"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."
Such is the tagline of Dawn of the Dead , George A. Romero's seminal zombie film, and one of the finest horror films ever created. Made for less than one million dollars in 1978, it raised the bar both in terms of intelligent horror and sheer stomach turning gore. It is the sequel to Romero's first film, the classic Night of the Living Dead , taking place weeks after the original story. Humanity's fight against the ever-growing masses of the undead has not gone well, and the zombies seem on the verge of gaining the upper hand permanently. A small group of survivors: a TV director, a helicopter weather pilot, and two SWAT officers, steal the aforementioned helicopter to escape the chaos that is erupting in the city around them. They ever find there way to an abandoned suburban shopping mall where they decide it is safe to hole up to wait out the storm.
While still a horror film, Dawn of the Dead differs very in tone from its predecessor. Night was a straight-ahead, dark, claustrophobic and very gritty horror film, whereas Dawn has more elements of an adventure, and the vast majority of the action takes place in the shiny, well lit sprawl of the mall. Romero himself describes the film as more of a "romp" than anything, and goes so far as to say that he's surprised by the fact that anyone is scared by it.
This is due due to the strong element of satire infused in the film, as Romero comments on the futility of modern society's consumer culture. The mindless zombies, drawn to the mall because it was an important place in their lives "shuffle aimlessly around the building. All the while, annoying muzak plays in the background, interrupted only by a recording informing the recently worn shoppers of the latest specials. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine a similar scene every occurring nearly every day with living breathing consumers. This theme extends through the film, and in the end, it is human greed, our desire for more "stuff", and our stubborn determination to hold on to what we have that is the undoing of the protagonists, not the zombies.
Despite the purveyance of satire through, the film is still pretty frightening. Alongside the traditional horror sentences, which are numerous, Romero's depiction of a society on the verge of collapse is chilling, and the shambling unstoppable nature of the zombie hoards always creates a sense of dread. The nature of the zombies, and whatever it is that causes their re-animation is wisely left unexplained, adding to the sense of confusion and desperation. Only one thing is certain, the only way to stop them is to kill their brain, either by shooting them in the head, or bludgeoning them to a more permanent death.
The gore effects really are spectacular, and do not look dated even by today's standards. They were created by Tom Savigny, who also worked with Romero on Night , and went on to become something of a gore effects king. Granted, the blood looks a little bit like melted crayons, but it enhances the campy nature of the film and prevents the level of gore from going too far.
The makeup on the other hand, though it was also handled by Savigny, leaves a little to be desired. The vast majority of the zombies were simply shambling extras with blue makeup on. Only a few of the zombie were giving additional gore effects. This is evident indicative of the extremely low budget of the film, and the time constraints that the crew was unduly under. Romero compensates for this by making the zombies visibly distinct, and thus making them into individuals. Some of these shambling characters include the overacting nurse zombie, the business suit zombie, and of course the Hare Krishna zombie.
The performances, all by unknown, and large unproven actors are uneven, but generally acceptable in the context of this film. Romero is well known for its dislike of working with stars.
These downsides do little to diminish the quality of this fine film. It is one of the most intelligent, well made films of it's type, and is just as much a legitimate classic as it's predecessor. I encourage anyone who is, or wants to be, a fan of cinematic horror, or films in general to give Dawn of the Dead a look.