Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tom G Film Review: Dawn of the Dead

In 1968, George A. Romero, a film student from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania made a low budget horror picture about a group of people stranded in a farm house after fleeing a hoard of zombies. The film was darkly funny, stark, and had something to say. "Night of the Living Dead", which was made ad hoc with the help of neighbors and its gore effects supplied primarily from a local butcher, became an instant classic. An iconic horror film, and THE  iconic zombie movie. Romero's low-budget, darkly relevant look at society and the goings-on of the late '60's single handed started a movie genre; the zombie movie.

Ten years later, George Romero returned to the genre with another dark, humorous, and saucy commentary on the state of American society with "Dawn of the Dead" (1978). Although still an independent film, Romero had a larger budget to work with,  the talents of special effects virtuoso Tom Savini, and the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh to use at night. The result was another landmark zombie picture loaded with commentary, dark humor, and perhaps the most glorious gore of the 1970's.

The plot is fairly straight forward. As the world devolves into a zombie-infested bedlam devoid of law or order, Philadelphia television studio employee Francine (Gaylen Ross) and her boyfriend, TV helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) steel the station's helicopter in an attempt to escape the doomed city. Philly SWAT team members Peter and Roger (Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger) meet after a brutal and chaotic raid on a zombie-infested Housing Project. Armed and disillusioned, they, like Fran and Stephen, decide to make a run for it. The two pairs meet and decide to team-up finding strength in numbers and SWAT guns. After crossing Pennsylvania, they end-up finding refuge in a huge, powered, watered, and well stocked shopping mall. After clearing the mall of its plethora of  zombies (former shoppers as one would conclude) and losing a teammate, the group do what anybody would do if they were locked in the mall alone and without law... they loot it. Eventually the elation of raw and unadulterated amassing and exploitation of all the mall has to offer wears off, and another round of disillusion sets in. Before the survivors can move-on, the mall is discovered by a marauding horde of bikers led by an unnamed  leader (played by Tom Savini) who crash the tranquil cloister of this shopper's paradise. The film ends with a final battle between the survivors, the bikers, and the zombies.

"Dawn of the Dead" is not a "shock horror" movie. There are no surprises around the corner, no jump scares, and the zombies themselves are by no means scary or intimidating. If anything, Romero's zombies are stupid and even comical. No, "Dawn of the Dead" is more along the lines of "action horror". It's packed with all the gunmanship, running, looting, blood, guts, and dark comedy that a zombie movie fan's heart can desire. It's fun, just a lot of fun to watch. Not to mention, dates well for a 1970's zombie picture.

"Dawn of the Dead" is one of the best scored movies I've ever seen, personally. Even the incidental music is just a delight to the ear that creates the right mood; weather it's funny, sad, horrific, chaotic, and so on. The soundtrack was provided, in part, by the Italian Prog-Rock band, Goblin (who have also done scores for Dario Argento, whose work was influenced by Romero's).

The real sales-point of "Dawn of the Dead" is its gore effects provided by Tom Savini. What can you say about Tom Savini? He is a virtuoso in his field, perhaps THE virtuoso of practical special effects. While Dick Smith is the master who made special effects an art form, Tom Savini is the virtuoso who can make even the most stomach-churning gore a thing of pure and earthly beauty. "Dawn of the Dead" is the movie that ushered  in the gore movie. Every slasher flick, every gore-crazy Italian horror movie you've ever seen post-1978 owes itself to Tom Savini's work on "Dawn of the Dead".

If George Romero proves one thing with any of his pictures, it's that he's right where it's at. "Dawn of the Dead" carries on the tradition of "Night of the Living Dead" in that it's more than just a zombie movie. It's more than just blood and guts. "Dawn of the Dead" is commentary. Why do the zombies come to the mall? Because it's where they came when they were living. The store is where everything comes from. Creatures of habit go where the food is, no? The zombies in "Dawn of the Dead" are not only stupid; they're clumsy, habitual, like sheep. They follow the other zombies, even to certain death, because it's all they know. Romero's zombies are a mirror on modern man. The only difference: they can't use a gun.

No, the guns are used by the "living". They use them to kill zombies, to survive. When the living break though, they loot, and they loot, and they loot some more. It's all for the taking, so why not take it. The living even use their guns to defend their loot. It's theirs, and entirely theirs because they found it.

The chaos, consumerism, and human madness that "Dawn of the Dead" portrays is as relevant as ever. If "Night of the Living Dead" reflected the changing society of 1960's, then "Dawn of the Dead" reflects the "fuck you" society of the 1970's. From the violent, reactionary racism of the SWAT raid, to the "every man for himself" chaos of the TV studio, to the hicks hunting zombies, once their friends and family members, for fun sport, to the material paradise of the mall, and finally the crazed and callous bikers throwing pies and looting even the most arbitrary goods, "Dawn of the Dead" reflects a nation ever more extreme, ever more contentious, ever more materialistic, ever more exhausting, and ever emptier. A society deprived, depraved, diseased and dissolute. Romero is looking through his lens at modern America.

"Dawn of the Dead" is a must see for any horror fan and any cinephile. It is the consummate zombie movie. It's gore effects, audio, visuals, and relevancy were game changers. Every zombie movie since owes its existence to this picture. At least that's my opinion.

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