DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
When it comes to genres and sub-genres, the scary movie can boast a greater number than almost any other category of film. Body horror, the supernatural thriller, Hammer horror, the vampire movie, the varieties encompass every facet from the era they were made to the studio behind the production. Fright fans really are spoilt for choice. Of these sub-genres none is more fondly regarded than the zombie movie. But as the industry has shown it is easy to make a poor zombie film and a much trickier task to make a good one.
More challenging still is making a great zombie feature film that really scares an audience. One horror creator showed time and time again just what was possible with the undead; the late George A. Romero. It was Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) that gave birth to the concept of the zombie as the movie villain we know it as today, setting down standards and mythologies. But Romero’s career stumbled after 1968, not for want of inventive horror films, Season of the Witch (1973) and Martin (1977), but rather for lack of box-office success. Not the bankable director he once was, studios were reluctant to finance a Night sequel. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise forcing Romero once again to do things his own way. The director put a production into gear that was driven as much by the friendship of his fellow movie cohorts as it was by studio dollars.
Financing was still an issue though, so Romero looked overseas where friend and fellow horror director Dario Argento helped Romero in his quest for a budget. Argento also invited Romero to Italy to set about writing the script for his zombie sequel. Despite the language barrier Romero found this exercise invaluable and he soon returned to the United States completed script in hand and a reasonable budget cobbled together. There was only one place he could go to film his vision; the setting of Night of the Living Dead, his home town, and the home of so many of his willing movie personnel, Pittsburgh. The resulting movie, Dawn of the Dead (1978) has been hailed as the zombie’s greatest onscreen outing.
Though it is not directly stated, its implied that Dawn picks up the proceedings close to where Night left us. The zombie infection has moved to the major cities of the United States. Teams of SWAT police try to deal with the threat, among them two of our heroes, Roger and Peter (Scott Reineger and Ken Foree). After the brutal clearance of an apartment block the duo decide that their best chance of survival is to flee the inner city. With the assistance of police helicopter pilot Steven ‘Flyboy’ and his girlfriend Fran, they retreat to the countryside, eventually settling in an abandoned shopping complex. After clearing the centre of zombies and barricading the entrances, the quartet become comfortable in their shopper’s paradise, every conceivable item at their finger tips. But their cosy set up is shattered when a roaming gang of bikers break into the mall. The gathered zombie throng have access to the mall again and with fresh meat to munch on all hell breaks loose.
Despite its undoubted quality Dawn was not a box office smash, but in the years that followed devoted Dead fans held the movie in higher and higher regard. With such a vehement cult following anything Dawn related had mileage, and as was the case with his first zombie film Romero’s Dawn was subjected to a host of academic ‘readings’. With Night of the Living Dead seen as a cinematic metaphor for the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and the anti Vietnam protests, so it was that Dawn was deemed a damning commentary on the United States reputation as the ultimate consumer culture; ‘It’s ours, we took it, its ours!’. The not particularly subtle social observations may have placed Dawn on a surprisingly high pedestal with movie academics, but for fans of the fright film it’s the scares that have ensured viewers return to Dawn time and again.
The zombie is one of the best vehicles ever invented to orchestrate the on-screen scare and much credit should go to Romero for that. Slow and therefore silent moving, unremitting in its quest for a good meal, these grey skinned fiends are the perfect tool for jolting an audience. Even better for the filmmaker on a tight budget, they are incredibly cheap to create. All Romero utilised was some grey face paint and an actor with good staggering skills. The basic zombie scare is the classic jack-in-the-box, appear from nowhere jump scare, the creature lurching in from frame left or frame right to seize one of our protagonists. Then there is the slow tension builder, a lone zombie gradually creeping up on the unsuspecting, soon to be zombie fodder. And then there is the attack en-masse, the sheer number of undead too much for our hero to withstand, he or she resigned to being eaten alive. Romero is the master of all three of these methods of attack, and Dawn is the blueprint of how best to employ all of these methods.
Keeping it simple is by no means a lesser way of crafting a good scare and the Romero’s route one approach worked wonders. The various high spots include a lone zombie stalking Steven in the shopping mall boiler room, the stop to refuel the helicopter, and the nerve jangling race to manoeuvre trucks at the mall’s entrances. The Dawn director even pulled a new trick out of the bag, the zombie-misdirection, first seen when Roger and Peter come across the zombified reverend at the start of the picture; or is it?
Such blatant scare-mongering alone would not elevate Dawn to its lofty status. Underlying the fairground ghost-ride tactics was a heavy sense of impending annihilation. Despite the protagonist’s superior speed, fire-power and strategy Dawn really did feel like the beginning of the end for humanity. The opening apartment block assault dispensed with the last shreds of sanity, ‘You ain’t gonna talk ‘em out, you gotta blow ‘em out’. Faced with such a hopeless situation, Roger and Peter face a depressing choice, safety in disorganised numbers or safety fleeing on your own; neither option is very appealing.
With their choice made, any time we become comfortable with the story progression Romero pulls us back to reality with a delicate reminder of where we are; see Steven’s attempted proposal to Fran and her despondent rebuff. The double-header of effective chair-jumper and the coming apocalypse is gold, all topped off with an ethereal but creepy Goblin soundtrack.
Yet despite its reputation Dawn is not the perfect movie. Romero stumbles twice, with the movie’s pacing and with the unwelcome elements of slapstick humour in the final scenes, including of all things a custard pie fight and seltzer spray bottle antics.
With the foursome settled in the shopping mall, instead of steadily building the tension Romero attempts to lull the viewer into a false sense of security with long scenes of domesticity. Vital as this footage may be for the group’s story arc, it’s a pointless endeavour to try and hoodwink the viewer in to thinking a gruesome end isn’t on the cards. Credit must go to Emge, Foree, Rose and Reiniger for holding our attention during this horror down time. And when that action packed finale arrives the will-they-won’t-they-survive tension around the remaining heroes is doused by a comedic soundtrack and zombie clowning, all of it completely at odds with the dour horror Romero delivers in the film to that point.
Fortunately the climax is saved from becoming a complete farce by the audacious horror effects work on show. Romero had special effects-guru Tom Savini on board to ensure that the gore was suitably harsh. It is some of Savini’s finest work to date, much of it improvised on a shoe-string budget. Arms are chomped, intestines ripped from stomachs, heads are exploded, and all under the harsh bright lights of the shopping mall. We are given a little light relief by Romero’s odd choice of comically bright-red blood but the carnage is still incredibly shocking stuff and at the time Dawn set a new high bench mark for onscreen violence. Savini also found time to play a marauding biker bandit performed much of film’s required stunt work.
Carrying the carnage right up to the final credits, Romero allegedly filmed an even more pessimistic finale in the Night of the Living Dead mould; a double suicide with Peter shooting himself and Fran placing her head in the helicopter rotor blades. Romero eventually ditched his downbeat ending, offering some relief by allowing Peter and Fran to escape the zombie throng that eventually overruns the mall.
There are a number of versions of Dawn of the Dead in circulation. On offer are the Extended Version, with extra scenes throughout and an alternate score, and the European version. The latter of these was re-cut by Argento and omits some of the slower middle scenes. Rather than quicken the movie’s pace this re-editing created a disjointed cut of the film. Purists would do well to stick to the original theatrical version; though it remains somewhat weighed down by the trappings of the era in which it was made, its slight pacing issues, and the unwanted climatic slapstick, it remain the ultimate version of the ultimate zombie movie.
During the opening scenes of Dawn there is a whiff of an alternate movie, a ‘what if’ prospect of a plot not followed; with a bigger budget the movie could have been a rip-roaring horror-action movie. The opening salvo as the police units battle the zombie hordes whets the appetite for an action-heavy zombie romp. Fans of action horror saw this vision realised in 2003 when the remake of Dawn of the Dead was announced. The proposal could have sent shockwaves through the zombie community but casting minds back to 1990 fans recalled the remake of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the fantastic job Tom Savini did with sacred material.
Romero fans were equally relieved that Snyder didn’t ruin the beloved original Dawn. Arriving at the same time as the excellent British release Shaun of the Dead (2004), to the mutual success of both pictures, the new Dawn harvested rich box-office pickings. A mini zombie revival began and miserly studio executives finally gave Romero the budget to film the fourth part of his Dead series, Land of the Dead (2005). Twenty six years after the original Dawn of the Dead zombies were back in vogue.
Snyder’s Dawn plays like a cross between Romero’s 1978 original and the James Cameron horror-action tour de force Aliens (1986). Snyder and screenwriter James Gunn ditched Dawn’s original quartet in favour of an extended group of characters, at the centre of which is the resilient Ana (Sarah Polley). After witnessing the terrifying zombification of her daughter and husband, Ana flees her home town taking shelter at a nearby shopping mall with an ever increasing group of survivors. The opening scenes of bedlam as the undead plague takes hold are breathtaking, from the Jack Torrance-esque struggle with her rotting husband to the incredible aerial shots of Ana’s escape on the highways. Though Snyder had a bigger budget than Romero, Dawn 2004 creates a much more effective feeling of all-encompassing bedlam. The distinctive opening credit sequence, with its use of real-life news reel footage, sets an uncomfortable tone, entirely in-keeping with Romero’s zombie ethos.
By the time we make it to the apparent sanctuary of the mall respite from the pandemonium is welcomed by all. Following the original Dawn template the middle portion of the movie slows down the proceedings, but to nowhere near the sedate pace that Romero did. Having a much larger group of characters to explore helps tremendously. Many of the character arcs show genuine development, and in many cases surprising but welcome changes in disposition. Case in point, Mall security guard CJ (Michael Kelly) is also one of the most obnoxious characters you would care to come across, yet by the movie’s conclusion he is as much in our graces as any of the remaining cast. The fact that the film was shot in chronological order no doubt helped the actors develop the relationships between their characters.
Snyder, hoping to inject some adrenalin into his Dawn, borrowed 28 Days Later (2002) best idea, that of the fast moving zombie. The undead in Dawn 2004 no longer shuffled along at a snails pace (though viewers will note the two child zombies, played by Savini’s niece and nephew, that attack Peter at the air strip in the original Dawn; they both run and throw themselves at Peter) they sprinted with lightning speed. The potential for edge of the seat, nail biting near misses and pursuits as these ultra quick zombies hunted down their prey increased ten-fold. Throw into the mix some excellently worked set pieces, including a terrifying trip to Andy’s gun shop, and a courageous willingness to dispose of any of the films lead characters at any time, and Dawn 2004 stands as one of the best movie remakes in Hollywood history.
As well as ensuring he made a quality picture, Snyder also paid sufficient tribute to Romero’s original. A whole host of treats are interwoven into the film for fans of the 1978 Dawn, including cameos for actors Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger and Tom Savini. Actress Gaylen Ross has a shop named after her in the mall and a number of musical extracts from the original picture were reused, most notably the music utilised in Andy’s gun shop from the similar gun store raid in the first Dawn picture.
Snyder was also mindful of the underlying tones of Romero’s original film, including the odd moment of black humour, such as CJ’s explanation ‘I like this song’ during a brief respite in the groups final escape. Not shy of adding his own touch of cinematic gold dust, such as the aforementioned running zombies, Snyder also served up a whole host of tasty asides, from the ongoing guessing game of who might be infected to an original take on the movie’s soundtrack, most notably Richard Cheese’s version of ‘Down With The Sickness’. Pleasantly enough, critics also gave the Dawn remake a big thumbs up, a surprise given their usual disdain of both pulp horror flicks and remakes of old classics.
So one question remains, is the Dawn remake better than the original Dawn? Such a suggestion would be sacrilege to some horror fans, but comparing the evidence from a strictly scary-movie point of view Dawn 2004 does keep the adrenaline pumping at a higher rate. It is a case of Snyder’s hot footed zombie’s compared to Romero’s much creepier grey skinned fiends, and in terms of a pure white knuckle ride Snyder pips his mentor to the post. It is a close run affair though, and what Snyder makes up for in action he loses in the atmosphere stakes. Romero’s Dawn had a much greater feeling of isolation coupled with a nagging fear that at any moment the undead may just clamber their way into our hero’s cosy shopping mall home. The benefit of having a much quieter film, its the silence that unnerves.
See also Night of the Living Dead (1968/1990), Day of the Dead (1985/2008), Land of the Dead (2005), Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (2005), Night of the Living Dead: 3D (2006), Diary of the Dead (2007), Survival of the Dead (2009), Night of the Living Dead: 3D Re-Animation (2012), Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018)