I wasn't going to write about this movie, because I'm not sure that I really have anything to say about it that hasn't been said by 40 million other people. But as I was creating this site I noticed that nearly every horror review I wrote mentioned it in some way, and I thought I should make some comment on it. I also realized that I would then have to update the links on all those horror reviews. Drat!
The movie opens with chaos at a television station. A talk show is being interrupted as the cameramen and studio people shout at the man being interviewed. This scene, while cleverly delivering crucial exposition, also effectively conveys the panic and disorder overtaking society. There is just something that says "society is falling apart" about a television show, normally so scripted and controlled, devolving into chaos, and behind-the-camera people, whose entire profession depends on being quiet and staying off camera, shouting and disrupting a broadcast.
Even this scene abounds in small details that seem disturbingly true-to-life and while also helping to fill in the backdrop of the world this film is positing. The station manager is broadcasting the locations of rescue stations that he knows have closed, likely sending people to their deaths, because he wants to be seen as purveying hope. One of the cameramen says to Francine [Gaylen Ross] that she should go ahead and leave. He just stands there calmly, and one wonders: why has he given up on himself so easily?
The movie then switches to a housing project overrun with zombies. It begins to focus on a prejudiced cop who is beginning to lose his grip in the face of the rising zombie threat. This sequence is poignant in showing a man who is trying use his own prejudices about another racial group as a way of holding on to reality! Strange, unsettling, but also uncomfortably true-to-life.
You'll just have to get used to the fact that this is all happening accompanied by significant gore.
The four main characters soon assemble in their helicopter and take off. Their aerial perspective allows the film to serve up a lot of exposition about the general state of the country as the zombies take over. In this case we have a bunch of rural folk who seem to be treating the entire thing as some sort of hunting party, having a picnic, kids running around, passing around drinks, and occasionally stopping to shoot a zombie. They are soon joined by a bunch of jovial National Guard folks who essentially do the same. These scenes, including the ones in the television station and housing project, go very far to establish the different ways that the country is responding to the crisis. Compare this to Zack Snyder's 2004 remake, which stayed in the perspective of the main characters from the start and never wavered, thus losing the wider context of the world the main characters are struggling to survive in.
After a brief interlude at a fueling station, our quartet arrive at the shopping mall. Quickly realizing that they could hole up here for a nearly indefinite amount of time in relative safety, they decide to stay. There are a number of survival tableaus and schemes in which the characters essentially "shop," but what interests me most here is the character development.
As they fight zombies to furnish their home in the upper floors of the mall, certain tensions between the characters develop. Stephen [David Enmgee], the helicopter pilot, seems to be jealous that he isn't as cool as the other two guys, and wants to be able to use guns and be cool like them. Scotty [Scott Reiniger] eventually becomes a bit of a daredevil, wanting to show off his skills, which leads him to make some rash decisions that put himself and others in danger. Near the end he becomes more and more mentally unstable and unable to recognize how hyped-up and volatile he is. Meanwhile, Peter [Ken Foree] stays collected, while Francine [Gaylen Ross] slowly becomes more focused and able to handle and protect herself. Romero's zombie movies have always had the distinction of really taking the situation seriously, and providing a lot of attention to the psychological effects the zombie takeover would have on his characters, which make his films richer in both depth and emotional heft, as these characters all have flaws and weaknesses. Some of them overcome them, while some do not. To me, these characters and the way they develop are what set this film apart, and make it truly fascinating. Compare this with the characters in the 2004 remake and how it is shown that they deal with the reality of the collapse of society; they make a game of shooting the zombies that look like celebrities. Whereas the characters in Romero's original bring their neuroses with them into the mall, and he gets a lot of tension and resonance out of how these petty tendencies endure even in the face of the end of the world. The characters in the remake simply get used to their situation and try to pass time. The remake is a great thriller, but just doesn't have the resonance of the original.
A lot of people hate what they consider to be the slapstick comedy that occurs when the bikers invade the mall at the end-particularly the pie-in-the-face scene. It doesn't bother me. In fact, I thought it was a successful continuation of the theme, as it follows the line of degrees of obliviousness to the real threat. We, the audience, by that time, have learned not to underestimate the zombies, and I found it affecting to watch the foolish bikers do silly things like the pie in the face and the blood pressure machine, as it shows the downside to their casual and mocking attitude toward life, and how people with that attitude can really screw things up for others. It also provides a good contrast with the main characters, who may engage in small and petty interests, but in general work together and for a longer-term goal, as opposed to the bikers, who seem to unknowingly risk everything just for an immediate thrill. I find this moving and vital to the film, but I guess to many people a pie in the face can never be anything but slapstick.
The movie ends without much of a resolution-only that the characters must keep moving, trying to survive-but what has come before is so involving, moving, and true-to-life that what sticks in the mind afterward are the characters, their struggles, and the hopelessness that they have fought against, rather than the gore or exploding heads, and that goes a long way toward explaining why this movie is as enduring and resonant as it is.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. You HAVE seen this, haven't you? Don't give me any shit about how "it's so boring," or whatever. You can admire it for its economy, and for starting this whole genre in the first place. Make sure you get the original black and white version.
DAY OF THE DEAD is the sequel to Dawn, and while I think it is very good, it is also more purposely ambitious, and not all of that potential is realized. Still essential viewing, however.
LAND OF THE DEAD is the latest movie in the series and is quite good, though I think it'll take more time to fully evaluate how it stands up against the others.
DAWN OF THE DEAD [Remake] is a quite decent little thriller, but is to this movie as Cheetos are to Cheddar.