Dawn of the Dead may very well be the most important horror movie in my life. Why? Well, because Dawn of the Dead is the movie most responsible for getting me into watching horror. How is that? Well dear reader, come sit a spell and let me spin you a story. (And yes, if you’ve read my # 5 Favorite Zombie Moment before, you’ll have heard this story. Feel free to skip it, or hang around again if you’ve got nothing better to do.)
Once upon a time, Matt Carter was not the jaded horror freak that you know, but was an innocent boy who knew nothing of the genre other than the fact that it was mostly crap. He got this from his father, who is a great man, but is not the biggest genre fan in the world. Matt was also a fearful boy, very jumpy with a great imagination. He would not sit in a room with his back to an open door and feared monsters in every shadow, even going on the ripe old age of 15. Like I said, he was a fearful boy. His father had introduced him to a few genre selections over time, mostly The Universal Monsters, and 50’s classics like Them! and It Came From Outer Space, and some more recent additions like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly, but for the most part it was a genre he ignored and feared.
Then, however, he came upon a book! It was a great book called Men, Makeup & Monsters, talking about the great Hollywood special effects makeup artists. Young Matt was a huge fan of special effects makeup, and loved reading about the greats like Rick Baker and Stan Winston. However, there was another chapter that caught Matt’s eye and stole his attention: Tom Savini, The Master of Splatter. At first dubious at what the chapter might hold, Matt was fascinated by the life story of Vietnam vet Savini, who used his wartime experiences as reference for a career in makeup of carnage and mayhem. He loved reading of the improvisation and freedom for creation that he had on his early 80’s works, with none given as much loving attention in over the top detail as Dawn of the Dead. He was intrigued, and wanted to know just what this movie was like. After months of curiosity, and one videotape recording of the movie off of an Independent Film Channel horror movie marathon, Matt was hooked. Dawn of the Dead was awesome, and Matt was forever brought over to the dark side of horror.
OK, enough life story, should we get onto the movie itself now?
This sequel to Night of the Living Dead picks up a few weeks after the zombie apocalypse has swept the nation. People are in a panic, looting, fighting one another as society crumbles. News producer Fran (Gaylen Ross) and her boyfriend, traffic reporter Stephen (David Emge) steal a helicopter to try and escape the madness. Joined by SWAT officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), they hop across the Pennsylvania countryside looking for refuge. When they stumble across an abandoned shopping mall, they think they’ve found heaven, but they soon find that being trapped within may even be worse than facing the dead.
Again, this one gets a lot of credit as sequels go for going bigger and more over the top than its predecessor. While the original Night of the Living Dead took place within one farmhouse, Dawn of the Dead has an entire shopping mall for its playhouse. I’ve heard stories about how wild their nights of filming were (especially since they had to clean everything up by morning, with this being an actual, active shopping mall and all), and seeing a lot of the stunts they pulled, especially during the biker invasion scene, I’m amazed George Romero and company weren’t sued.
While Night of the Living Dead capitalized on themes of race and culture colliding during times of struggle (particularly potent as it was filmed during the height of the civil rights movement), Dawn of the Dead tackles late 70’s materialism in its shopping mall setting. While at first it comes off as a bit heavy-handed, in time it becomes quite sad to see these characters becoming obsessed with their surroundings, willing to give up their lives instead of lose their possessions to the living or the dead. It’s still heavy-handed, but as movies with hidden messages go, this one’s pretty decent. While on a cross-country road trip a few years back, my wife and I actually visited the Monroeville Mall where the majority of this film was made, and though it has been almost completely refurbished over the past 30 years, it was still awesome to see the few bits where I could say, “Hey, that’s where the zombie fell in the koi pond!” or “Hey, that’s where Blades plunged to his death!”
This film gets some of the better performances of the Living Dead series, particularly through Ken Foree as zombie-killing badass Peter, and David Emge as the weak, petty Stephen, but really the stars of this movie are the zombies and the stellar makeup effects of Tom Savini. For working on a budget, he pulls off some amazing stunts and gore effects. Heads are lopped off by helicopters, screwdrivers jammed through ears, zombies feast on the guts of downed bikers. It’s a smorgasbord of some of the most classic, over-the-top gore effects put onscreen, made almost comical by the oft-bright blue makeup of the zombies and almost neon-red blood. It’s not a very serious movie, and it’s one where they know we want to see the zombies, as they are made alternately horrifying, hilarious, pitiful, and ultimately heroic.
Dawn of the Dead is the ultimate zombie movie. It’s fun, it’s heartfelt, it’s gory as hell, it’s got a fun location… really, it’s got everything you could ask for in a zombie movie. It will always hold an important place in my life for bringing me into the horror fold, and I can never thank it enough for that.
(REMAKE NOTE: When the remake of Dawn of the Dead came out in 2004, I was writing reviews for a couple of horror movie websites, and one of the first films I had the opportunity to look at was Dawn of the Dead. I expected the worst, but it turned out to be an awesome, fun movie, that took the concepts of zombies and mall and very little else from the original, and still managed to be great. As genre fans are wont to do, they really tore into the film at the time because it was a remake. I enjoyed the hell out of it. I argued that it could very well be as good as the original. They thought I was nuts. Now you often see this movie on lists of Best New Horror Movies. Who’s crazy now?)
(P.S. Before I leave, I have to also note that as a senior in high school, I wrote my senior thesis on how horror movies were perhaps the most relevant genre of films to study, as they reflect peoples fears and neuroses at the times they were made. A good portion of it was made on the women’s lib movement and the rise of the final girl in slasher movies, and the political relevance of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Since I did it at the last minute, I forgot to include a list of sources cited and got a B+ on it. My teacher told me after the fact that I’d have gotten an A if that were included. So, in short kids, if you have a cool enough teacher, you can get good grades while writing about horror movies.)
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-- Matt Carter
(We know there's a lot of Matt Carter's online you could spend your time with, so thanks for hanging around this one!)