Dawn of the Dead (1979)
Dawn of the Dead (1979)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 2 hrs. 7 min.

Release Date: May 24th, 1979 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George A. Romero Actors: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Tom Savini

 


 

I

nstead of bringing back the minimalism and the skillful workarounds for insufficient resources, this full-color follow-up takes advantage of a larger budget and Tom Savini’s elaborate makeup and cosmetic special effects (which look like a precursor to the pudding-like, vivid goop from Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive”). Blood spatters freely, chunks of flesh burst from bullet wounds, and heads explode. Zombie bodies are mutilated, soaked in red paint, and adorned with rotting gray tissue. Attacks happen in unobscured view, with the opening scene itself featuring plenty of over-the-top, skin-ripping gore. It may be amusing on its own, but none of it can make up for storytelling deficiencies.

Panicky employees of WGON-TV bicker over how to continue broadcasting information about the ongoing crisis of corpses rapidly coming to life – and the overrun help centers toward which countless unwitting survivors flock. The drone-like, cannibalistic killers are multiplying exponentially, as their victims also rise up to join the stalking armies of the deceased. Elite police officers (or SWAT team members, minus the logos) Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), along with pilot Stephen (David Emge) and producer Francine (Gaylen Ross), arrange to take a helicopter out of the area, escaping from the mania of civilians and the overzealousness of military forces.

After a short while in the air, the group spies an indoor shopping mall, which appears to be devoid of the creatures. Upon closer inspection, survival kits and abundant supplies have been stored in the administrator offices on the top floor, providing a temporary reprieve from aimless running. Additionally, the various shops present a myriad of other assets, which can be retrieved during daredevil supply runs. In this new environment, the zombie threat isn’t as scary as it is adventurous. The characters are clearly enjoying the opportunity to run (or drive) freely through the enormous building, to bolster camaraderie, to shoot zombies at random (signifying a secondary theme of hunting the zombies for sport), and to test their skills with slick evasive maneuvers. A distinct playfulness brings a tone rarely seen in horror pictures. Even the music adopts light, upbeat rock notes for the series of seemingly unperilous endeavors. The problem is that zombie violence doesn’t mix smoothly with merry escapades.

With a small group of survivors, none of the characters feel expendable, though none are particularly likable, either. This is largely thanks to the acting, which has somehow become less convincing than before, made up of a similarly unknown cast delivering generic dialogue. There’s also a disappointing carelessness about the foursome’s movements, accompanied by plenty of contrived instances of snagged weaponry, dropped provisions, fumbled tools, and antagonists that lunge out of nowhere – as if the presence of insatiable zombies wasn’t enough of a predicament. And indeed, it isn’t, as another subplot finds a postapocalyptic biker gang intent on storming the stronghold (like something out of “Mad Max”).

It’s been a decade since writer/director George A. Romero’s revolutionary low-budget masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead,” and in that time he’s decided to change nearly everything he previously designed. The subject matter may still be about the re-animated dead, but the look and mood are completely opposite. Terror amidst shadows has turned into action in broad daylight; smothering claustrophobia has shifted to spacious playgrounds; the fear of irrational outsiders interfering with hasty plans has morphed into close-knit friendships waiting out the uprising (for months) as if a mere, passing weather occurrence; and last-minute evasions are now … pie fights. There’s still a touch of anxiety, suspense, and a sense of isolation and unavoidable doom, but the zombie element no longer seems like the main focus, while the pacing (along with a feeling of perpetuity in spontaneously devised, further adventures) bears a likeness to the television show “The Walking Dead,” which this iconic production would inspire.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10