Everybody’s got a movie they think is overrated. Some are contrarians–check out the 1 star reviews of any of the more famously well received films for examples–while others just don’t get the hype. I find myself in that second camp with the original Dawn of the Dead, a film that just went on longer than it needed to while not really doing much. Oh man, am I already hitting the inevitable decline in quality this early in October of the Living Dead? This could be a problem…
Three weeks into the zombie apocalypse, a group of survivors team up and take up residence in an abandoned mall. Steven (Mr. David Emge) and Francine (Ms. Gaylen Ross) are a couple, and so are cops Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger). Okay, maybe those last two aren’t a canonical couple, but I’ll get more into that later. After their helicopter lands on the mall, they observe the zombies just… milling about. It’s theorized that they’re here because it was important to them when they’re alive, setting up a plot thread that zombies have partial memories from when they were alive. The four manage to clear out the shambling corpses inside the complex and have free reign. Things take a turn when Roger gets reckless and is rewarded with several zombie bites. Peter recognizes that Roger isn’t going to make it, but it still takes several days for his best friend to reach death’s door. Roger, realizing what’s about to happen, tells Peter that he’s going to try to not come back, but if he does, Peter knows what to do. The death, revivification, and second death of Roger dampens the mood of the other survivors with Steven and Francine having relationship troubles, sometimes related to her being pregnant. Just ignore that she never shows and chain-smokes. Eventually a biker gang–including the film’s makeup artist Tom Savini–realize the mall is inhabited and decide they want in on that. In theory they would’ve looted the place and fucked off, but Steven feels territorial and starts a gunfight. He gets shot and then eaten by zombies. Now turned, he remembers enough of the mall’s layout that he leads a pack towards where Francine and Peter are holed up, forcing the two to fly off, not knowing what’ll happen next.
I’ll start with the good things. The soundtrack by Goblin–a staple of Dario Argento films, and the filmmaker was a producer and editor–slaps. I’m a sucker for spooky synth, and this delivered. We get direct confirmation that destroying the brain stops a zombie, something that has become a standard in the horror subgenre we know today. The acting was pretty good, especially for Peter and Roger. And man, those two are queer coded to hell and back. They are bonded in one form or another, and I will take the idea that they were gay to my grave. And possibly still with me after I come back as a zombie.
As for the rest… it’s rough. The makeup is really bad. I get that Savini had to work with hundreds of extras, but the gray makeup makes a lot of the zombies look blue, something he’s lamented in the years after the movie came out. And the makeup isn’t evenly distributed, either! In several shots a gray corpse has fleshy palms, which doesn’t help the look. And the pacing is just so slow. So little that happens actually matters, with a good chunk of the movie just showing the survivors’ day-to-day lives. And that’s not nothing, to be sure! But it doesn’t make compelling cinema.
Man, I hope the following sequels are better than Dawn of the Dead, said no one ever…
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