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By Excess Hollywood | August 8, 2007

George Romero says a lot with his zombie films. They are political/social statements disguised as horror movies that have a distinct comic book feel to them. (It’s no surprise to learn he was influenced by EC Comics.) “”Night of the Living Dead,” the first film in the zombie franchise, is considered to be a classic, and many critics think it is the director’s best work. Oddly enough, that film didn’t take off in the United States until after it went overseas and received good reviews in France. Critics over here, not wanting to look like they weren’t in on some grand secret, quickly started praising the film and its apparent take on race relations. (In reality, the lead was originally written for a white man, but Romero soon tweaked it after seeing the caliber of Duane Jones’ acting skills, which leads into a debate about the zombie franchise’s messages. Are they intentional or not? Romero seems to go both ways on the subject, but I believe it doesn’t really matter as the messages are obviously there.)

While “”Night of the Living Dead” is a great horror film that influenced cinema and actually had something important to say, its sequel, “”Dawn of the Dead,” is a far superior film that not only had something to say, it also seemed to predict the future with dead on clarity. (Much like “”Cannibal Holocaust.”)

For those who haven’t seen “”Dawn …,” it is a gorefest focusing a small group of people who ride out a plague of zombies from the relative safety of a shopping mall. They are later set upon by a biker gang that threatens the dwindling group’s very existence.

The film started off with a bang and barely let up. What made it most interesting was its use of the mall as the main locale. It was filmed at the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania, one of the first malls in the country, well before these institutions were the cultural eye sores they are now. When a character speculates that the zombies, who are wandering aimlessly around the mall, are just doing what they did in their “”living” life, it is an interesting look into the future. Romero set the movie there not only because he knew the people who owned the mall and he had access to it, but because he was told by them that the mall provided everything you needed for survival. It sparked an idea, and he ran with it.

The protagonists of the story also get inflicted with shopping fever — stealing money from the banks, grabbing gourmet food, and wearing designer clothes. All in the midst of flesh eating zombies who awkwardly ride escalators. When the biker gang comes to get its share of the spoils, our heroes go from having a fairly comfortable existence (all things considered) to defending themselves against the anti-consumer marauders who want to kill them and belittle/torture the zombies/consumers. The protagonists find themselves in an interesting place, safer with the consumers than the anti-consumers. (It’s always safer to be with sheep instead of wolves.)

To say that Romero is a genius would be overselling his sociological skills. He did seem to have a keen eye for the future of consumerism, though, and made the perfect analogy. Consumers are zombies, many anti-capitalists (who are, by nature, anti-consumers) live off capitalism’s spoils, and the best way to survive is to be aware and on guard lest you fall into one category or the other. (It’s no surprise that the protagonist party’s rebel and follower characters both die. The rebel is a victim of his own bravado, and the follower meets his demise because he wants to be like the other two men — strong and proactive. He spends the entire film trying to be like them, and when he dies he winds up leading his fellow zombies into his old hideout. He finally becomes the leader he always wanted to be by becoming just like the masses.)

When you look at the take on race in “”Night of the Living Dead,” the military/industrial complex issues of “”Day of the Dead,” and the classism of “”Land of the Dead,” you can see how Romero likes to wrap a lesson up in a good bit of terror, despite what he may claim. With “”Dawn …,” however, he hit it out of the park. What’s even more incredible is that the film gets stronger with age. The remake didn’t try to top it for social commentary, and actually seemed to go out of its way to leave that out. It’s as if the minds behind it knew it had been done as good as it possibly could be, so they took the story and made it more straightforward and action-oriented.

Today’s audiences may laugh at some portions of the original, but the premise is so cool and right-on that those people who are scoffing at the few portions of the film which seem dated will picture themselves in that very situation and wonder what they would do. Unfortunately, the answer is that most people would be zombies … one more thing Romero got right.

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  1. Felix Vasquez says:

    Which only serves to reveal the terrible dialogue and the clear lack of any story or plot within the messy remake. It’s much more of an action film than the original. The original’s action scenes served a purpose, while the remakes were so clunky. Hell, even Romero describes the remake as an action movie.

    I clearly disagree. They’re about the same in action.

    Frantic opening, much gore within and around the mall, and a gory ending.

  2. Jeremy Knox says:

    There’s something interesting about the Dawn Original VS Dawn Remake thing. There’s LESS action in the remake than the original. Certainly less intense action. There’s no car chase through the mall or biker attack. I think that’s partially why the remake was so good. It wasn’t trying to be all action and paced itself well.

  3. Nathaniel says:

    Dawn of the Dead is my favorite horror film of all time. I think it stands the test of time because of its brilliant political commentary. Doug, you have written another great and insightful piece of commentary.

  4. Felix Vasquez says:

    “Unfortunately, the answer is that most people would be zombies … one more thing Romero got right.”

    Yeah, that’s true.

    What’s also interesting is that in the end of the world, the heroes won’t be the models or actors, or men with chiseled jaw lines. They’ll be the pot bellied workers, the average joes, and the men you simply pass by on the street.

    Honestly, a lot of people I talk to wonder what they’d do during a zombie apocalypse, and many of them pretend they’d survive and eventually admit, yes, they’d end up as a zombie, or commit suicide.

    5 billion people in the world, 90 percent have become the walking dead, it’s only a matter of time. And the folks in “Dawn” knew that, and that’s what made them turn on one another, and become so restless.

  5. Felix Vasquez says:

    “He spends the entire film trying to be like them, and when he dies he winds up leading his fellow zombies into his old hideout. He finally becomes the leader he always wanted to be by becoming just like the masses.”

    I never thought there was anything new to be said about “Dawn” but wow, this is a fantastic observation I’ve never noticed before. I loved this article, Doug. Well done.

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