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Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Directed by: George A. Romero

Premise: A follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. In the midst of a zombie apocalypse, a group of strangers seek shelter in a shopping mall. They acclimate to life inside the consumer paradise while circumstances outside gradually get worse.

What Works: After the success of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, filmmaker George Romero made a few interesting pictures, namely 1973’s The Crazies and 1978’s Martin. None of these movies achieved the success of Night of the Living Dead and after a visit to a newly erected shopping mall, Romero returned to the zombie genre with Dawn of the Dead. While it is generally regarded as a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, the 1978 film is really more of a companion piece. Aside from the zombies and the Pennsylvania locations, there is little overlap between the two films and Dawn of the Dead mostly stands on its own. This is an altogether different picture in virtually every way. Where Night of the Living Dead was raw and minimalist, Dawn of the Dead is stylized and extravagant. The different approach suits each film’s theme. Night of the Living Dead was about people unable to work together to solve a problem. The follow-up is about characters ignoring the problem. Everything in the movie aligns with this idea and Dawn of the Dead is impressive both in how ambitious it is but also in how successfully it makes its point without becoming didactic. The protagonists of Dawn of the Dead are survivors who hole up in a shopping mall. Rather than confront what’s happening outside, the protagonists anesthetize themselves from the crisis with consumer goods. Dawn of the Dead is about excess and the horror of this film is partly in its gory zombie action but also in the gaudy materialism and the contrast between the organic death and the plastic life. The production design uses the layout and locations of the mall very well. The film is often lit in a manner consistent with a department store and the kitschy 70s production design gives the movie a gaudy look that supports its critique of materialism. The action is also in tune with this theme. Early set pieces are dramatic and foreboding but as Dawn of the Dead goes on the violence becomes sillier and even unreal. At the time it was made, the gore of Dawn of the Dead was extreme; the special effects were groundbreaking and the film was released to theaters unrated because of its violence. While the dismemberments and beheadings are not so shocking to today’s audience, the gore of Dawn of the Dead still has the effect of deliberately desensitizing the viewer. This is most evident in the climax in which the dismembered bodies become indistinguishable from the commodities of the shopping mall. Another of the excellent qualities of Dawn of the Dead is its management of the tone. The movie starts quite serious; tonally it begins where Night of the Living Dead concluded. Dawn of the Dead gradually shifts to something lighter and more satirical but in the end returns to the violence with even darker implications. The film’s success with its tone can be partly credited to the actors who mostly play it straight. It’s also a result of the film’s music. The soundtrack of Dawn of the Dead features some library cues but also an original score by Goblin that is haunting in some scenes and percussive in others. The music is also used ironically, especially in some of the violent moments, in a way that plays up the film’s satirical streak. Dawn of the Dead has tremendous scope and the filmmakers pull together its various pieces to create a single coherent film that is intelligent and insightful but also very entertaining. Romero knew how to put on a show while slipping in subversive ideas and Dawn of the Dead is probably the best example of that in the filmmaker’s career.  
What Doesn’t: In 1978, Dawn of the Dead was a shocker. Forty years later the movie doesn’t have the same impact. Viewers can see equivalent gore on the basic cable show The Walking Dead. In that respect, the original Dawn of the Dead probably won’t scare today’s audience. And it’s debatable whether Dawn of the Dead was ever scary or if it was even intended to be. The lighting and production design don’t seem geared toward creating a frightening atmosphere. Instead, the horror of Dawn of the Dead aims beyond the immediate primal fears of most horror pictures and at something more sociological. It also plays slow and the energy of the movie dips in the middle; for a while it lacks zombie action and becomes a domestic drama. Viewers new to Dawn of the Dead might struggle with it especially given the film’s legendary reputation. Because of its setting and style, Dawn of the Dead is very much a product of its era. Where Night of the Living Dead has a timeless quality, Dawn of the Dead is firmly rooted in late 1970s America and the film shows its age.

DVD extras: There are three different cuts of Dawn of the Dead: the 127 minute U.S. theatrical edition, the 139 minute extended cut (which is basically a polished work print), and the 118 minute European version. The most comprehensive home video edition of Dawn of the Dead is the now out of print Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2004. This set contains all three versions of the film as well as commentary tracks, trailers, TV and radio spots, image galleries, biographies, a comic book, behind the scenes footage, and documentaries.  

Bottom Line: Dawn of the Dead is one of the rare sequels that is as important and influential as its predecessor. The picture revisits the zombie motif of Night of the Living Dead and provides a different take on it. Although the passage of time and the jadedness of the audience have started to weigh on it, Dawn of the Dead is ambitious and well-crafted and is as entertaining as it is thoughtful.

Episode: #720 (October 14, 2018)