob of zombies, storm into the mall, and the dull lives of our protagonists get a whole lot more interesting.

Dawn of the Dead is one of those movies that I didn't particularly care for when I saw it for the first time. My thoughts were, "All that hype for this? What a load of crap." But after giving it a second chance, it started to grow on me, and I realized my initial judgment of the movie was unfair. It's actually not that bad. It's not the super-awesome, "run over your grandma to see it" kind of movie that its reputation would have you believe, but still good. All of the characters are believable, playing well off each other. I really enjoyed Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the two SWAT team members. It was a refreshing change to see characters in a horror movie that could handle themselves and kick butt. Gaylen Ross and David Emge were also good, but I just didn't find them as likeable as the other two. Your mileage may vary however. I also want to applaud George Romero for doing as he did in Night of the Living Dead, and casting a black man to be a strong lead character. That's another uncommon thing in the genre: a black person that's more than just another victim. Romero's direction is also superb. He makes things tense and uneasy with the weird, tilted camera angles.

On the makeup and effects front, I felt there was a lot to be desired. Sure, some of the effects used to dispatch some of the zombies are cool, but the zombies themselves look like crap. If you haven't seen the movie, just take blue-grey greasepaint and smear it all over your face. That's what they look like. Tom Savini might be a makeup master, but he could have done a lot better here. Meanwhile, the score (composed by legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento and European prog-rock group Goblin) is also give or take. Throughout most of the movie, it's really good, but other times, I wanted to stab myself in the ears. However, I think that was supposed to be the point. I'm sure being forced to listen to crappy mall musak from the 70s would have bugged the hell out of our four heroes too.

The mall setting was very effective, in my opinion. If you had open access to everything inside a mall, you'd probably do everything imaginable, like the characters do. But after living in the mall for months and months, things would get boring. So boring, you'd just wanna scream. That's what happens to our protagonists. Cabin fever starts to set in, and their paradise becomes their prison. The zombies that crowd the mall's doors every morning also serve as a kind of social commentary. Even in death, the zombies feel the need to shop because it's just something they mindlessly do.

Despite my complaints, I liked Dawn of the Dead. I think its reputation has been overblown somewhat over the last 25 years, but it's still a fine zombie movie. Sure, it could have been better in some places, but it could have been a lot worse. The "zombie pie fight" scene and the bikers were freaking cool, I will admit. All things considered, I'll give Dawn of the Dead three stars. Not exactly the epic that I was expecting, but still a good movie.

Final Rating: ***


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