George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie masterpiece is still one of the most important horror movies ever made
George A. Romero‘s landmark 1968 nihilistic gore thriller NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD may have been at its core a primitive, probably accidentally political rip-off of Richard Matheson’s novella I AM LEGEND, but there’s no debating its raw power or how it changed the ways in which the world watches horror films. And it’s still a tough movie to handle, bleak and relentless, urgent and violent and prophetic. But it’s Romero’s full-blooded, full-color and near-operatic 1978 NOTLD companion film/sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD that truly built the blueprint for the modern zombie movie. DAWN is the one everyone copied, from the gory European clones and downmarket tail-riders, to the wave of ghoul-free end of the world survivalist shockers, to the name brand 2004 remake and the other millennial (and considerably faster moving) flesh eater epics like the 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER films, RESIDENT EVIL (the games and the movies) and yes, Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD comics and the long-running series that realized its stories.
DAWN OF THE DEAD is the gold standard of living dead cinema and it’s the first film that I was actually afraid to watch. I had this cousin who lived in Windsor, the border town to Detroit. Not sure what happened to him. His name was Jamie and he was 15 years older than I was and he loved KISS, Alice Cooper and horror movies. I thought he was the coolest person alive. I remember sitting in his car when I was 6 or 7 and listening to rock and roll and thrilling raptly to his tales of driving to Detroit to see this movie called DAWN OF THE DEAD, a movie that was so scary and bloody that Canadians weren’t allowed to see it (DAWN was banned in Ontario, Canada at the time). He told me about key scenes and how the audience screamed and howled and how he drove back the following week just to watch it again. Years later I saw a copy of DAWN at the first video store my family became members at, the Thorn EMI clamshell case with Scott Reiniger’s Roger “rising” in three headshot images. The movie looked cheap and eerie and came armed with a quote on the top of the box from Roger Ebert, praising the film as a “Savagely Satanic vision of America”. Oddly, a much younger Ebert was one of the critics loudly panning NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968. A decade later, he finally saw the light.
I finally rented DAWN OF THE DEAD at a sleepover on my 11th birthday with 2 of my friends. We ate garbage and watched FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER first, which meant nothing to me (I found it mechanical and dull, like most American slasher films; I’ve since warmed to that subgenre somewhat) and then chased it with DAWN. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was a Tom Savini double feature. But DAWN was the one that changed my life. From its first shot against that blood-red carpeted wall (a sign of the sanguinary splatter-thon that was to come), pulling back against Gaylen Ross’ Fran waking from a nightmare only to find that what was happening in reality was far worse, I was hooked. In those first five minutes as the crude credits appear and that metronomic Goblin bass-line drags us into the action, Romero captures a world spiraling out of control, very, very quickly. A Pittsburgh TV news studio is in chaos. Talking heads talk over each other in a volatile, unorganized fashion, the crew running around in a panic and many just running out, period. No other movie I’d seen literally jumped into Hell quite like DAWN does. Watching it today, it still has a power unequaled.
But after that urgent opening, it was the parallel tale, that of Ken Foree’s Peter and Reiniger’s Roger, two S.W.A.T officers who are called-in to infiltrate a low-rent apartment complex filled with superstitious tenants who have refused to give up their dead, that kicked my head in, as it did so many unprepared viewers. Savini’s squibs and exploding heads, his grey/blue-faced ghouls appearing out of every corner, stiff and wide-eyed and casually lunging at anything warm; dead husbands embracing living wives and eating them alive. And Peter and Roger stepping away from the madness momentarily as they plot ditching their duties and running for their lives. The one-legged Priest who urges them to “stop the killing”, lest the living dead conquer the world (“The people they kill…get up and kill!”, to quote the TV pundit at the beginning of the picture). And the basement where the “kept” and starved ghouls have now begun cannibalizing themselves. It was all too much. It was death and horror overload. There was no comfort. Nothing safe to hold on to. I was lost in DAWN OF THE DEAD. I was at Romero’s mercy.
And I still get lost in it. It still has its way with me, every time.Continue reading “On DAWN OF THE DEAD”