As an ongoing tradition of What Culture, many different films have been put forward as contenders for the coveted title of greatest film of all time.
In the past there’s been passionate arguments for such classic films as Star Wars, Psycho, Back To The Future and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. However, while these films frequently turn up in polls and lists of the greatest films of all time, it’s now time to put forward a horror masterpiece which has rarely been given the same kind of limelight.
Alongside my two other favourite films of all time (Jaws & The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is one of the rare films which I can constantly enjoy watching over and over. Few other films within the horror genre are as interesting, thought-provoking and relentlessly exciting as Romero’s zombie masterpiece.
Epic in scope and full of clever satire and pitch black humor, it’s now time to put forward 50 reasons as to why Dawn of the Dead might just be the greatest film of all time……
1. George A. Romero
Director George A. Romero pretty much single handedly defined the modern interpretation of zombies of which we all know and love.
Before Romero’s groundbreaking script for Night of the Living Dead in 1968, film zombies were a far more restrained bunch, often appearing in voodoo themed movies like ‘White Zombie’ as expressionless slaves. Romero took the basics of the zombie concept and gave it a new twist which would change horror history forever – The desire to eat your flesh.
As well as a taste for human meat, Romero’s zombies weren’t the result of Haitian voodoo or witchcraft, but rather an mysterious pandemic or possible radiation leak. Dawn of the Dead marks the point where Romero perfected his vision of the zombie apocalypse, by making his zombies not only a genuinely terrifying threat, but also by turning them into walking metaphores.
Dawn also displays many of Romero’s best qualities as a director, such his frequent uses of social and political satire and well developed characters. While he sadly continues to run the risk of sullying his own legacy with such dismal affair as ‘Survival of the Dead’, George A. Romero remains one of horror’s most influential figures and the true grandfather of the modern zombie movie.
2. The Goblin Soundtrack
Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be the same without the score from Italian prog-rockers Goblin, whose unforgettable synthesized soundtracks defined many European horror flicks of the 1970′s and 1980′s. Best known for their work with director Dario Argento on films like Profondo Rosso, Suspiria and Tenebrae, Goblin’s fantastic scores are often unmistakably creepy, but also rather funky.
While Romero wasn’t entirely impressed with all of their music created for the film – instead deciding to insert pubic domain library music in various places – many of Goblin’s themes for the film have become as iconic as the film itself. The alternate Argento supervised ‘International Cut’ (featured on Arrow’s superb Blu-ray release) removes much of Romero’s sometimes cheesy library music to showcase Goblin’s score in all of its glory.
3. Ken Foree as Peter
Romero’s taboo shattering decision to have a black leading man in 1968′s Night of the Living Dead (Duane Jones) as the civil rights movement continued to wage on, kick started a trend throughout Romero’s work of showcasing lead characters who were also social outcasts of some sort. While the casting of Ken Foree as Peter in Dawn of the Dead wasn’t nearly as shocking to audiences in 1978, Peter was another charismatic black lead character who oozed with cool in the hands of Ken Foree.
It’s also kinda awesome that he later went on to play Kenan’s dad in Nickelodeon’s classic family sitcom Kenan and Kel. As a fan of the show while growing up in the 1990′s, it was only years later that I realized that Ken Foree was not only Dawn of the Dead’s Peter, but also Roger, the long suffering victim of Keenan and Kel’s implausible situation comedy.
4. The Shopping Mall
Perhaps one of the best locations for a horror film ever, Dawn of the Dead’s shopping mall – The Monroeville Mall in Pittsburgh – has become a mecca for horror film fans.
Dawn of the Dead’s loyal fan base continue to visit the mall to this day, while there’s even a museum dedicated to Romero’s film in the basement. Built in 1969, It’s kitsch architecture remains largely unchanged from how it looks in Dawn of the Dead, even though many of the shops and environmental features have changed drastically in the 34 years since Zombies once walked its halls and corridors.
Described by Romero as “a temple of consumer society”, Dawn of the Dead’s iconic mall setting plays a huge factor in why the film remains loved by so many, and a crucial element of its much lauded critiques of mass consumerism.
5. Tom Savini’s Make-Up Effects
Tom Savini’s groundbreaking effects work in Dawn of the Dead established his career as one of cinema’s most creative special effects artists. Ushering in the splatter horror of the 1980′s, Savini’s unique and gruesome set-pieces were unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. Many of the set-pieces were so shocking that they led to film being released unrated in the US, and cut to shreds by censors in other parts of the world.
Savini has been somewhat critical of the effects of Dawn of the Dead in recent years, due to the vividly unrealistic blood – often almost fluorescent red and with an oily consistency. Romero himself has continued to champion the look of Dawn of the Dead’s blood, arguing that it compliments the comic book feel of the movie.
Whatever you think about the unrealistic blood, it’s still impossible to deny the ingenuity and wince inducing power of Savini’s effects, with particular highlights including a helicopter semi-decapitation and a machete being implanted into a zombie’s skull.
6. The Satire
More than just a gory splatter fest, Dawn of the Dead is stuffed full of Romero’s trademark satire and social commentary. The zombies themselves are seen wandering around the shopping mall aimlessly, in a way which Romero suggests isn’t exactly any different to how they once behaved as humans. Similarly, the survivors of the film take solace during the inconceivable horror of a zombie apocalypse by savoring the many material goods of the mall.
However, despite having everything they could possibly want at their disposal – from luxury food to expensive clothing – it’s not long before the group of survivors become alienated by their new lifestyle. The sharp undercurrent of satire that runs throughout Dawn of the Dead not only raises questions about our consumer obsessed culture but also highlights another reason why Romero is one of horror’s most respected directors.
7. Score: L’alba dei morti viventi
8. Gaylen Ross as Francine
Compared to Night of the Living Dead’s Barbra (Judith O’Dea) Gaylin Ross’ portrayal of Francine represents a stronger and more intuitive female lead, clearly reflective of the changes in society between the two films. As a mother to an unborn child with Stephen (David Emge) she longs for a life beyond the zombie apocalypse but is forced to protect herself by any means necessary in order to survive.
However, her reactive characterisation can’t be entirely placed at the feet of Romero, as it was Gaylin Ross whom suggested that her character shouldn’t scream or run during moments of peril. While she’s often the damsel in distress of certain sequences – such as when she’s stalked by the creepy Hare Krishna zombie – gun toting Francine represents a definite change in the representation of women in the horror genre.
9. The Zombies
Zombies remain one of the most fascinating movie monsters, due to the way in which they act as an allegory for so many different things. Most prominently, they allow us to confront our universal fear of death, always lurching towards us despite our frantic attempts to keep it at bay.
Romero’s zombies can also be seen to represent our fears of social collapse and civil unrest. One only has to look at the disturbingly similar scenes of chaos and destruction of last years London Riots to the social breakdown and panic seen within films like Dawn of the Dead.
In the years since Dawn of the Dead’s release in 1978, we’ve seen zombie make-up evolve from Tom Savini’s simple but effective grey faced creations, and yet the zombies in Dawn of the Dead remain some of the most iconic and frightening ever seen on film.
10. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2
I’ve never quite understood how the Italians managed to create so many unofficial sequels to American films throughout the 1970′s & 1980′s without hardly any legal issues. If an Italian sequel to The Dark Knight Rises appeared out of the blue later this year, you can guarantee that Nolan and co would be on the phone to their lawyers in a heartbeat.
While it would be a little harder to get away with today, the Italians managed to make unofficial sequels to The Evil Dead II (La Casa 3), Alien (Contamination) Jaws (Great White) and most notably Dawn of the Dead – which is actually rather good.
Directed by gore lover Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2 (also known from its video nasty days as Zombie Flesh Eaters) was made purely to cash in on the huge success of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – known as Zombi in Italy. Completely unrelated in plot, the film takes place on a cursed tropical island in which the dead are suddenly returning to life. Fulci’s zombies are an odd bunch, often taking time out to gratuitously shove splinters into the eyes of women and fight with sharks.
The trashy Zombi 2 doesn’t quite deserve to be placed alongside Romero’s masterpiece, but taken as its own exploitation flick, there’s plenty here to enjoy. It’s ridiculously gory, mixes classic ‘voodoo’ representations with Romero’s modern zombie, and has rightfully managed to carve its own dedicated fanbase.