Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #4

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Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: September 2, 1978 (Italy) April 20, 1979 (US)
Sub Genre: Zombie
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $500,000
Box Office: $55,000,000
Running Time: 127 minutes, 154 minutes (Extended Cut)
Director: George A Romero
Producer: Richard P Rubenstein, Claudio Argento, Alfredo Cuomo
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Make-up Effects: Tom Savini
Cinematography: Michael Gornick
Score: Goblin
Editing: George A Romero
Studio: Laurel Group Inc.
Distributor: United Film Distribution Company
Stars: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith, Daniel Dietrich, Fred Baker, Joe Pilato, Tom Savini, James A. Baffico, Rod Stouffer, John Amplas

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Goblin Main Theme

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Shoppers – what a loathsome breed they truly are. These clueless nondescripts shuffle around aimlessly with no clear game plan or even the vaguest idea of the meaning of the term personal space. I know as much as I watched them blunder around with intense fascination for over a decade, in one of Europe’s largest shopping centers. If there was one thing I learned from my experience then it would be that I’m just not cut out for retail. Having experienced the sheer dread of watching these meatbags pour through the first shutter to open, dead behind the eyes, and ravenous – I feel that I have a rather exclusive perspective when writing this particular appraisal.

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George A. Romero has long been regarded as the Godfather of The Dead and there are few alive or otherwise that would argue with that claim. The second film in his long-running series is also considered by many as his true magnum opus. I’m perched on the fence with that particular debate although, whilst Day of the Dead has always been my personal darling, its precursor is without doubt the more influential film and just as riveting an experience. It supplies a well-placed wry dig at consumerism and is known as much for its strong social commentary as it is for Romero’s dynamic approach to film-making. There really are strong parallels between the awkward way in which its latex covered zombies amble along and real life shoppers blinded by clever media programming and bogus advertising.

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Dawn is far more than just a scathing satire on consumerism though. It is an integral part of a larger painting by Romero; a twisted work of art in which he ultimately views humanity as its biggest threat to itself. It begs the question “is mankind worth saving?” and, it has to be said, George has a point folks. Of course, the bottom line is that Dawn of the Dead is also a hugely entertaining movie. It has humor as black as the blood which circulates its dark heart and brilliant set pieces courtesy of Romero’s keen eye allied with Tom Savini’s make-up wizardry. Both men are clearly having a ball and we are the beneficiaries of that extraordinary working relationship.

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Following on from the events of Night of the Living Dead, the unexplained zombie outbreak has continued to escalate since the events of that fateful evening. After a wonderfully no-nonsense opening featuring a SWAT search and rescue mission of an overrun apartment complex, we are swiftly relocated to a secluded mall just outside Pittsburgh which is where the remainder of the story plays out. Here, the focus is on four characters – TV Station employees Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross) and special police Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) as they find temporary sanctuary in the mall while waiting for the crisis to cease.

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The group take stock of their surroundings and decide that the best course of action is to barricade themselves into a small room which affords them access to much needed ammunition and supplies. Smart cookies right? It would appear so but the thing about a zombie apocalypse is that it can make a mockery of mankind’s best-laid plans and the shuffling dead are in no hurry to move on to pastures new, leaving frayed nerves, tested allegiances, and a 3:1 boy-girl ratio. On the plus side, there’s rather a lot of fun to be had with shopping trolleys and they make the very most of these wayward chariots.

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It is during this second act that Romero really focuses on the rich vein of black humor afforded by his chosen setting and his playing field of decomposing flesh is littered with opportunity for joyous pratfall. We are treated to the wondrous sight of the undead attempting to scale downward escalators and there is a twisted clown-like quality about Romero’s shuffling stiffs that offers a welcome light interlude sandwiched between the grittier acts. Alas for our plucky survivors, the zombies are only one of their concerns as a gang of joyriding bandit bikers are also looking to do some early Christmas shopping and make the mall their own.

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Once these murderous looters are introduced to the fray, things hit fever pitch, and the realization swiftly dawns that the true monsters of this piece are the humans themselves. Sure, one opportunist bite can really fuck up your day, but the meandering zombies pose more of an obstruction than anything else and are driven on purely by instinct and growling stomachs, never malice. This is a theme that Romero would later explore in more depth for Day of The Dead and one which never loses relevence. Zombies are nothing if not honest and it is mankind that can’t be trusted when push comes to shove.

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Anyhoots, once Savini rolls up his sleeves, we are treated to some exemplary gore FX as the bikers are rapidly made to regret their decision. Cue exploding heads, disembowelment, screwdriver lobotomy and a geyser of blood for the seasoned gruehead to bathe in and, as expected from two men at the very top of their A-game, these scenes are orchestrated beautifully. While many of the cast members were made physically sick by Savini’s make-up work, he was actually far less than enamored by the end results. Unhappy with the flourescent blood and also the grey coloration of the zombies themselves, Romero eventually convinced him that it suited the comic-book style he was aiming for perfectly.

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Aside from the aforementioned abundance of sumptuous splatter, there is also a masterful build-up of suspense which serves the film remarkably well. All central characters are well written and the performances from our four leads are first-rate. We form bonds with each of them and, unlike the looters who are present purely to provide fodder, genuinely care about their plight and pray for their safe-keeping. Characterization has always been a strong suit for Romero and, without it, 127 minutes would ultimately prove a long slog but Dawn of The Dead never once relinquishes its grip on our senses.

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Romero’s second foray into zombie horror cinema is now deep into its mid-thirties but it is testament to just how important a motion picture this truly is that, while it has logically dated with time in an aesthetic sense, the impact of its message is as prevailing and as relevant today as it was all those years ago. While there were other more than significant entries in this long running franchise, none are likely to be remembered with such fondness and fervor by so many devoted enthusiasts the world over and any fans of The Walking Dead owe a great deal of gratitude to Romero for effectively starting the cycle.

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One valued admirer of Romero’s work was Italian mastermind, Dario Argento, and his involvement in production was most telling. As soon as he caught whiff of what was being planned Stateside, he convinced Romero to travel to Rome in order to thrash out his script free of unwanted distraction. As well as enlisting the brilliant Goblin to provide the film’s score and assisting in raising capital to get the project off the ground, he also edited his own European version which earned unanimous praise in his native country under the alternative name Zombi. If you ever wondered why Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters was known in Italy as Zombi 2 then here’s your answer.

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By the time Claudio Lattanzi’s Zombi 5: Killing Birds was shat out onto the marketplace, the wise decision was made to let sleeping corpses lie. I would imagine Romero welcomed this particular news. What has troubled him, however, is the manner in which his formula has been consistently tampered with as zombies returned to vogue in the mid-noughties. He makes no secret of his bemusement of the decision to afford his beloved undead the means to sprint and the upgraded strain of more athletic cadavers has never sat right with him. That’s evolution for you George. Best thing is just to embrace it as you effectively kick-started the entire movement in the first place. It’s just the price of being a visionary and one helluva compliment when you think about it.

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Every aspiring filmmaker spend their entire professional life endeavoring to make that one picture which will outlive them and, in Dawn of the Dead, Romero achieved this goal brilliantly. With relatively meager resources, he crafted a chronicle which was epic in scope while, in the exact same moment, provided a very intimate character study. Whether you opt to view it as a vital, sometimes biting (pardon the pun) piece of social commentary, or merely as a superb piece of entertainment, one thing is certain: it’s a landmark piece of zombie cinema which left behind it an enduring legacy that can never be questioned.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Grue Rating: 5/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Where to commence? Whilst some of the effects may look a little crude by today’s standards, it is worth remembering that Dawn of The Dead is now well over three decades old and, at the time of its unveiling, sickened audiences with its numerous graphic depictions of gory bloodletting. There have been various cuts over the past 35 years and, for a long time, it was only available in its trimmed form. Whilst I’m relieved that it can now be enjoyed in its full gruesome glory I can see precisely why it caused such a humongous stir back in 1978.

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Read Day of The Dead (1985) Appraisal

Read Dawn of The Dead (2004) Appraisal

Read Zombie Flesh Eaters Appraisal

Read Night of The Comet Appraisal

 

Keeper of the Crimson Quill

Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)

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