Dawn of the Dead

Year: 1978
Director: George Romero
Producer: George Romero
Writer: George Romero
Cast: Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Emge
This is the sort of movie words like 'classic' and 'cult' were invented for.

It's also - like so few films in history - a bigger, more iconic and some say more important part of our collective consciousness than its predecessor Night of the Living Dead in the same way the Alien franchise developed.

What's ironic about it is that, in interviews on the 2004 Australian DVD release, George Romero talks about it being cartoonish and over the top, the violence and bloodshed simply in good fun.

It seems at odds with a film that - because of the bloodshed and violence coupled with the premise - remains one of the bleakest, most dead (get it?) serious horror films ever made.

The premise itself is (though easily lifted from zombie lore) brilliant; the mysterious virus introduced in Night of the Living Dead has swept the world and society is falling apart.

Instead of making a global-focused event movie on the phenomenon that world leaders, the military and humanity have to face, it zooms in on a tiny cluster of four people trying to make their own way in a world that - for all they know - has already fallen apart.

Reams of material has been written and discussed about the social subtexts of Dawn of the Dead, but to me, that aspect - of being alone with no way of knowing if the threads of society are still intact, not knowing whether the police or army are going to come and save you from being eaten alive by the living dead - is as horrible and claustrophobic as the thought of actually being eaten alive.

Together with themes straight from childhood fantasy (who doesn't want to have the run of a shopping mall and everything in it), it unwittingly became one of the most academic films of the 1970's. Very ironic that it was also the movie that spawned the splatter genre.

Another thing you realise after a couple of viewings, however, is that for its reputation for being a depraved bloodbath, Dead is for the most part no gorier than most of Hollywood action films of the early 21st century. True, when the biker gang falls to the zombies and are (literally) torn apart by them it's still pretty brutal and shocking today, but how many heads have we seen blown away by bullets in movies in the quarter century since?

We join each of the four heroes as chaos is starting to descend. Francine (Ross) is a news assistant trying to help keep her studio on the air while the crew slowly rebel and the experts endlessly argue the phenomenon.

Her boyfriend, pilot Stephen (Emge) arrives with a chopper he's purloined and convinces her to take to the hills with him.

Meanwhile, SWAT troops Roger (Reiniger) and Peter (Foree) are trying to clear a rebel gang out of an inner city tenement, their colleagues increasingly losing it in the face of the battle as it turns out the living dead virus has infected half the building.

Roger convinces Peter to join him on his escape bid with his friend Stephen when he picks him up, and the four refugees fly across Pittsburgh until they come to a deserted shopping mall where most of the action takes place.

Gradually clearing the interior and making a fortress for themselves out of the mall, the four try to live the vestige of normal life, with every possible convenience laid out before them.

Despite Roger's testosterone-laced bravado causing him to fall victim early on, the three survivors eke out a living with no idea how long it will last or where they'll go when it runs out (to me, the essential element of horror on the film - the sense of inevitable doom and hopelessness in all their efforts).

Something has to end the story, and in a film that could easily not have had an ending, it's an assault on the shopping centre by a gang of bikers (led by make-up effects technician and sometime stuntman Tom Savini in the film that made him a star in his field).

They break in, let the zombies flood back inside, and the three-way battle between them, the undead and Stephen & Peter in hiding is waged, ending in bloodshed.

Much has also been discussed of the changed ending, which originally had Roger shooting himself and Francine standing up into the spinning helicopter blades to kill herself.

But as they fly off into the sunrise in a seeming burst of hope, it's somehow worse; they're in the exact same situation they were in when the film started, they have nowhere to go, and no real hope. The end credit sequence seems to drive that fact home, the mall now flooded with the living dead as it was before, as the rest of the world now is that waits for Roger and Francine.

Far from brilliantly written and directed, at times the acting is hammy and old-school Hollywood with over the top flourishes of expression. But for many reasons, it remains one of the most important movies ever made.

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