Dawn of the Dead starts out highly energetic and draws you right in! A talk show host has a conversation with a scientist who implores people to abandon the dead, because they turn into zombies. People take offence and the whole show becomes a shouting match. Lots of running and yelling. Two of the aggrieved people leave and take the news-helicopter with them. Then a quick cut to a police shootout in Philadelphia. Puerto Ricans are holed up and a SWAT team moves in. Inside, they find dozens of zombies in the basement. They leave too, shaken.
The television executives and police squad meet up along the way and use the helicopter to find safe land. People are already set against each other. They hoard their own stuff. From the sky, we see the countryside overrun by zombies. Hillbillies are having the time of their lives shooting people. Then they chance upon an abandoned shopping mall. Here they take refuge and wait out the inevitable zombie attack. The police officers seem level-headed but not played by the best actors, and the one woman in the story is difficult and has a dead-eyed stare that reminds one of Shelley Duvall in The Shining.
I’m unfamiliar with George A. Romero’s films, but this film really surprised me in its quality. It has a great setup. The first half hour shows some excited, spirited filmmaking. The story moves fast, the camera angles are quick, but just right. Nice characters are quickly and deftly established. Just the zombies are a bit laughable. I mean, come on, it’s just some blue make-up. They’re not believable at all, maybe just dated for modern sensibilities. I have no problem with slow-moving zombies though, that’s fine, but they just look too much like actors with paint on them.
But the zombie-scenes are just great because of the practical effects. We see a zombie bite into a woman’s shoulder and a whole chunk of fake flesh is ripped right off. Humans are made of cake in this film. Lots of blood and gore, and it looks just fake enough and extreme enough to laugh about it. We have to salute Romero; he spared no expense. And how perfect is a shopping mall for your zombie apocalypse film? All those shops, those products of a world lost. Take anything you like! It doesn’t matter anymore, because the fabric of society has broken down!
It’s an eclectic mix of action, adventure, horror and comedy. We see montages of rednecks killing zombies, an officer being attacked by zombie kids. Not all of it works, though. The music is very silly, and sometimes it is inconceivable that the officers didn’t see certain zombies shuffling towards them. Lots of visual comedy, such as guys competing over who is the best shot. But like in Mad Max Fury Road, it’s a lot of visual storytelling. Not everything is explained in dialogue. That’s one of the things I like about this movie. We are thrown into it, in medias res, and we don’t need to know everything. All that is required is to know that there is a small group of people trying to survive.
After nearly 40 years, and lots of great scenes that still hold up, this one has earned the title of classic. It’s film history; one of the essential views from the ’70s. Is it the best zombie film ever made? It just might be, if you can get over the fact that it looks dated. But the funny ideas, the enthralling start and the messing around inside the mall still hold up. It’s just a bit long, about half an hour too long.