The Test of Time: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: George A. Romero

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross.

It’s nutty how much the world loves them some zombies. Over the last decade, zombies have went from an occasional disgustingly wonderful movie every few years to a full-fledge bankable industry. My friends and I used to kid around about zombie apocalypses back in the day, but now everyone appears to actually have ready made escape plans ‘just in case.’

With The Walking Dead now one of the highest rated shows on television (the number one drama I believe), it seems only proper to honor the movie that combined not only the gore and zombie chaos, but social commentary as well to make perhaps the greatest zombie flick ever. The question is…35 years after it was released does it still hold up against the Test of Time?

Under the examination: Dawn of the Dead.

My nightmare for Christmas shopping...

THE STORY: The film opens with a fine piece of exposition as a news station falls into chaos as two commentators debate the problem of the living dead and just what the hell the public should do. Then, like a slap in the face, the National Guard (dressed in strangely label-less uniforms…SWAT maybe at first?) invade an apartment complex filled with zombies. A lot of people are killed and even more are officially traumatized for life.

Meanwhile, a newswoman and her man (Francine - Gaylen Ross and Roger - Scott H. Reiniger), and escape via helicopter with two of the guys (Stephen - David Emge and Peter - Ken Foree) from the apartment massacre. The group finds refuge at a shopping mall, where they end up playing home. Thankfully and conveniently, the mall is mostly locked up and void of too many walking dead. It’s manageable. They live the good life until a group of bikers decides to spoil the fun, and even more folks end up dead.

Worst hickey ever.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Damn, as many times as I’ve seen Dawn of the Dead I’m still blown away by Tom Savini’s makeup and gore. In the opening apartment sequence, it sets the bar really f*cking high for all other movies to follow with limps ripped off, heads exploded, and flesh ripped right off like a fine brisket. When Peter finds the zombie den in the apartment house, it is not only horrifically entertaining (especially when the National Guard shows up and yells, “Jesus Christ!), but there's a real sense of dread and emptiness. A true loss of hope that the audience immediately is made aware of. This world still fights to remain alive, but it's clear after those opening sequences that we all know its only a matter of time until, well, we know.

While the pacing doesn’t hold up (more on that below), what does is the characterization. These folks feel ruined, haunted by what they’ve seen and done. And while the zombie anarchy is good fun, the four main characters with the uber generic names (Stephen, Peter, Roger, Francine) attempt to find ways to maintain humanity, which ends up being the heart of the flick. Dawn of the Dead is all about the small things, the small moments. I love when the group first escapes and passes over the fields below, watching local rednecks make sport out of the hunt. The party atmosphere created to just survive. Or when Peter has to shoot those two zombie kids. We feel the dude’s pain. But it's the small moments inside the mall when they attempt to block out the outside world that makes this movie more than a gore fest. We feel invested in the characters, and when something bad happens to them (we all knew it was coming), that shit hurts that much worse. 

And, of course, there’s Romero’s commentary on consumerism as even when we’re all dead and just want to eat other people, we’ll still want to return to do a little shopping. As Roger says, “It’s a kind of instinct, a memory, what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” It says what it needs to without being all heavy handed, and that's what kind of thing that made Romero that master of the genre. Despite the world ending, we'll all still be consumed by materialism and greed.

Oh, and the best kill? Zombie with the giant goofy forehead who gets decapitated by the helicopter. Its simply fantastic, and always makes me laugh. You just can't do CGI like this.

Trivia notes this zombie actor was chosen because he had a small forehead.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Dawn of the Dead isn't an easy one to find flaws within it. Rewatching it, it’s too easy to just comment on the dated nature of the thing. It’s old. We all get it. But what isn’t easy to blow off comes from one element of the special effects. Sure, there are plenty of iconic moments as discussed above, but I’ve always hate the blood. I understand they had to alter to color in order to receive a passable film rating, but it just doesn’t look real. It never has.

Another element that isn't as effective today is…the…pacing…which…at…times…is…soooo…sloooow. I get it. Romero wanted these characters to feel real. He wanted to create a false sense of safety in order to destroy it. But man, he could have sped things up just a bit. Moments either take too long or end up being too silly, which messes with the tone at times. Romero has often said he wanted a “comic book style” for it, which it does have, but could you image if it played deadly serious? It'd be...slightly better, and probably not as entertaining, so I'll retract that last comment.

THE VERDICT: Not that it's a big surprise, but of course Dawn of the Dead holds up. It's nearly a flawless film that helped to elevate the horror genre above blood and literal guts. It wanted to do more. It wanted to comment on American culture, about society as a whole...just like good science fiction should Ok, ok, Dawn of the Dead isn't necessarily sci-fi, but it does what that genre does best. Holds up a mirror to ourselves and shows us what animals we really are. 

This is a bad day.







Latest Movie News Headlines