PETER: When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
Some may say that Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s no-budget debut film, is the masterpiece that all zombie-related media should use as the benchmark of excellence. But take away the satire and the revolutionary make-up, and you are not left with much outside of an amateur film that could be remade for even less now (and just looking over listings on IMDb, it appears that more than one person has taken this remake idea a little too far). But that film’s follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, is the real pièce de résistance for both the genre and the filmmaker. It has all of the satire he is known for, incredible practical make-up effects, and a story that is just as funny as it is depressing. Romero never equaled the film’s power ever again, and has continued to use the zombie genre to try and come up with something better ever since.
As mentioned, the true power of the film comes from the satire used to convey its story. The idea of zombies may be a horrific thought, but the satire of social excess, of being selfish when things get tough, and of social conformity, are even more horrific. Romero had his hand on the pulse of society when he was creating this film, and its central messages have never aged. They have just grown stronger and scarier as the years have gone on. Its influence has helped fuel horror movies for decades, not just zombie movies. It might be said that it was slasher movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween that really jump-started the horror craze that permeated through the 1980’s, but I would contend that Romero’s film had just as much of an influence, if not more, on the early films that actually attempted to have some semblance of a subtext, and not just a studio mandated yearly sequel push.
While he may have taken away the claustrophobia that helped shape the characters actions and reactions in Night of the Living Dead, by making the main setting a gigantic mall, he ups the ante for how even less safe it is. With a group of characters moving around a small farmhouse, you have the ability to check every corner and every room at will. You have a way of seeing where the zombies are coming from. In a mall, there is no telling where you will have to look next. They could come through any store, through any part of the gigantic basement. It may seem like a safe haven at the beginning of the film, but it becomes a terrifying prison by the end of it. And Romero knows exactly how to show the anguish in our heroes’ faces, knows exactly which buttons to push to let the audience know there is no real way for them to make it out alive. While there is some gleam of hope by the end (instead of the originally scripted oblique nihilism), we still know in the back of our minds that even if we do change, there is still no hope. It is harrowing stuff for a horror film of all films, but it is a message that echoes throughout, giving it a staying power that only increases with age.
If there is anything I hold against the film, it is that I still do not feel right about the chain gang that appears in the final act of the film. While the direction the film turns is a lot more fitting than the full blown ridiculous final act of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake (which has slowly grown on me, but still does not hold a candle to the original source), it just strikes me as something that plagues Romero’s newer films even more — having a brilliant idea for a film whose subtext revolves around the human condition and the lengths some people will go to for survival, but only having a moderate suggestion of what to do with it. It just seems like a huge build-up to an outrageous amount of mind-blowing make-up effects, and a borderline betrayal of everything that came before it. I like it for what it is, but it still makes me uneasy watching it again and seeing the film move into that pivotal scene.
With Dawn of the Dead, Romero helped breathe life into an influential genre that has never gone away. You owe it yourself to revel in the brilliance on display here, and it practically demands that you weep for at least a moment afterwards while trying to decipher why Romero has not made nearly as great a movie since.
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Written by: George A. Romero
Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross