For the most part, I prefer to review films that aren’t necessarily considered classics (by any stretch of the imagination). Some are “cult” classics, a la Evil Dead II, but few of them would be deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress. There are a few reasons I tend to avoid reviewing “good” films, but the main one is that I just don’t feel qualified. I don’t have a film degree; I really haven’t even seen all that many movies. I only recently saw The Godfather for the first time. I’ve never seen a John Wayne movie, and so forth. I do believe there should be some modicum of respectability to the profession of critiquing works of art.
On the other hand, there’s a difference between analyzing the themes of a film for an art journal and assessing how entertaining it is for a general audience, and on that level, I feel I can make a few comments about Dawn of the Dead. Of course, Dawn of the Dead is not exactly Citizen Kane or Requiem for a Dream, but it still has a better critical reputation than most of the stuff I review on the site. So think of this less as a “review,” and more just general ruminations on a topic.
Let me say up front that I like Night of the Living Dead more than I do Dawn of the Dead. For one thing, Night, despite being released ten years earlier, looks less dated, thanks to the outrageously distinctive 1970s fashions in Dawn. Second, I just find Night‘s narrower scope and brutal survival politics more compelling than the social commentary of Dawn.
However, Dawn of the Dead has the greater reputation among zombie film fans and the general public alike, and having recently re-watched it I decided it would be ideal to fill in a day on this insane project I’ve undertaken.
Dawn of the Dead is a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, and is followed by 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2005’s Land of the Dead. Though each film is representative of the decade in which it was shot (black-and-white televisions in Night, cell phones in Land), there’s a general understanding that each film follows the same zombie outbreak. In each subsequent film we’re a little further into the outbreak. Night takes place just as it begins; Dawn is a week or two into it; Day is several months to a year into it; and Land is several years after.
Dawn of the Dead begins in a television station in Philadelphia, where newscaster Francine (Gaylen Ross) and her boyfriend, helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) are trying to plan an escape amidst all the chaos that understandably ensues following an outbreak of cannibalistic revenants. The plot then abruptly shifts to a tenement building where a SWAT team is clearing out zombies in brutal fashion (this is the beginning of the “lock ‘n load” clich&ecaute; of zombie films). Here we meet blonde-haired Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and mega-badass Peter (excellently acted by Ken Foree; as in Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead, the most competent, mentally stable character is a black man whose race is refreshingly never commented upon by anyone).
“You know Macumba? Vodoun. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'” —Peter
Stephen, Fran, Peter, and Roger hop into Stephen’s chopper and eventually make their way to a shopping mall. After clearing out the zombie infestation and securing the doors (and a lot of the film’s running time is taken up with this process), they enjoy the fruits of their materialistic paradise as long as they can.
What can I add to the volumes of lore written about Dawn of the Dead? I can say I was a bit underwhelmed the first time I saw it. The film felt pretty low-budget and wasn’t particularly horrific. That was over a year ago; on my second viewing, more recently, I was knee-deep in a living dead obsession and was more positively predisposed toward the film. In this mind-set I was better able to appreciate its strengths: its tone of apocalyptic loneliness; the anti-materialism themes, which, though obvious, are still valid; the fairly realistic character development, including Roger’s descent into madness and Stephen’s ill-advised heroics; the slavish attention to detail in terms of how the protagonists go about setting up their fortress against the onslaught of the living dead; and finally, the sad, inevitable loss of that protection when humanity, as always in Romero’s films, turns on itself, and people die because they’re unable to work together to save themselves (Romero could never have made the Lord of the Rings films).
Dawn of the Dead is definitely one of the great horror films (as is its predecessor), and it’s one you should try and see at least once. You may not become a diehard zombie movie fan, but at least you’ll see what all the fuss is about.