After seeing Danny Boyle’s thievery/homage called “28 Days Later”, I thought I’d go back and revisit George Romero’s “Dead” trilogy. The first film was “Night of the Living Dead”, which was followed by “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978, and “Day of the Dead” in 1985. (“Day” was not supposed to be the final chapter in the series, and in fact Romero is actively at work on a fourth and final chapter as I type this.) I bring up Boyle’s movie only because I believe the second half of “28 Days” is nothing more than a remake of “Day of the Dead” sans acknowledgement.
According to the beginning of “Dawn of the Dead”, the concluding events of “Night” was all a lie — the zombie infestation wasn’t contained at all, but had in fact quickly spread to the rest of the country. In Philadelphia, where “Dawn” picks up, things have spiraled out of control and the city is rampant with the living dead. After taking part in a bloody battle in a tenement building full of zombies, SWAT cops Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) decides to hightail it into the countryside. They join up with helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross). The foursome ends up at a shopping mall in “the sticks”, where they plan to stay until the situation dies now (no pun intended), but ends up becoming prisoners to the mall instead.
If you could look past all the problems associated with low-budget filmmaking in the ’70s, then “Dawn of the Dead” is one of the best movies ever made, the presence of zombies notwithstanding. Written and directed by Romero, “Dawn” features biting social commentary about the nature of human beings, their love of consumerism, and the fact that, when all is said and done, it is man that is the most dangerous species of them all, even next to the flesh-chomping zombies.
For genre lovers, “Dawn” is a heavenly treat. Filled to the brim with gore, old fashion prosthetic makeup, and one exploding brain after another, no one who comes into the film expecting nothing but the best will leave disappointed. “Dawn” is filled with all the things that make genre films worth watching in the first place. For everyone else, “Dawn” might seem a bit lacking. The ’70s vibe is ever-present and the direction is sometimes erratic, especially when guns are involved. Then again, this is a film made in the ’70s on a tight budget, so some allowances must be made for the movie’s age.
Less you think there’s no humanity in “Dawn”, you’d be wrong. Romero is intimately aware of what he’s trying to do and say and he never loses his way for one moment. Man, despite being attacked by flesh-eating zombies, has never looked more inhumane, deadly, or self-destructing. In an early scene, Romero re-introduces the gun-toting country bumpkins that he closed “Night of the Living Dead” off with. Here, the armed rednecks are still just as oblivious to what’s taking place since they’re too occupied with the sick thrill of shooting moving targets.
Of the four actors that anchor “Dawn”, only Ken Foree, playing the tough-as-nails SWAT cop Peter, has gone on to do extensive acting work. Reiniger, as the brash SWAT cop Roger, seemed to fall off the radar after “Dawn”; but at least he can say that he was part of one of the best damn zombie movies ever made. Gaylen Ross provides the movie with its heart and intelligence, while David Emge, as flyboy Stephens, pushes home Romero’s point about our obsession with material goods.
There are a lot of flaws with “Dawn of the Dead”, but the film’s many pluses more than make up for them. For genre fans, “Dawn” is one of those movies that can be watched over and over again, and continues to be near perfect each time. “Night of the Living Dead” will always be the best of the genre, but “Dawn” isn’t far behind.
George A. Romero (director) / George A. Romero (screenplay)
CAST: David Emge …. Stephen Andrews
Ken Foree …. Peter Washington
Scott H. Reiniger …. Roger DeMarco
Gaylen Ross …. Francine Parker