AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 138 mins/126 mins/118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
The recently deceased are returning to life and the stability of the United States is under threat. Four people; Fran a worker in a TV station which is giving out wrong information, her boyfriend Stephen a helicopter pilot, and two SWAT troopers Roger and Peter who have just escaped from a bloody battle in a tenement building, decide to escape in Stephen’s helicopter. When they find a large shopping mall, they opt to hole up inside it for a while, even though the mall is full of shambling zombies who, as people, spent a great part of their lives there and are half-remembering their human lives….
George Romero’s masterpiece Dawn Of The Dead is in my opinion the greatest of zombie films, which is my excuse for this review to be considerably longer than the norm. It was the first of the Romero series that I saw, and as a teenager, I couldn’t get enough of its mixture of hair-raising action, bloody horror, nail-biting suspense, social satire and character drama where I actually really liked the characters and had really got to know them. Although Night Of The Living Dead had been a big success, Romero and his crew had never made much money from it and his other films, whilst often very good [such as Martin] had not done well at all, so he decided to revisit zombies. He wrote the script in Italy with help from Dario Argento and the resulting film was produced by both Romero’s and Argento’s companies, with Argento retaining final cut for the Italian version. Though a ‘bigger’ film than the previous Dead opus, it was still a very cheap production and corners had to be cut constantly, with for example almost all the stunts done by two people, Tom Savini the effects person and his buddy.
Filmed at the Monroeville Mall at night time, it was released in the US without a rating because, although it was too graphic for an ‘R’ rating, an ‘X’ rating at the time was synonymous with explicit sex. Unsurprisingly, in the UK it lost almost four minutes – in the ’80s I remember being really frustrated by the fact that a book on horror films I had, contained two stills from the film, one of a head exploding and one of a machete cleaving a head in two, that weren’t in the video I owned. Also, Romero’s next zombie opus Day Of The Dead didn’t have anywhere nearly as much of its gruesome delights cut when it came out in 1985, but then the BBFC were so inconsistent with horror films around then. Of course it’s uncut now, but for a budding horror fan in the ’80s there was nothing more exciting than obtaining an uncut bootleg video copy of a censored or banned horror movie, and it wasn’t long I got to see Dawn Of The Dead with all of its flesh ripping and blood spraying intact.
It actually exists in three major versions. This review is mostly based on a viewing of the 139 minute extended version which is my favourite, due to the added scenes featuring Fran, Stephen, Roger and Peter carrying out their life in the mall, but the other two versions are just as noteworthy and I happily enjoy them too. The original cut was almost three hours, from which Romero and Argento edited their own separate versions. The 139 minute cut was Romero’s first attempt but he subsequently created the 126 minute version from it for general release and is his preferred edit. The 120 minute Argento version, which is called Zombie, has a soundtrack entirely consisting of music from Goblin while the others only use some Goblin tracks, and has a slightly different feel from the other two versions. It removes most of the humour and feels a bit more like a straight action movie, but I love it all the same as an alternative version. Both the Argento cut and the extended cut have bits and pieces that the other one doesn’t have, and fans have supposedly cut together so-called ‘full’ versions lasting 156 and 154 minutes, but considering the bewildering amount of editorial and musical differences any editor would have to consider, I reckon they would be a nightmare to attempt and not entirely satisfactory to viewers.
Like its predecessor, Dawn Of The Dead gets underway immediately, with chaos in a TV station and SWAT troopers blowing refugees away and then finding zombies in a basement. We are quickly introduced to our four main characters with brief but very clever script writing that tells us what they are like and differentiates their characters without the need for lengthy dialogue scenes. Once they reach the mall, we are treated to a thrilling series of action scenes in and around the mall, as our protagonists get supplies and strengthen their position. When these end, the pace becomes quite slow, but far from becoming boring, the montages and scenes of them just sitting around work brilliantly, not only as a respite from the last hour or so but in really giving us a sense of what their life is like and also in developing character, as each person reacts to their environment in a different way. I find really touching a scene where Peter cooks and serves Fran and Stephen a romantic dinner and Peter proposes, only for Fran to refuse Peter’s ring saying, “it wouldn’t be real”.
Importantly, the tension never really goes away, and eventually we are treated to a really crazy climax, a kind of three-way battle between our heroes, the zombies and a motorbike gang. This brilliant sequence dares to be very humorous at first, but soon blood gags and pies in faces turn into intestine pulling and flesh eating. SPOILERS! Dawn Of The Dead was originally supposed to end in as bleak a way as Night Of The Living Dead, with Peter shooting himself and Fran decapitating herself by helicopter rota blades, but Christine Forrest, Romero’s wife, talked the director into allowing them to escape. SPOILERS END Considering that, in contrast with the first film’s realistic feel, this one was more comic book-like and satirical, it was the right decision. Even the zombies are handled differently. First of all in the tenement building they are extremely dangerous, but after one poor undead has his scalp sliced off when he walks into spinning rota blades, they start to be seen in a more humorous light. The comment on consumerism, as the zombies are drawn to the shopping mall and behave not unlike us, is about as subtle as a brick, but we almost start to feel pity for these cannibalistic monsters. In one scene we see a zombie woman being mugged by humans for her jewellery. It’s also notable that, apart from the first and last fifteen or twenty minutes, most of the gore is of the zombies.
The violence in the movie, whilst usually graphic, also changes. During the opening tenement battle, it hits us in the head as troopers blow heads apart, a woman greets her undead husband and has skin ripped from her neck and arm in return, and in one really gruesome scene, a basement is full of zombies chewing on arms and legs and Roger and Peter dispose of them all. Afterwards though, it gets more cartoonish and even humorous. Zombies are used as target practice. An undead handyman gets a screwdriver rammed up his ear. Romero even gets away with zombies receiving pies in the face, but things return to get nasty in the climax. The zombie cannibalism, which utilised cow intestines, was the goriest yet seen [though Romero topped it with Day Of The Dead] and Tom Savini’s homemade effects remain pretty convincing, with the camera not dwelling on them for too long to show any weaknesses. Savini actually wasn’t much pleased with the slightly fluorescent looking blood and offered to redo many scenes, but Romero said it suited the comic book feel he was going for. The blue tone of many of the zombie’s faces doesn’t work so well, but it was originally grey and just didn’t photograph very well. Although this doesn’t very often try to be scary, unlike the proceeding film, there is the odd really shivery moment, such as when a corpse comes to life under a blanket, with the camera remaining in one position from a fair distance away as we observe something beneath the blanket stirring. As it sits up and the blanket starts to slide off the zombie, we cut to a close up of a really creepy zombie face.
The acting by all four leads in this movie is remarkable considering that they were unknowns and there are no other major roles in the film. Scott H. Reiniger is especially good when his character Roger is going a little gung-ho crazy, and Gaylen Ross successfully differentiates Fran from Night Of The Living Dead‘s Barbara even though she’s very similarly written. Generally the writing is superb and often very subtle is showing character. One shot of Stephen and Fran in bed, Stephen lying down trying to be relaxed, Fran sitting up looking very apprehensive, tells you all you need to know about their relationship at this stage in the film. Unless you watch the Argento cut which is all Goblin, the music of Dawn Of The Dead is a combination of throbbing tracks by Goblin and library music, but works surprisingly well, with the library tracks very diverse, ranging from deliberately irritating shopping mall muzak to atonal suspense cues. I noticed, on this viewing, that one track near the end also turned up in Monty Python and The Holy Grail and it kind of took me out of the film for a minute. The only time the music doesn’t really work that well is where a cheesy heroic anthem is played over Peter’s dash for freedom – it doesn’t quite work. Considering that the film has almost wall to wall music which comes from a variety of sources, it’s rarely intrusive though.
Few films are perfect and Dawn Of The Dead is weakened a little by being overly repetitive at times [I mean , how many zombie heads are shot?], and as said before its social comment is obvious to the point of almost being childlike. In any version though, it remains a classic, a glorious vision of an America consumed by its own appetites. It success was especially strong in Italy, where it inspired a wave of gory zombie flicks ranging from good [Zombie Flesh Eaters/Zombie, which was released as Zombie 2 in Italy to pretend it was a sequel to Romero’s movie] to pretty dreadful [Zombie Creeping Flesh], and in 2004 there was a rather good remake which many people believe bettered the original. To me, though, I think it’s doubtful there will ever be a better zombie picture than the original Dawn Of The Dead.