When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
After the low budget, black-and-white "Night of the Living Dead" became a cult sensation during its limited release in 1968, many of the horror masterpiece's fans anxiously awaited for a follow-up. Their wish finally came true ten years later, when director George A. Romero offered up a sequel to his seminal film, entitled "Dawn of the Dead". Shot in color and with a larger budget, "Dawn of the Dead" is an action-packed entry that further builds on the mythos established in "Night of the Living Dead". And while it fails to surpass the first film in terms of its intensity and storytelling aptitude, "Dawn of the Dead" still manages to offer up a wicked blend of action and horror that will make even the most jaded movie buff sit up and take note.
Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill.
"Dawn of the Dead" picks up almost where "Night of the Living Dead" finishes. The strange radiation that has been re-animating the recently dead is having profound effects worldwide. Like many cities across the United States, the city of Pittsburgh is gradually succumbing to the ever-growing plague of zombies. The government has declared martial law, and has ordered all citizens to vacate their homes and report to the nearest rescue station. Unfortunately, half of the officially listed rescue stations have fallen, while the remaining ones are not far behind. Those who refuse to leave their homes are forcibly removed by the authorities, often with bloody results, as seen during an opening sequence in which a heavily armed SWAT team invades a housing project in a bid to 'contain' the situation. Civilization as we know it is on its last gasp.
This isn't the Republicans versus the Democrats, where we're in a hole economically or... or we're in another war. This is more crucial than that. This is down to the line, folks, this is down to the line. There can be no more divisions among the living!
In the midst of the escalating social disorder, four individuals decide to make a break for it and escape to Canada by helicopter. Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross) is a television news producer who has seen first-hand how futile the government's efforts have become, and her clumsy boyfriend Stephen Andrews (David Emge) is the one flying the chopper. Also along for the ride are two SWAT officers who have had enough of fighting a losing battle-- the natural born leader Peter Washington (Ken Foree) and the high-spirited Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger).
What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Instinct, memory... this was an important place in their lives.
While on their way to Canada, they come across an abandoned shopping mall, and decide to set down on its roof. Even though the living dead wander freely through the shopping mall concourse below, the group discovers that many of the shops are still intact and that it would be the perfect place to hold out, with everything they need, including food, supplies, and weapons, at their disposal. They then formulate a plan to clear the mall of the zombies, and wind up creating an almost utopian existence. However, like the crumbling world outside, their idyllic existence is a fragile one, in constant danger of being toppled by the growing mass of undead outside the mall, roving motorcycle gangs who take by force, and probably the worst of all, their own greed and pride.
This situation must be controlled before it's too late. They're multiplying too rapidly!
As a horror film, "Dawn of the Dead" certainly delivers the goods with its atmosphere of impending doom, some genuine white-knuckle scares, and graphically gruesome violence that even the most desensitized viewer would find unsettling. However, there's more at work in "Dawn of the Dead" than your average horror film. The action quotient is also high as the characters use all the firepower at their disposal to fight off their enemies, both undead and living-- if Quentin Tarantino ever made a horror film, it would probably look like "Dawn of the Dead". A sequence in the film's third act, when the mall comes under siege by a motorcycle gang, even vaguely calls to mind elements of the "Die Hard" formula as Stephen uses guerilla tactics and his knowledge of the mall's layout to fight off the invading hordes. Another memorable sequence has Stephen, Peter, and Roger tooling around in a car inside the mall while taking potshots at the undead.
But the element that separates this film from its predecessor would be the satire on the culture of consumerism. In a sense, the mall in which our heroes establish a new life for themselves is a microcosm of the world at large. Instead of continuing on their quest for safe harbor, they succumb to the convenience and easy lifestyle afforded to them by the shopping mall-- a state of stagnation that eventually leads to their downfall. The zombies themselves are also strangely attracted to the bright lights of the mall, as though it is instinctual or part of some latent memory.
And though the use of satire and black humor add another dimension to "Dawn of the Dead", they also sap some of the much-needed momentum out of the story. Unlike "Night of the Living Dead", which was analogous to a pressure cooker in how it relentlessly placed its characters in jeopardy, "Dawn of the Dead" visibly sags in the middle. Compared to the adrenaline rush of the film's opening, the intensity drops off considerably during the second act as the script explores the lifestyle that the heroes create for themselves. The tone of film, which had been one of constant dread throughout the first act and the beginning of the second act, becomes noticeably lighter, which further diminishes the sense of urgency in the story. In addition, having been filmed in color, the make-up of the film's zombies are a lot more obvious than in the black-and-white "Night of the Living Dead", making "Dawn of the Dead" appear almost farcical in some spots. Fortunately, the action does pick up again as the third act gets underway, though the finale is not quite as controversial or shocking as the often-debated ending of "Night of the Living Dead".
Performance-wise, the four unknown actors Romero cast in the lead roles play their roles admirably. Foree, as Romero's trademark black hero, conveys both conviction and poise as the most levelheaded of the group. Reiniger is also great to watch as Stephen's sidekick, though he goes a little overboard with his character's enthusiasm in some scenes. Ross is terrific as the heroine who is not as helpless as she appears, while Emge is suitable as the group's weakest link, whose impulsive actions betray a lack of common sense. Fans of "From Dusk Till Dawn" will also recognize the 'Sex Machine', Tom Savini, who does double-duty appearing as the leader of a marauding motorcycle gang, as well as supervising all of the film's make-up effects.
Film critic Roger Ebert has called "Dawn of the Dead" the 'best horror movie ever made'. While I would agree that Romero has crafted something unusual potent with this 1978 film, "Dawn of the Dead" still pales in comparison to his "Night of the Living Dead", lacking its unyielding narrative intensity and constant atmosphere of foreboding. However, despite the film's missteps in the narrative department, "Dawn of the Dead" is still a worthy successor that provides enough thrills and chills to make it a must-see effort. Watch it with someone you love, tonight...