Format: Streaming video from Drive-In Classics on rockin’ flatscreen (Night); DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (Dawn)
One of the great favors that George Romero did for the horror industry (inadvertent, I’m certain) was to leave Night of the Living Dead without a copyright notice, putting the film in the public domain, thus giving every other filmmaker in the world the opportunity to make more zombie films. The film is thought by many to be a sort of allegory for race relations, although this was never intended according to George Romero—it just happens to have worked out that way. Instead, it is a ferociously original idea for a horror film, so original that it spawned hundreds of imitators.
So we have Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea), who are siblings visiting the grave of their father. Johnny teases her because she is uncomfortable in the cemetery, and he really gets into it when he sees an old man shambling through. Unfortunately for the pair, this is the first of our zombies, who attacks Barbra. Johnny rescues her, but is thrown against a gravestone and knocked unconscious (or possibly killed). Barbra runs, with the zombie pursuing her. Eventually, she arrives at an old house in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, there are more zombies, and they start shambling up to the house in ones and twos. This heralds the arrival of Ben (Duane Jones), who manages to beat a couple of the creatures to their second death with a tire iron. Barbra, by this point, is switching between catatonia and mania, wanting to go out and find her brother. Ben reins her in and boards up the house, and shows a great deal of inventiveness in doing so.
So it comes as something of a surprise when we discover a family in the basement of the house. Harry (Karl Hardman) is irrational and domineering, and wants everyone to retreat to the basement, a plan Ben dislikes because it leaves them trapped inside with no point of exit. Helen (Marilyn Eastman) is more concerned for their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who is wounded. We also meet Judy (Judith Ridley) and Tom (Keith Wayne), also hiding in the basement. We learn through a series of radio reports that the problem is widespread and that the gangs of creatures are eating their victims.
The rest, essentially, is mayhem and survival. Slowly, one by one, the survivors are picked off and devoured by the slow-moving, encircling horde of living dead. Night of the Living Dead is known for being relentless and brutal and for having one of the most famous downer endings in existence. It’s a grueling film start to finish, and it doesn’t let up at the end.
But it all works. It’s no surprise that Night of the Living Dead created scores of imitators. It’s also noteworthy in the sense that our hero, Ben, is a character who takes charge, fights for his survival, is smart, and just happens to be black. Certainly there had been black characters like Ben before this in films, but none that could have just as easily been any other race. Earlier black protagonists were black by design; Ben is black simply because he is.
It’s also worth noting that all of the tropes of the genre start here—shooting them in the head, a single bite being fatal, the recent dead rising back up, the use of fire, etc. Romero created the whole ball of wax, including the slow, stumbling gait of the creatures. For the record, I’m a bigger fan of the slow zombies. The reason is simple; fast zombies are always a threat. Slow ones are comic on their own and terrifying in large groups. This allows the scares to be ratcheted up throughout the film, letting things build.
As a final note, I watched this on a free movie channel on the Roku. This channel, Drive-In Classics, cuts into the film at regular intervals with advertising. I don’t much mind the ads, except that many of them cut off halfway through and take a long time to queue up. It would bother me a lot less if someone would find good places to slip the ads in. Frequently, the ads show up in the middle of someone’s line or a tense sequence, which sort of kills the mood.
Dawn of the Dead ramps up on the original in every way—there are something like 82 kills in the film, most of them (but not all of them) zombies. In addition to being a much more indelible stamp on the zombie genre than the original, Dawn is in full color, which both helps and hurts the film. This film is also the coming out party for special effects guru Tom Savini, who made a couple of interesting choices. First, he opted for bright red blood; the blood in this film is so red, in fact, that it looks like paint. It’s reminiscent of Italian horror and giallo in that respect, and it comes as no surprise to me that Dario Argento figured prominently in the creation of this sequel.
Second, and on the downside, Romero and Savini opted for a grey makeup for the undead ghouls, and this is applied amateurishly in places. Frequently, there are zombies with grey faces and peach necks. Others are so underdone that they look like regular humans while another subset of zombies are so overdone that they appear almost cobalt blue. It’s perhaps a little strange and breaks the spell a little, but it’s a pretty minor problem.
Like most horror movies, Dawn of the Dead is simplicity itself. It picks up essentially where the first film left off. The dead are still coming back to life, but society hasn’t broken down completely yet. Still, the signs are there that soon enough the world will be in chaos, and it will be every person for him- or herself. Into this walk Francine (Gaylen Ross), who works at a television station. She and her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) plan to escape that night in the helicopter he uses as a traffic reporter. Meanwhile, we also meet Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), two SWAT cops who have had experience with battling the ghouls. Roger mentions the plan of his friend Stephen and invites Peter along. The four fly off and find a shopping mall with a small collection of undead in it. They decide to stay and fortify the mall, since it contains essentially everything they need to survive in style for some time.
Of course, if that were the whole film, we’d have a dull film, so there’s more conflict to come. Roger is a bit of a daredevil, which gets him into trouble as he and Peter attempt to block off the mall entrances with semis. When Fran wants to learn how to fly the helicopter (just in case), her practicing alerts a group of looters to the presence of the quartet in the mall, and brings them on the attack. This destroys the relative calm and zombie-free atmosphere of the place. All hell breaks lose, and ultimately, the group has to make some very difficult decisions if they are going to survive.
So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the important stuff here. First is the gore. While this film would certainly rate an R were it made the same way today, back in 1978, it was incredibly extreme and was threatened with the dreaded X rating. Romero opted instead to release the film unrated, labeling all of the radio and television ads with a warning that there was no sex in the film, but that no one under 17 would be admitted. It is bloody, and pretty nasty in a few places, but time has softened the gore of this film quite a bit. Additionally, some of the gore is so excessive that it becomes not disgusting, but a bit silly. At one point, a wounded Roger is grabbed by a zombie, which squeezes his leg at the site of the injury. Roger bleeds like a jelly donut from this, and it’s a bit ridiculous.
Another important point with regard to this film is the relationships between the characters. While the actors were (and pretty much still are) unknowns, they are very good in these roles an very believable. More importantly, they are extremely likable. For all their faults—Roger’s showboating, Stephen’s relative cowardice—they are characters we want to see survive and make it out, and we know going in (or at least we should) that some of them are going to die and turn into zombies by the end.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Romero if there wasn’t some sort of social commentary here. Dawn of the Dead is as much about the idea of mindless consumerism as it is about the zombies. Everybody—our heroes, the zombies, and the biker gang—show up at the mall eventually, because the mall is where everyone wants to be. Our quartet of heroes, once they clear the mall of the undead, live a life of luxury and relative ease, cooking for themselves in the mall restaurants, wearing fur coats, and even taking money out of the bank “just in case.”
Dawn of the Dead hasn’t held up in terms of the extreme nature of the gore or the makeup effects. It doesn’t matter. This is still a huge achievement of a film, not just in terms of the horror genre, but in terms of film itself. Deal with the scares, folks. It’s worth it for what you get.
As a final note, there’s quite a bit of music here from the group Goblin, who also did the soundtrack for Suspiria. They are a weird and surreal touch to the film, and they really help make the experience complete.
Why to watch Night of the Living Dead: It spawned an entire sub-genre.
Why not to watch: The bulk of its legacy isn’t that good.
Why to watch Dawn of the Dead: Gore and social commentary.
Why not to watch: You’re more scared than I am.