I’ve long had problems with zombie movies. I had tried to couch these problems in aesthetic issues or complaints about the lack of believability in the dead rising from the grave but I was aware that that was a silly argument. The reality of my issue with zombies is quite simply knowing that I am the last person who would ever survive the zombie apocalypse. I am hopelessly, woefully unprepared for any apocalypse really, let alone one that involves the dead rising from their graves.
Thus, I fought for years against watching George Romero’s movies. I stayed away from his legendary, Night of the Living Dead and its follow-up Dawn of the Dead until well into my 20’s so I wouldn’t have the depressing realization once again that I have no hope should society begin to crumble. It’s why I am also not a big fan of Mad Max either; much like comedian Patton Oswalt, I fear my head would end up being on someone’s mantel in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and I don’t enjoy the reminder.
When I finally did give Romero a chance I felt even dumber than before. All that time, I had missed out on two of the greatest horror movies of all time. We will get to Night of the Living Dead later this week, I am driving to Davenport, Iowa on Thursday night just to see that classic on the big screen for the third time. Today, we’re talking about the even more successful follow-up to that legendary indie movie, Dawn of the Dead.
Dawn of the Dead stars Ken Foree as a cop trying to survive the apocalypse. Sure, there’s another cop, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and a reporter named Francine (Gaylen Ross) and helicopter Pilot named Stephen (David Emge) but Foree’s Peter is the star here. All four of these characters exist in a time right after the events of Night of the Living Dead in which zombies rose from their graves and began attacking the countryside.
Now the zombies are in the big cities and taking big bites out of the citizenry as society begins to collapse. Our four heroes attempt to escape certain death in a helicopter but with scarce fuel, they end up putting down on top of a shopping mall in Pittsburgh and set to work on fortifying the place against the hordes of zombies attracted by the sound of the whirring helicopter blades, blades that will come in to play in a scene later in the movie that is one of my favorites for being remarkably, charmingly goofy.
The helicopter is also what grabs the attention of local bikers who hone in on the mall with the intent of breaking past the zombies and our heroes to get to that copter. This comes after our heroes have cleared the mall and fortified the place, creating a minor, if ever so brief, utopia in retail paradise. Unfortunately, the peaceful respite from the zombie horde is upended by the bikers and by one of our heroes suffering a fatal bite that takes a while to take hold.
Where Night of the Living Dead was a fearsome potboiler of a single room suspense thriller, Dawn of the Dead is far less tense but just as fearsome comic drama. Dawn of the Dead has a sense of humor to it that is as dark as it is glorious with much of the humor coming from the idea of dead eyed zombies in a mall. You can’t help but see the crush of zombies at the door as reminiscent of recent black Friday sales where people are ready to stomp each other to get the best deal.
The humor also comes from the film’s low budget aesthetic. Romero knows his movie is cheap and his zombies look funny, it’s part of the humorous charm of this horror classic. Our goodwill toward Romero and his skill in crafting tense scenes in amidst the goofy setting and goofier zombies that make Dawn of the Dead creepy and even occasionally scary. Romero knows that making us care about the characters is where the real tension and horror lives.
Modern horror went too far in the wrong direction over the last couple decades. Since the late 90’s, horror movies deliver characters who are so desperately unlikable that we long for a zombie or a slasher like Jason Voorhees to violent finish them off. Romero, on the other hand, mines our decency and humanity to make Dawn of the Dead work as a genuine scare-fest. He gets us to care about the core four, even the one who is slowly going insane.
Ken Foree is a big part of our audience identification. There is something lovable and yet badass about Foree that makes us really care about whether he will survive. The tenderness he shows toward Roger as he is about to die is heartbreaking and the moment when Roger begins to come back to life as a zombie is heartstopping. Romero’s cuts in this sequence could not be better timed and while some have asked why doesn’t hold on Roger’s death and Peter’s hand in that moment, I found it to be the best possible way to keep the scene from being overwrought in what is after all not the most serious zombie movie ever.
Dawn of the Dead is one of two genre masterpieces from director George Romero. On Friday, we will talk about why Night of the Living Dead for as different as it is from Dawn is nevertheless the equal of Dawn of the Dead as a horror masterpiece. Both films brim with subtext and lively characters and great suspense. Night of the Living Dead may not have much of a sense of humor but it makes up for that with gripping suspense.
Tomorrow, another, quite unusual horror classic, Carnival of Souls, part of a full week of reviews of classic horror movies.