#321 & #322 Night Of The Living Dead & Dawn Of The Dead
(1968/1978, George A. Romero)
“They’re coming to get you, Barbra”
So while other movie blogs have seen reviewers watch horror movies all through October, I kept up my regular thing of a special horror review on Halloween itself. But I reviewed Halloween last year, so where could I possibly go this year? A quick glance at the 1001 Movies list showed me that two of George Romero’s Dead movies were on my to-watch list, so I figured, how about a double review of these classic zombie movies?
After all, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid zombie fiction lately what with the success of games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead being one of the most popular shows on TV right now. So why not spend this Halloween taking a look at where the modern zombie image came from?
Night Of The Living Dead, the first in the series, starts out with siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) visiting their father’s grave. Soon things turn sour when Johnny is attacked and murdered by a strange, lumbering man. When Barbra runs away, she finds herself trapped in a farmhouse surrounded by more of these murderous people with a man named Ben (Duane Jones), an embittered married couple with a sick child, and a teenage couple who fled when they heard emergency broadcasts. Then shenanigans.
Dawn Of The Dead, released ten years later, is set in the midst of the zombie outbreak, and two SWAT team officers, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), join forces with two employees from a local TV station who have stolen the station’s helicopter, Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross). Together they journey to a shopping mall for supplies, and decide to turn it into their own personal base to hide out from the apocalypse. Then shenanigans.
It’s hard to imagine these two movies as part of the same series. I mean, yes, they’re from the same director and both feature zombies and have the title convention of “[blank] Of The Dead”, but they feel like polar opposites in their execution. Night is a fast-paced movie that rushes through a lot of its events on a shaky low budget, while Dawn feels more polished but also more methodical and slower-paced. They also seem to approach the zombie thing a little differently, which is odd.
Let’s start with Night. It’s easy to tell that zombie lore certainly wasn’t as well-established then as it is now. Admittedly, Romero had a lot to do with cementing the modern image of zombies in public consciousness, so the fact that Night feels at odds with image is understandable. The references to them as ghouls and murderers, as well as the somewhat jarring “explanation” for the existence of zombies feel so out of place today that Night can feel like someone doesn’t get how zombies work. But it does. Because it’s Romero. He invented the genre!
But aside from the depiction of zombies, Night is very much a movie from an inexperienced director trying everything he can to make a unique horror movie on next to no money. It’s shaky in so many places, from somewhat wooden acting, to a general feeling of confusion over how to deal with so many characters in one place. Night feels very experimental. It’s full of ideas, some well-executed, some half-formed, some abandoned halfway through. And it can be somewhat difficult to watch because of it.
Dawn is a different experience. It’s a more confident movie with more confident goals. The zombie lore feels much more concrete this time, with plenty of ambiguity left. It’s here that modern zombie lore began, as Dawn sets it up and runs with it more consistently than its prequel. It also culls the number of characters down to a streamlined four, essentially split into two easily manageable pairs – partners on the force and a couple of co-workers turned lovers. As a result, the character development felt better and it was easier to connect with Dawn’s protagonists.
However, where Dawn suffers is in how slow it is. I watched the extended cut that runs to almost three hours in length, and so much of it feels like padding. It takes the movie an age to get to the mall, which is the main setting of the movie. Even then, it feels like Romero was determined to show us every mundane detail of how our heroes turn the mall into their own personal safe haven and consumer paradise. The ending, especially, feels alarmingly long and drawn-out, and feels like it could have been chopped down a little further.
Dawn also has a severe problem with its anti-consumerism message. While I certainly don’t object to a zombie movie being used as an allegory for society, I felt that Dawn laid it on a little thick. Far too often we hear explanations of how the zombies have invaded the mall because they’re mindlessly returning to their favourite place in life. We spend way too long with the characters raiding the shops for their own vain ends. Nothing wrong with a message, but you also can be a tad more subtle about it.
Both movies suffer from weak setups too. Barbra being set up as the protagonist of Night, rushing away from a single attack and immediately becoming catatonic and allowing Ben to suddenly become our new protagonist, was awkward and rushed. Dawn’s setup was contrived, as the group stop in various places before eventually deciding “hey, this mall seems cool!”
That said, it’s hard to deny how entertaining both movies are. The Dead movies are the origin of everything that came later, and the zombies are effective threats in both. The omnipresent of a crowd of unthinking, relentless and murderous creatures around the farmhouse and the mall keep a sense of tension constantly brewing underneath everything. When we get zombie attacks, they are gruesome and unsettling, with the first deaths in the group of Night being particularly standout. In fact, just any time we get close-ups of zombies feeding on anyone it’s unpleasant. In the best possible way.
So, both Dead movies are a little shaky and far from perfect, but ultimately, it’s hard to disagree with the movies that led to our current horror obsession, and they manage to stay entertaining for most of their runtime, shaky acting and editing issues aside.
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Bill Cardille & Kyra Schon
Written by George A. Romero & John A. Russo
Produced by Karl Hardman & Russell Streiner
Music by William Loose & Fred Steiner
Cinematography by George A. Romero
Edited by George A. Romero & John A. Russo
Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger & Gaylen Ross
Written by George A. Romero
Produced by Richard P. Rubinstein, Claudio Argento & Alfredo Cuomo
Music by Goblin & Dario Argento
Cinematography by Michael Gornick
Edited by Dario Argento & George A. Romero
Favourite Scene (Night): The shock at the car explosion and subsequent zombie feast that ensues from it.
Scene That Bugged Me (Night): The exploded satellite explanation felt so random and especially feels weird in today’s more ambiguous zombie fiction.
Favourite Scene (Dawn): The first death of a major character, which is uncomfortable in all the right ways.
Scene That Bugged Me (Dawn): Sometimes the shopping sprees go on a little too long.
Watch them if: You’re interested in zombie fiction and want to see the classics
Avoid them if: You’re fed up of zombies