Directed By: George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Country of Origin: United States of America (as presented to an Italian audience)
Now hold on just one minute. How can someone claiming to be an enthusiast of b-movie schlock possibly review a movie like Dawn of the Dead? After all, it is the second in the line of quintessential living dead films from George A. Romero, and furthermore, it remains one of the most popular horror films of all time amongst critics and fans. It also happens to be the masterpiece of special effects cinema as present by King of Gore Tom Savini, so again, we must ask, how can you do this film justice by reviewing it, or even discussing it in the same disappointed breath as movies like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things?
Well, folks, the truth of the matter is that I can’t review Dawn of the Dead. Nothing I could say about the movie would give you any new insight that you didn’t discover on your own. But, as a technical loophole, I am at liberty to discuss with you the Italian cut of the film, as presented internationally by Dario Argento. You see, by all logic, even though the characters and plot are the same, the film Zombi: Dawn of the Dead (English translation) is far different from the 1978 masterpiece of Romero.
Let’s start with the important things first: when the original Dawn premiered in the United States, it was a critical success and George Romero had himself another winner for the genre. The movie quickly gained cult status, and why wouldn’t it? It is outstanding, and frankly speaking, in a league of its own in regards to zombie pictures. What the original Dawn of the Dead offers to audiences is more than just gore and brutality. Oh sure, there is plenty of that to go around as Tom Savini could show you (and did) on the screen. After all, Savini was quickly hired to work on Friday the 13th following his triumph in Romeroland. But the movie was so much more than that. It was an epic work of art that provoked the cerebral cortex almost as much as the gag reflex. George A. Romero challenged audiences to think about a post-apocalyptic society with commentary leaps and bounds ahead of its time. Romero set the standard for films after this by doing one incredibly important thing: he created a zombie movie that wasn’t about zombies.
Fast forward to nearly nine months later, and we have the Italian (and pretty much every foreign country) release of Zombi: Dawn of the Dead from Dario Argento. Argento was no stranger to horror himself. Having mastered his craft in films like the ever-so-creepy Suspiria and lesser-known Tenebre, Argento understood how to get to the international audience. When he took the helm for this project, he would revolutionize Euro Horror (or EuroShock) in ways that no one could ever have anticipated. It is for this reason that we are documenting this movie and showing up all film students around the world. So now, without further ado, we stop all this flogging and make with a review.
Zombi: Dawn of the Dead is essentially the same story you’ve heard about before. As a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn picks up in a world of chaos. Local TV stations (centralized this time in the Northeast) are running low on both time and resources as the plague spreads further and faster. Francine is our first major player, and she’s attempting to flee the town just as quickly as everyone else. She’ll meet up with her helicopter pilot (how fortunate) of a boyfriend Steven quite soon. Meanwhile, just across town, military reinforcements have been sent to break up a complex of militant immigrants and have been given orders to destroy any in their paths. That train is quickly derailed when many of the illegal residents are themselves already among the dead. Here we are introduced to SWAT team members Roger and Peter, each of which worked for different units on the building and are now more or less “all alone.” They decide to join forces and know of a plot to leave town using the air as their playground. That’s right, they’ll be meeting up with Francine and Steven as soon as possible.
Right about now, I could speak to you at great length about the importance of Peter, an African-American character played aptly by Ken Foree. Though Foree is best known nowadays for cameos in numerous horror films (including this remake), he helped to redefine film schema by playing a black protagonist, as was common from George Romero at the time. Though he claims it was unintentional to cause such a splash in Night, Romero more than likely made Peter the strongest character in this movie as another subtext of the overall plot. Black or white, Peter is the most intelligent and relatable character in the whole movie.
As time passes, our heroes find themselves low on fuel and patience until they stumble upon a seemingly deserted shopping mall. Left with little options elsewhere, they decide to overtake the complex and stowaway until they can formulate a bigger plan (or until our fantastic government finally makes a breakthrough). While they do find serenity for a long while in the mall, all good things must come to an end, and they do. One by one, the characters find themselves in hardly favorable situations and motorcycle renegades, along with ever multiplying hoards of the living dead take back the city. Eventually, the surviving protagonists (which I will attempt to save so as not to spoil anything) must decide whether or not they should stay or seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, its time to understand just what makes this a different movie. Well, from the very start, Argento removes much of the playful banter and dialogue amongst characters in order to build a faster-paced, action-oriented flick. Character progression and background is sacrificed in short order for balls-to-the-wall action and suspense. In fact, by handling many of these situations in the film like this, any and all societal conflict that Romero intentionally wrote into his script has been erased. In its place is a movie that shoots from the hip at all times.
The movie is also bolstered (as most media is) by additional music from the band Goblin, and while this soundtrack is hailed to be one of the greatest of all time, it is often far too righteous for the events on the screen and can be overwhelming or even inappropriate in certain areas (not to mention it has dated horribly after 30 years). Gone is much of the dark, cheeky humor that kept Dawn of the Dead at the top of the political food chain for its message and statement. In its place is, well, really nothing replaced those elements of the story. There are a few extra scenes of gore (that were not passable in the US) that help to showcase what a master magician Tom Savini is, but nothing concrete past that.
Perhaps the most glaring evidence of these omissions from the film occurs after it is all over. Rather than see the US ending, in which the zombies skitter about the mall to the hilariously understated song “The Gonk,” we get nothing but a black screen with blaring rock music and the closing credits. What a jip.
Member of the crew who should’ve been fired: Though its hard to pick just one name out of the hat for such a masterpiece, the winner, without a doubt, is the editor of this version, Dario Argento. Several times writer and director George A. Romero stated that he believed Argento just “didn’t get” the concept of the movie, hence all of the re-cuts that eliminated any message the film was trying to send other than “here ya go, zombies eat people’s insides. Much fun.”
Best Name in the Cast: Not only was Tom Savini the incredible wizard behind makeup and special effects, he also managed to cast himself as a machete-wielding biker on a tear to make the civilian’s (most notably Peter’s) lives a living hell. And hey, if that isn’t enough supremacy for you, he even reappears over 20 years later in Land of the Dead as the same guy!
Quote of the Film:
“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!” -Dr. Millard Rausch, establishing a fundamental assessment that everyone can certainly understand. Though this line was on the cutting room floor in different versions, it holds too much pertinence for me to look away.
Final Thoughts: When Dawn of the Dead came out it was a masterpiece of modern horror and managed to stand the test of time years later. It was revolutionary to American cinema from both a filmmaking and a film watching perspective. However, when Zombi: Dawn of the Dead was released to the international market, it created a completely different kind of revolution. Up until its release, European horror directors, particularly those in Italy, were virtually unaware of the zombie genre and would never stab at a quick buck for one of these films. Though it broke the mold for European horror as well, this “re-imaging” of Dawn served as an unattainable prototype for years to come as wave after wave of terrible Italian horror schlock followed its release. Nobody ever came close to recapturing the original charm or action of Dawn, but damn it all to hell if that didn’t stop them from trying year after year. In the future, I’ll be discussing several of these European flicks for their downright awfulness, and its all because they were created by students of the game who admired what they saw in Zombi: Dawn of the Dead, even if what they saw was a complete misinterpretation. So for all you film students out there now, think twice (or three times) before you get on your soapboxes and act as almighty priests. You may want to be a household name, but so is shit, and it stinks when you don’t flush it either.