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Dawn of the Dead
1978 - unrated - 126 Mins.
Director: George A. Romero
Producer: Richard P. Rubinstein
Written By: George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross
Review by: Bill King
   
Modern horror films have relatively few masterpieces, especially when compared to other types of movies like action, comedy or drama. However, when one of these rare films comes along, it hits hard and relentlessly; an all-out assault on the senses. I am referring to movies of pure horror, not horror comedies, which has its own fair share of stand-outs like "House" and "Re-Animator." Films like "The Exorcist" and "Halloween" are often referred to as the scariest of all, but I believe that "Dawn of the Dead" leads the pack. It's merciless in its depiction of horror and groundbreaking in the zombie film genre.

This is the sequel to "Night of the Living Dead," a low-budget film made in southwestern Pennsylvania starring mostly locals and persons involved in the production of television commercials. It was a great success, with what was considered to be extremely graphic violence. It is still scary today, if viewed under the right conditions (lights off, alone). "Dawn of the Dead" added more horror, violence and a more interesting story of survival. In some ways, it's the same story as the original, only with fewer main characters and a more inspired setting.

The movie was made in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. This is where the story winds up, but the movie begins in Philadelphia, in a frantic television studio where experts are commenting on the situation. The dead are returning to life, with a hunger for human flesh. Their reason for returning was provided in the first film, and we are not given a recap in the sequel. It no longer matters how the situation started, because now it's time to deal with it. The zombies are in larger numbers now, and collectively they are far more dangerous.

Francine (Gaylen Ross) works in the studio, but her boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge), convinces her that it's time to run. The studio is falling apart and morale is low. They plan to fly in a helicopter with their friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger). After the scene in the studio, we jump to a housing project where Roger and some other soldiers invade the premises to wipe out zombies being locked up. This is where we get a first glimpse of what to expect. Blood splatters all over and soon zombies are loose. Roger meets up with another soldier, Peter (Ken Foree), and soon the four take off and head west. Eventually, they arrive at the shopping mall in Monroeville, where they stay for the rest of the film.

At first, Peter and Roger run through the mall and run around zombies, and make their way to a department store. Stephen joins them, and Peter gets the idea that they should stay for awhile. Afterall, the mall has everything they need. They come up with a plan to block off the entrances and shoot all the zombies inside the mall, providing them with the perfect shelter. Up to this point, there is a great deal of violence, and even those with a strong stomach might have trouble watching it. There is also a bit of humor in all of this. It's funny to watch the zombies go up the escalators, or, later in the film, getting hit in the face with pie. Director George A. Romero gives us scenes of comedy to take the edge off a little, but he's only teasing our expectations. Just when we're relaxed, Romero throws excessive amounts of gore right at us.

Despite several continuity errors, the film never lets up. Even when we watch the characters have fun in the mall, trying on clothes and making a nice home in a storage area, we still get chills down our spines because the zombies are always there, and the film reminds us of that. Hundreds of them are still outside, just waiting for their opportunity to get inside. Eventually, they do get inside, with the help of a motorcycle gang which shows up to loot the place. The roles are almost reversed, as the zombies are now the victims caught in the crossfire between the bikers and the survivors. The zombies do turn the tables, which results in a gruesome series of disembowelings and gut-wrenching violence.

"Dawn of the Dead" is scary not for its violence, but because of its unique way of toying with our expectations. The gore is a result of the situation, and is less disgusting and more shocking because of the editing, which doesn't dwell on a person's death, but rather cuts quickly away so that we know what has happened, but aren't sickened by it. The idea of zombies taking over the world is scary enough, and that idea is more thoroughly played out in the next sequel, "Day of the Dead."

If "Halloween" spawned the slasher movie genre, "Dawn of the Dead" spawned the zombie genre. As a result of the film's success, numerous zombie titles popped up; most of them being bad. The movie was extremely successful in Italy, since Italian horror director Dario Argento co-produced the film. Many of the rip-offs came from this country, like "City of the Walking Dead" and the unbearable "Night of the Zombies," which is the worst film I've ever seen. Lucio Fulci also tried his hand at the genre, and created "Zombie," which is a cult classic, despite the fact that it's just as sloppy and dreadful as every other rip-off. These films make the mistake of concentrating on the gore, and not the story. They often feature extreme close-ups of disembowelings and promote vomiting, rather than chills.

Fortunately, some good films were inspired by "Dawn of the Dead." Stuart Gordon's "Re-Animator" is the best example. Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive" needed work on the script, but is fun to watch, and is quite possibly the goriest good film ever made. Dan O'Bannon's "The Return of the Living Dead" is a good homage to the original "Night of the Living Dead," and inspired two sequels of its own.

Above all these titles stands "Dawn of the Dead," a superbly scary film that holds up today. George Romero wants to make another zombie film, which has gone through several titles like "Twilight of the Dead" and "Dead Reckoning," the most likely title if the movie ever gets made. Whatever happens, we'll always have this film, a horror masterpiece.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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