Dawn of the Dead (1978)

For someone who does not like zombie movies and in fact finds them kind stupid as monsters, this film did more than any other to change my mind. It is scary. It is funny. It is socially conscious. It is narratively surprising.

This is the original Dawn of the Dead. This is not the 2004 remake that upped the intensity and violence but lost everything that made the story interesting. This is the messy, gritty, gnarly movie from the 1970’s that told a massive story with a tiny budget.

The story begins in a TV studio as they try to make sense of the zombie apocalypse outside. Here Fran and her boyfriend Flyboy are introduced. Good people just trying to figure things out and survive. The film jumps to the forced evacuation of a housing project and the two police officers Trooper and Peter who keep their heads when the world around them is in chaos. The two police meet the two TV station workers and soon the four are flying a helicopter across country to safety. They land on a shopping mall and set up camp.

This prolonged intro to the characters does a lot to set up the scale and scope of the pandemic as well as show the various human reactions to the chaos. There’s a fascinating stand off between the cops and a group of guys dressed as cops that does not end in a predictable fashion. It is surprising and intriguing. It says a lot about people in general and more about these characters specifically. It’s so much fun to watch a narrative that can surprise and intrigue. So many modern films follow a very rigid act structure that the entire film can practically be predicted from the outset.

The violence in this film is near constant and gruesome. The special effects here are unbelievable. They are all practical, and they are gnarly. Today CGI can create much more “realistic” gore, but watching a zombie take a bite out of someone’s shoulder for real is more impactful even if the shoulder is a prop. There’s something about the physical tactile nature of the gore in this movie that is so visceral. The blood is an unrealistic shade of bright red, but when it pours out of a wound here it lands on the viewer like a ton of bricks. The grit and grime of the film gets under the skin of the viewer in the best way.

Personally, I have always found zombies a little silly. They are slow lumbering brainless things that can easily be avoided and knocked over. How can anyone be afraid of something that can be easily pushed over? Well this film addresses that. It is funny when these things get pushed over and picked off with a rifle, but when these things close in and overwhelm the characters it creates a real sense of panic and fear. These things are scary, and the fact that they were risible a moment before makes them even scarier. Don’t underestimate these zombies.

The movie is too long. At nearly two and a half hours the movie needs some serious trimming. There are one too many montages of the heroes raiding the shopping mall. This adds to the theme, but after a dozen montages it’s time to move on. Also, the soundtrack here is all over the place. At times, the music is ominous and perfect. At other times it is so out of place and tonally inconsistent that it’s just confusing. The final conclusion of the film is also strange. It feels out of place and uneven. None of this ruins the movie entirely, but they are serious drawbacks.

Overall, I’m so glad I watched this movie. It totally changed my opinion on zombies. It was a very surprising and entertaining movie that I can definitely recommend and surprisingly say is my cup of tea. B+

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