Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Most directors would be happy with one movie that helped reinvent the horror film. George A. Romero had two. Technically, I would say two and a half, since Day of the Dead also added some new elements, but it used Dawn of the Dead and The Night of the Living Dead for its foundation. It also didn't shake things up as much as these first two movies did, where Romero often used the budgetary limitations he had in order to innovate.
With the dead rising and chaos in the streets WGON, a local Philadelphia station, is doing its best to remain on the air, and assistant director Francine (Gaylen Ross) is at her wit's end. Her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) informs her that he will have the station's helicopter fueled and ready to leave to try to get the two of them and their police officer friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) to safety. Roger, meanwhile, is part of an operation to clear a housing project as part of a martial law order to remove everyone from private dwellings and relocate them to rescue areas until the crisis passes. When things go south another officer, Peter (Ken Foree) comes to his rescue and he brings him along as well.
The group is able to get out of the city but with limited fuel and supplies. Hoping to take on food and water they land on the roof of a mall in Monroeville and, finding that it hasn't been looted and the upper rooms can be defended against the non-living inhabitants, they decide to stay, eventually clearing the dead out and making a home for themselves. Unfortunately, the dead aren't the only threat as society continues to deteriorate.
The Night of the Living Dead was a serious horror film, but it was revolutionary in having a black protagonist and filming a good portion in a semi-realistic, documentary manner. Besides the good luck of casting Duane Jones in the film, most of that was due to Romero's commercial filmmaking experience as well as a shoestring budget. It also benefited from falling in a no-man's-land where the Hays Code was no longer enforced and the MPAA had yet to officially set up its rating system. What it proved is that this type of movie could say something about modern society without being preachy or stuck going through the same plots as Hammer or Universal, while at the same time not being blatantly offensive like many exploitation films at the time.
Dawn of the Dead carried this even further. Originally conceived as being almost as bleak a follow-up Romero instead decided to give this comic book elements while injecting a healthy dose of dark humor. He also continued the social commentary by having the action take place in a mall, with many of the zombies congregating there not out of hope for feeding but because of a base memory of comfort. It also carries on something unique about Romero's walking dead, which is that there is some latent memory of their past even though they are generally driven by a need to feed.
This time around Romero also benefits from the makeup and effects work of his friend Tom Savini. Because the movie was backed largely by Italian director Dario Argento everyone involved was basically allowed to do whatever they wanted without a studio looking over their shoulder. This meant Argento got the rights to edit the film his way for the European market, but it also meant that Romero and Savini could throw any idea out there and see how it worked. Savini meant for the zombies to look grey, but they ended up looking bluish on camera, and the blood mixture was brighter than he liked, but still most of the effects were to his liking.
They weren't to the MPAA's liking because, unlike 10 years prior, they were now in charge of indirectly censoring films. True to form Dawn of the Dead was given an X rating despite what was at the time a PG level of sexual content. Romero chose instead to release it unrated with a disclaimer that it had extreme violence and should only be viewed by those 17 and older. He did the same with Day of the Dead without even bothering to try and get an MPAA rating, but in 1978 theater chains didn't react with as much reluctance as they did in the 1980s. Even someone as rabidly pro-censorship as Roger Ebert praised the movie.
The time period of the Living Dead series got necessarily blurred over the years due to the long gaps between the movies despite the rules pretty much staying the same. There is a progression in the fall of humanity and the rise of the dead, and even in the dead slowly regaining their memories and some sort of rudimentary intelligence returning. That said, Dawn of the Dead looks and feels like its time, and the Monroeville Mall, though thousands of miles away, reminds me of the malls I grew up going to. The fact that the crew used the real stores and location helps, as the J.C. Penny's at Christown in Phoenix looked just like the one in the movie, right down to the escalator.
Despite being of its time Dawn of the Dead still works. The actors may not have been big names but they all gave great performances. The realism that was in The Night of the Living Dead carries on here, with what could be the same groups of rednecks that killed Ben at the end of the first film still out hunting zombies. It shows how the whole situation has a party atmosphere in some locations to outright panic everywhere else as things fall apart. When the biker gang attacks at the end and, for some reason, is interested in what is now a bunch of useless paper, we see how even they have that last glimmer of hope that everything will soon return to normal. While there is a bit of "the monster is really us" in this, it's not hammered over and over like in The Walking Dead. The raid on the mall toward the end is really more an excuse for Tom Savini to just throw everything at us he can rather than make any big statement on humanity.
There are some parts that drag prior to the big finale, but it isn't that times have changed. Those parts dragged a bit even back in the 1980s when I first saw the film. I would hazard to say that is more on purpose because, after a time jump, we see our heroes getting on each other's nerves and generally starting to go a little bit crazy. It's those little touches throughout that make this movie more than what its imitators try to be, and much more than Zack Snyder's remake. Romero never tried to present a zombie apocalypse as a realistic situation, but certainly managed to capture realistic human reactions to what would happen if the world did start to fall apart. He also made it clear that it was also okay to laugh at what is in this film because, in doing so, we're laughing at ourselves. If it had taken itself as seriously as the two movies that bookend it then it would not have the reputation it does.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Time: 127 minutes
Starring: Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Director: George A. Romero