Today’s review is by Wally Quigley, a creative writer and director. His favorite horror movie is Dawn of the Dead (1978).
The first time I’d ever watched George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it was at the age of 23 , almost twelve years after I’d first become aware of its existence. And the only reason I’d got to Dawn was of course to get through Night. When I was eleven, I’d stayed up late one Saturday night and watched Night of the Living Dead, alone in the house and in my bedroom with all of the lights turned off – optimal circumstances for an overactive imagination to take root – and begin to imagine zombie apocalypse scenarios long before the Zombielands and Walking Deads would make zombie disaster prepping all the rage these days. We had an attic that had only one access, up through the ceiling of my sister’s closet. There were no steps to get up to it, so one would have to drag a ladder or something similar over to it, push the board up and to the side to reveal the passage, and then climb up. There wasn’t a zombie capable of managing that complex a task, so as I watched them come to get Barbara, and then to see Ben’s tragic demise at the end of Night, I know I had my safety fallback location already determined.
I’d survived the Night.
The following day, I tagged along with my mother to Stop and Shop for grocery shopping. My purpose in doing this was always twofold: (1) to secure a large box of any of a variety of sugar-loaded cereals, and (2) to check out the VHS rentals stand to see what forbidden treasures lay there. Here, at a twelve-year-old’s eye level was Chopping Mall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, and Pieces. Of course, if Ma Quigley had any idea that when I’d wandered off I wasn’t playing with squirt guns or bouncy balls but rather imagining what Leatherface was going to do to that poor girl dangling from the meathook, she’d probably have committed me there and then (or at least sign me up for another round of C.C.D).
But then I looked down and saw it. The empty VHS case that showed on its front cover the step-by-step transformation of poor Roger into the undead; Dawn of the Dead was in my hands.
I looked both ways, to see if there was an adult watching. It wouldn’t have mattered if there had been, because let’s face it – our society only gives a shit if there’s a boobie visible; not when a person is being torn limb from limb by undead cannibals. Dawn was different than Night; it was in color, vivid and intense. Looking at the back cover, it seemed as if the rules had changed. My hiding place in the attic of my house wouldn’t save me – hell, the protagonists of this movie had an entire fucking mall to hide away in and it didn’t look like it helped them at all. This installment promised gore, violence, shock, and horror at a level that –gasp– had left the movie with an X rating!!!
You’re saying to yourself: why didn’t you see it, man? Long story short: I chickened out.
Sure, I could have devised a way to obtain said cinematic contraband, but I was intimidated. The picture of that zombie in the wedding dress on the back cover, dead as dead could be and pointing straight at me scared the shit out of me.
So I forgot about it.
And then, at twenty-three, sitting in a living room of a condemned house with a couple of punk rock kids that were squatting there (even longer story, ask me again later), I watched Dawn of the Dead. And it changed the way I looked at horror movies forever.
First, the color, or I should say color(s). The chocolate-sauce blood of Night was replaced by the comic book red of Dawn; when that first zombie’s blue head explodes in a Fourth-of-July spectacle, half of you is revolted, the other half is giddy with a please-do-it-again-Uncle-George glee. The zombies in Dawn are not black and white silhouettes hiding in the shadows of trees or unlit parts of a front yard, but blue-faced, blank-stared caricatures of human beings lumbering towards their prey in clear view, like the ill-fated “helicopter” zombie or the two child zombies that attack Peter in the gas station segment of the film.
And, the effect of that helicopter zombie’s head getting, ahem, a trim, was produced by the inestimable Tom Savini. Mr. Savini’s contributions to the genre cannot be understated; in this film, not only is he responsible for gory effects, but as an erstwhile antagonist (oh, and those zombie kids in the gas station? Those would be his niece and nephew Donna and Mike). Heretofore I had never seen the viscera of a human being so prominently presented. The scene in the basement of the tenement house remains to this day one of the most frightening and graphic three minutes of film ever to be shown.
I could go on and on about Dawn of the Dead, and its impact on the genre – the subtext, its 2004 remake (good, and more importantly, profitable, which then ushered in the era of the remake), the deletion of the fatalistic alternate ending in favor of a more hopeful one (I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say helicopter blades become a theme), or the bizarre relationship it has with Fulci’s inferior Zombie, which is actually Zombie 2 overseas and Dawn is really – ah screw it, I get pissed off just typing it out.
But, inevitably, the biggest reason why Dawn of the Dead (the 25th Anniversary 4-disc collection, friends and neighbors, I don’t fuck around) occupies a permanent location on the shelf under my television isn’t so much as what it contributed to the genre, but it what it took away from my feeling of security, of feeling impervious to the horrors that come out when the sun goes down. Of course zombies will get you in the middle of the night, or a vampire, or a demon. The sun, and by extension, the day protects us – the day is for the living. But when I watched Peter, Stephen, Roger, and Francine struggle to maintain their sanity and survive it made me realize that they were still coming to get me, that there was no more room in hell, and the dawn of light only meant that you could see the terror much clearer.