Face-Off: Night of the Living Dead vs. Dawn of the Dead

Last Sunday, we lost one of the greats with the passing of legendary filmmaker George A. Romero, so the feeling was that this week's Face-Off had to celebrate Romero's career in some way. He had a lot of great films to his name, among them two that are considered to be, by myself and by many others, not just two of the best horror movies ever made, but two of the best movies ever made, period. Those films? NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its decade later follow-up DAWN OF THE DEAD. This Face-Off will compare them, but this isn't really about a battle for supremacy. This is about appreciating what Romero gave us.
The characters in this film are a group of strangers who would have never crossed paths if not for the rise of the living dead, and some of them are not very happy that they have been stuck with each other. The strongest personalities are two men in conflict - Ben, the noble and likeable leader type, and Harry Cooper, a hot-headed coward with a wife, Helen, who isn't too fond of him. Young Tom tries to find a middle ground between the two men. His girlfriend Judy is just a teenybopper. Our way into the film is a young woman named Barbra, but we sort of lose her along the way because her mind has been cracked by her experience with zombies. Don't forget the sick girl in the basement. One of those things bit her... They're an interesting mix of people, and what makes them so fascinating to watch is how different each one of them is and how differently they all react to the situation.
DAWN's characters get along with each other a lot better than the NIGHT characters do. Two of them - Stephen and Fran - are an established couple, and Fran is even carrying Stephen's child. With society crumbling around them, they bail on their network news jobs and fly off in search of safety in the traffic helicopter. They're accompanied by two SWAT officers - Stephen's friend Roger and his new buddy Peter. Peter and Roger have only just met, but they become such fast friends that it seems like they've known each other for years. Although there is some drama between Stephen and Fran and they're not sure what to do about the pregnancy, these characters are not a threat to each other. Unless Stephen's inept attempts at heroics accidentally hurts one of them. The only thing that can tear them apart are outside forces.
Cinema's original flesh-eating ghouls first emerge on the screen as if they're lumbering straight out of Barbra's worst cemetery-set nightmares, and they never lose that nightmarish quality as the film goes on. Even though they're incredibly slow, scared of fire, and easy to take on in small numbers, they are terrifying en masse. They relentlessly pursue victims, are insatiably hungry for human flesh, and there's a grotesqueness to them that comes through more strongly in black & white than in color.
The zombies aren't quite as intimidating this time around. This isn't just because of the grey makeup that can come off as looking blue, a fact which some viewers like to pick at, but also because Romero was now seeing more humanity and humor in the ghouls. At moments you feel sympathy for them, in others they look silly as they mindlessly bumble around. You don't want to get too close to them, they can tear a person to pieces, but you might be able to get away with hitting one in the face with a pie.
For a small town viewer like me, NIGHT has a very relatable setting - a farmhouse nestled in the open countryside. If a zombie outbreak were to happen, chances are good I'd be in a setting like this myself when the dead began to walk. There's nothing special about this farmhouse, which helps the movie feel like it's hitting close to home, as does the fact that the characters tune in to every newscast they can to try to get information on what's happening beyond these walls.
While NIGHT is reality, DAWN is the ultimate wish fulfillment movie. Its characters take over a large shopping mall. They have access to every store, every item within those stores is at their disposal. The food, the clothes, the games, everything, it's all theirs. Staying in a shopping mall may not be all that wise - as the characters find out, it's like a beacon to scavengers - but the time spent living in there, and the characters spend months in this mall, would be a lot of fun.
There's a feeling of dread that hangs over the entirety of NIGHT - you feel like something awful is going to happen. If you've seen the movie before, you know something awful is going to happen. There are a lot of scares in here, both in the way of jumps delivered by moments like the hands of the dead reaching through a boarded window, and by images that induce fear and unease: the sight of dead people shambling across a dark yard, busting their way into a house, surrounding characters. Dead loved ones show no sign of the love that had been there. A brother will devour a sister, a young girl will devour the flesh of her father and mercilessly stab her mother to death. It's very creepy.
This isn't as scary as its predecessor, although there are scary moments of the dead lunging at people or swarming around them when they're not expecting it. Zombies cause jumps by coming out of nowhere, and Romero also builds tension and fear by having zombies slowly approach characters who aren't prepared to help themselves. Left without weapons, Fran finds herself unable to escape from one zombie. Cornered by another zombie, Stephen has trouble loading his gun. Roger doesn't pay enough attention when he's dealing with zombies... Characters have to be put at some sort of disadvantage, because the zombies aren't that threatening otherwise.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is an intense, tragic film that doesn't offer much in the way of intentional humor or lighthearted excitement. What makes this movie fun to watch is the fact that it's a masterpiece of horror, an amazing achievement for an indie filmmaker, and it has great, memorable characters brought to life by a captivating cast. The ending may leave you feeling terrible, but there's fun in watching something of such high quality even when it's a downer.
DAWN OF THE DEAD is fun in a different way. This is one of the most gleefully entertaining films ever made. It's a vibrant rock 'n roll comic book adventure packed with action, excitement, wish fulfillment, and spilled guts. This is the most fun look at the end of the world we've ever been given. Watching these characters make their way around this mall that is their home while music by Goblin (or a goofy library track) plays on the soundtrack is a thing of joy for me.
Yeah, I can't make a call between these two. It has to be a tie. They are both amazing films that I love more than pretty much every other movie ever made. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is my default movie to put on, I've watched it more times and watch it more often than any other. But watching DAWN OF THE DEAD is such a joyful experience, I can't truly say which of these two I like better. They are both perfect in their own way.

Would the choice between these two be easier for you? Share your thoughts on NIGHT, DAWN, and Romero's career in general in the comments section below. If there is a specific Face-Off you'd like to see in the future, you can send suggestions to me at [email protected].



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