George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968 was a true horror classic, filmed in crisp black-and-white and shot on a low budget. The film's lack of major distribution resulted in it being sent to Saturday matinees, where legend has it young children saw the movie and fled the theaters crying. The primitive, rough feel of the movie gave it an edge of realism that works even today, instilling a chilling, creeping feeling of stark terror unlike any other horror film made since then. In 1990 Romero re-made Night of the Living Dead in color and with a much bigger budget, but he wasn't able to re-capture the intensity and the "realism" that only seems to spring from the camera and mind of young, maverick directors who enjoy taking risks and having fun with the camera.
In 1978 Romero made the first sequel to his horror masterpiece: Dawn of the Dead. This film has become a classic in its own right, and deservedly so. It's a worthy followup and successor to Night of the Living Dead, but it succeeds because it ventures down a slightly different, more satirical path. While we are terrified when we watch Night of the Living Dead, the horror of Dawn of the Dead stems from the way the second movie turns a mirror on us and asks us who is more frightening: the zombies, or the humans?
The first half hour of Dawn of the Dead actually follows in the footsteps of Night of the Living Dead, ingeniously conjuring up the same oppressive, relentless atmosphere of terror with its very first scene. A TV station is desperately trying to stay on the air, but it seems more an act of futility than anything else: two "experts" are shouting at each other over the moral aspect of killing all of the zombies, while the station manager insists that the station will continue broadcasting locations of "rescue stations" that people can go to for shelter from the zombie plague -- even though half of the locations listed by the station have been abandoned. The government has declared that people can no longer live in their homes, and we see one extended sequence of policemen (or stormtroopers?) bursting into an apartment complex, rounding up the residents, and herding them outside. The inhabitants have been keeping a cache of zombies in the basement, because they still believe in respecting the dead.
This first half hour of the film continues director/producer Romero's theme begun in Night of the Living Dead, by showing us how people react when presented with the end of civilization as they know it. In one way, it could even be a reflection of H.G. Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, which put four "tough" men into a life-and-death situation and showed how their actions in that situation would surprise everyone, including themselves. So it is with Dawn of the Dead: with murderous zombies overwhelming civilization, and the survival of humanity itself in doubt, the characters in the film let their true selves come forth. It's not a pretty sight, as one SWAT patrolman goes berserk and guns down innocent people; while the film's ostensible "hero," a square-jawed guy named Peter, realizes he has better chances of survival by taking off on his own. (It's one of Romero's more deliberate ironies that the lead roles in both his first film and this one are black; what better way to thumb his nose at Hollywood stereotypes?)
But after about half an hour of scares and chills, the film takes a sudden detour and explores new territory. Instead of going for the inexorable terror of the first film, the story veers into satire...but the satire works. In fact, it works well enough that many fans of Dawn of the Dead consider the first half hour of the movie to be its weakest part.
Our four heroes are fleeing in a helicopter, looking for fuel and food, when they come across a huge, abandoned shopping mall. The mall is completely intact (amazingly enough), and our heroes realize it's a perfect place to stay. It has everything: food, clothes, guns and ammunition for killing zombies; and so they figure out how to block the entrances and get rid of all the zombies inside, putting themselves in a situation that many people have dreamed of. What would you do if you had the run of the entire mall, able to take anything you wanted with no one else there?
The characters actually have to explain to the audience what a shopping mall is -- this film was made during the days when huge mega-malls were unusual and scarce, not residing on every street corner and downtown district in the country. This may have made the satire even more subtle back then; since malls and "consumer culture" have pervaded our society to the point where we now decorate our homes to resemble malls, it's easier for us to point out the black humor and realize that Romero is stabbing at us when the characters ask why the zombies are here, roaming aimlessly throughout the stores. Peter, the hero, notes that they seem to be coming there because of instinct: "this place used to be an important part of their lives." In fact, if this film were made today, it might have actually suffered from "been there done that" syndrome. Cultural in-jokes that point out our dependence on (and subsurvience to) malls are a dime a dozen today...which only shows how much influence the "mall" has had on our culture. Dawn of the Dead was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, and over the time its message has become more meaningful.
As for the film itself: unlike the original 1968 classic, this movie is filmed in widescreen (1.85:1) with bright, crisp color. The mutilations, decaptitations, exploding heads, gunshots, and (especially) devouring of human flesh are shown in abundance, in explicit detail; however, this actually lessens the terror because it leaves less to the imagination. The flesh-eating scene of Night of the Living Dead is an unforgettable moment in screen horror because the black-and-white cinematography actually made it more "dreamlike" and fired the imaginations of the audience (in fact, the zombies looked like they were eating fried chicken), but the splatterful special effects of Savini make up for it by adding a comic-book appeal (which also helps the satire). When zombies die, the blood splashes all over the place; one particularly gruesome exploding head near the end of the film is especially memorable. The "director's cut" of the film (which has about fifteen minutes of additional footage) also includes more scenes of zombies eating humans alive, ripping out and devouring the entrails of their still-living victims. (Yum!)
Still, the movie asks us, are the zombies actually evil? After all, they're doing nothing more than roaming the countryside and looking for food. As our hero Peter says early in the film, "It wasn't one of those things that nearly blew me away" -- referring to another character who nearly shoots him. Humanity may be physically able to withstand the onslaught of the living dead, Romero says, but because we can't even trust each other and be able to live together, it will be humanity's own selfishness and inability to get along that will be our undoing. The point here is emphasized in one of the final TV broadcasts of the film, as an "expert" asks whether humanity is worth saving.
Even the final battle of the movie, as an army of looters invades the mall and smashes things left and right, makes this point. The "heroes" shouldn't have stayed in the mall where they were vulnerable; but they were seduced by the appeal of its "convenience" and they felt they had to defend it from intruders. The zombies don't care about any of this -- they just want their food. In fact, the zombies are so ineffectual that the people who die during the final battle wouldn't have died if they were only fighting the zombies. They're fighting each other.
Of course, the "message" of Dawn of the Dead only works if it's a good movie -- and that's what it is. It starts out as an effective horror film, and the horror stays with us throughout, even as the zombies are locked outside the mall and the heroes don't have anything to do except get drunk and try on clothes. Splatter fans have loved the splatter, and the movie gives us all the gore we expect in a "living dead" movie, plus some. The film is more than just a re-make of Night of the Living Dead: it expands upon the original and continues the "saga" of one of the most memorable horror series of modern times.