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In this first sequel of "Night of the Living Dead," four people take up residence in a deserted mall while trying to stay alive amid the armies of the dead and a vicious gang of militant bikers. Written by
Todd A. Bobenrieth <TAB146@PSUVM.EDU>
George A. Romero's masterful classic is least of anything a film about zombies. "Dawn of the Dead" is thinly disguised as a zombie gore flick, but it is really three things. 1. A cultural statement portraying racism, angst, counter-culture and degradation. 2. An account of human bonding and human reaction to different environments, harsh and eclectic. 3. Least of this trio, it is a black comedy. Rather, it contains dark comedic elements.
Somewhere early along in the film, I looked past the initial plot of four strangers hiding in a mall from hordes of zombies swarming the world, as the government attempts to find a solution to the chaotic massacres. Peter Washington (Ken Foree) is the strong, black, courageous SWAT team member who rises above the other three protagonists to become their leader. Steven Andrews (David Emge) is the somewhat timid and hesitant traffic reporter, lover of the pregnant Francine (Gaylen Ross). Ostensibly hapless and useless, Francine is actually a valuable aide to the quartet. Last, is the resourceful and daring Roger (Scott H. Reiniger).
From where I left off, I overlooked the premise of the quartet defending themselves from hordes of flesh-eating monsters and instead saw thoroughly fleshed out character personalities, bonds, and interactions. Throughout the movie's length, we learn to genuinely love these guys; Roger is so smooth and fun, easily likeable, Peter is quiet, warm-spirited, and reliable, Steven and Francine are charming. We knows them like our friends and heroes, so when they are attacked by the ferocious zombies, the suspense is so nerve-wracking and our hearts beat so rapidly because we really care about the four protagonists and could not bear to watch them die. They started off as strangers and parted as companions. Also, it is very interesting to watch how they monopolized the mall, how, in the beginning, they slept on cold hallway floors, constantly keeping watch. Later, they eliminated the threat, dined in the mall's fancy restaurant, ice skated on the mall's link, visited the gun shop for weapons, slept in rooms with beds, dressers, televisions, and other luxuries. This is an accurate representation of how it is human nature to manipulate and survive through alien atmospheres. I found that vision ingenious.
Another brilliant message the film brings attention to regards the 1970-decade. I found that like "Pulp Fiction," "Dawn of the Dead" captures the spirit of its era. The racism, tumult, riots, counter-culture, degradation are all well represented here. The film shows SWAT teams, complete with racist officers, who kill for fun, raiding an unruly group of Hispanics and Blacks, hillbillies heading out in troops to battle zombies for sport, mercenaries and vigilantes running wild, all events indistinguishable from incidents in the 70's. Perhaps the most disturbing and ironic "70's incident" in the movie involves raiding gangs of bikers who explode into the mall, mirthfully slaughtering zombies (not that that is an offense) and vandalizing stores, stealing jewelry, guns, clothes, and everything they can find; whereas our heroes took only their necessities. What happens next is very scathingly satirical and ironic. In between the battle for the survival of the human species, the bikers find it necessary to start their own little civil war amongst the not-so-numerous survivors. They hunt down both zombies and our good guys; a perfectly timed paradoxical and cynical scene. Just like the battles between non-conformists and conventionalists during the 1970's and 1960's, when America was on the brink of disaster, this cinematic revolution is hard-hitting, gut wrenching, and very real. One fascinating facet of the movie is how the audience learns to disregard the now "minor" threat of the slow-moving zombies (a bullet or incision to the head will do the job). At this point, one would not even notice that this film had the slightest relevance to the horror genre. Instead, we fear the vicious bikers, a bigger threat, villains with swords and guns. This time, the suspense and uneasiness detonates, for there is a much greater chance of death for the heroes. I found the scariest part of the movie was the deterioration of the planet during the zombie apocalypse; how the human species' decline is morbidly presented effectively and expertly by George A. Romano.
However, a refreshing sense of black humor is tossed in towards the middle of the film. Zombies attempt to walk up escalators, ice skate, and explore their surroundings, with chuckles as the result of their clumsiness. One biting laugh comes when Steven explains to Francine why all these creatures have returned to the mall. "Instinct, memory. This was an important place in their lives," he points out.
And of course, there are many, many thrills and chills. This film isn't very "jump-out-from-the dark-with-a-chainsaw" scary, but more disturbing and extremely tense, because we actually care about our characters and don't want them to die. The movie is unpredictable in this aspect, unlike slashers where you are guessing who the one survivor is and how the others die. As the zombies close in, we plead, "Don't die, don't die!"
I have two minor complaints with this film. My biggest one is that the movie seems to carry on forever, the way "Goodfellas" did. Despite the brilliance I felt enraptured with, I kept asking myself, "When will this movie end?!?" However, I realize that Romano could not have trimmed any more scenes without damaging the potency of his work. Also, the gore was at times just too much. For instance, the exploding head scene was revolting, and most of all, the intestinal feeding scene when a biker is torn apart was repulsive; I couldn't watch as his guts were graphically shown ripping apart.
Aside from those two unfortunate aspects, I strongly encourage you, rather you HAVE to, watch "Dawn of the Dead." Thrilling and suspenseful thanks to extremely distinct characters, whose fate you hope a happy one, and grippingly socially relevant, this is a unique horror, or really of all genres, treasure.
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