DAWN OF THE DEAD: Not to Be Confused with DAWN OF THE MUMMY. Or DAY OF THE DEAD. Or SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Or….

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George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the long-awaited sequel to his classic breakthrough Night of the Living Dead, is unparalleled among modern horror films. More than a movie, Romero’s apocalyptic zombie epic has ascended to the status of an icon and to this day remains a cultural touchstone recognized the world over. With biting social commentary, groundbreaking gore effects, and stellar performances from a mostly unknown cast Dawn of the Dead raised the bar on horror entertainment to a level few have since attained. This is the Mount Olympus of zombie flicks.

In the ten years since the events of Night the shit has quite almost literally hit the fan. The mysterious plague that is causing the dead to return to life continues to spread across the world. The government has ran out of options. The police and the military are overwhelmed and outnumbered. Sympathetic humans living in ghetto tenements have given the zombies shelter and protection from the kill-crazy authorities. In the countryside trigger happy rednecks are hunting the dead for sport with the assistance of the National Guard. Society is on the brink of total collapse.

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Fran (Gaylen Ross) is a producer at a Pittsburgh television station. Her lover Stephen (David Emge) flies the station’s helicopter for traffic reports. As civilization crumbles Stephen wants to take the chopper and fly away to make a fresh start away from the chaos, and he wants Fran to drop everything and come with him. She begrudgingly obliges as the function of the local TV stations has become moot. Before blowing town they pick up Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), two members of a SWAT team that had just executed a disastrous raid on an apartment building housing the dead. This rag-tag new family take off into the night as the lights slowly die out in the city.

Deciding to head north, the quartet make a brief stop at an abandoned airfield to refuel the helicopter. There they are attacked by several zombies, an assault the group barely survives. Taking to the sky they later come across a deserted shopping mall surrounded by the living dead. Even though Fran strongly objects, the men realize that they could survive for a long time by holing up in the mall and keeping the zombies out- a task easier said than done. With this monument to rampant consumerism all to themselves our unlikely band set about to make a new life free of the unstoppable nightmare that exists outside. But soon the isolation begins to affect them mentally and emotionally, and if that wasn’t bad enough a literal army of mercenary bikers led by the vicious Blades (Tom Savini) is preparing to invade the mall and take over its immense stockpile of useless goods. Let’s not forget the expanding multitude of flesh-hungry re-animated corpses that outnumber them all.

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It’s been more than a decade since I first laid eyes upon the greatness of George A. Romero’s walking dead masterwork. Few films I have seen in the years after have left the impact Dawn of the Dead made on me as a somewhat naïve youth barely out of high school. I think it can be safely said that this movie is one of the few perfect horror films ever made. It’s hard to locate a single fault with this sucker.

Where to begin in my praise is the question. Let’s start with the man himself. George Romero is one of the all-time greatest horror filmmakers bar none simply because of his classic zombie films. Sure he’s done exemplary work in the genre outside of the walking dead such as The Crazies, Martin, and Creepshow, but Romero will go to his final reward as the man who made flesh-eating zombies into icons of modern horror who have endured for decades and influenced an entire new generation of filmmakers. He has accomplished this by using the zombie movie as a vehicle for satirizing this crazy ol’ nation of ours we call America and bringing to light social and political issues usually marginalized by the media.

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Whereas Night dealt with the burgeoning civil rights movement and the horrors of the Vietnam War being broadcast into the country’s living room on a nightly basis, Dawn brought us a nation of people who chose to ignore the changing social climate by wallowing in the excesses of consumerism. In the process they become increasingly isolated from the world around them. This was the prevalent mood in the 1970s, and unfortunately it continues to this day. Even if you couldn’t afford the products Madison Avenue was shoving down your throats you could still lose yourself in the illusion of owning them, and that was even worse. In the words of Tyler Durden, “the things you own end up owning you”. What we are seeing in Dawn of the Dead is a nation willingly participating in their own destruction because the reality of regaining control has become too much. That’s just one of the many elements that contribute to the film’s longevity.

Dawn of the Dead served as the coming out party for the special effects wizardry of a young man named Tom Savini, the man with the wild eyes and killer porn star power mustache who would outshine the actors to become the true breakout star of the film. Only a few minutes after the movie opens and already we’re witnessing people getting huge hunks of flesh getting torn from their bodies and heads exploding in gruesome rainbow-colored pieces. Dawn is a full force assault on the senses and a royal banquet with all of the trimmings for those hungry blood-and-gore fans whipped up special by Chef Savini. For Savini, who had provided the effects for Romero’s somber vampire tale Martin prior to his work, this would be the beginning of a long and prosperous career in horror cinema. To this day Dawn of the Dead remains one of his crowning achievements. It’s a shame the man has retired from doing make-up and mostly works as an actor and director. But his genius flourishes in the body of work he’s left behind, and without the man there would be no KNB EFX.

Let’s raise our glasses in a toast to the magnificent original score by the legendary Italian prog-rock combo Goblin fronted by Claudio Simonetti. Only a year after the group brought us their career highpoint in the score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Goblin took their game to the next level and set the standard for how Italian horror movies are scored to this day. Every cue on the soundtrack is instantly memorable with innovative uses of synthesizers, guitars, drums, and ambient sounds combined to create the aural landscape that thrives beneath Romero’s horrific and strangely humorous images and gives them life beyond the film frames.

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When Romero says this is the Dawn of the Dead, he isn’t whistling “Dixie”. After plunging his audience headlong into the pitch black visual and emotional abyss of Night the bright Technicolor cinematography of Michael Gornick is like a breath of fresh decayed air. The gruesome imagery is no longer obscured by the shadows. The blood is a beautiful bright red, the visages of Romero’s walking dead are cold and pale shades of blue and gray, and when people have their warm flesh ripped from their living bodies you can see the tendons stretch and snap. Most of the movie takes place under the oppressive force of eternal light, highlighting the unholy mess the world has become. Dawn of the Dead shows no mercy.

Naturally ol’ man Romero needs genuine acting talent to bring his living non-flesh-eating characters to life, so he‘s certainly assembled a fine cast for the job. Since the majority of Dawn is occupied by the four key characters of Steven, Fran, Peter, and Roger it’s important that we care about these people sympathize with their plight. Like our own families when they triumph we feel joyous, but when tragedy befalls our quartet we feel their pain. Every one of the main players gets a full character arc, a rarity even in the best of modern day Hollywood films. David Emge excels in the role of Steven; the man begins the movie as a bit headstrong and overconfident who comes to feel emasculated when in the company of the tougher SWAT officers, but he eventually grows into a sensitive and intelligent man most people can relate to-especially guys who try to act manly for their women. Gaylen Ross’ plays her character of Fran tough and cynical throughout the whole story but never without a feminine touch and a sweetness that makes you root for her. Scott Reiniger gives a great performance as the confident but conflicted SWAT cop Roger. We’re with Roger from the very beginning and we bear witness to the horror he deals with as part of his job and compels him to flee the city for a chance at a fresh start. Roger tries to keep a cool, calm head but you wonder throughout if he’s strong enough. His arc is resolved in an unexpected yet appropriate manner.

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But for top acting honors the prize for Dawn of the Dead has to go to the man whose career, unlike those of his fellow cast members, has endured in the three decades since the movie was released. That man is, of course, the great Ken Foree as strong but haunted SWAT officer Peter. His character gets an interesting introduction: with his face hidden by a monstrous gas mask Peter is forced to shoot unstable racist cop Wooley (James Baffico) while his repulsed fellow officers watch with uncertainty and dread, as do we the audience. But as the story progresses his unease and vulnerability surfaces from beneath his world-weary exterior. Peter is usually out for his own survival but his innate leadership skills emerge and will ensure that at least he will see another day. Ken Foree has since become an horror icon himself thanks to movies like Dawn and The Devil’s Rejects, but it’s easy to forget the reason the man endures: he’s a damn good actor, and his performance as Peter remains his career best.

Dawn of the Dead is an undisputed masterpiece of bleak candy-colored horror and pungent social commentary. For everyone involved it remains a personal best. No other zombie movie can touch it, no remake stands a chance, and no imagination-deprived imitators are worthy of its greatness. This is one of the best in the genre and one of the finest films I’ve ever seen period. Accept no substitutes.

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