In George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” a small zombie plague hit the Pennsylvania countryside. Seven people holed up inside a farmhouse to wait out the crisis. “Night” is a low-budget masterpiece: simple, inevitable, relentlessly grim.
“Dawn of the Dead” is a messier movie: morally and in terms of how much blood is spilled.
“Dawn” takes place after society has broken down. There’s no more radio broadcasts and no more government. Just millions of zombies and pockets of heavily armed humans fighting to survive.
I doubt there will ever be a 21st Century zombie movie that is as great as George Romero’s were.
The problem with modern high-tech flicks like “World War Z” is that the zombies are computer generated and move unnaturally quickly. They are little more than video game bad guys to be heartlessly shot down.
The zombies in writer/director George Romero’s films are actors in make-up without any super speed or super powers. After a human survives an attack by killing a zombie, there is a moment of empathy and sorrow. This was not a victory to be celebrated; this is a terrible thing. That zombie was us.
In a bad modern zombie movie, the characters would work toward a solution to the problem or a cure to the plague. But real people would have no chance of accomplishing these things.
In “Dawn of the Dead,” the last living people just do their best to find meaning in a world with no family, country, jobs, or religion. They all look to the same false idol: consumerism.
The four lead characters in “Dawn of the Dead” steal a TV weather chopper and fly to … the mall.
Living at the mall offers the survivors a jolt of excitement. They have everything they could ever want – for free! But it turns out that the zombies are just as attracted to the mall as they are.
“They’re after us. They know we’re still here.” “No, they’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”
George Romero is horrified by American materialism. We shop pointlessly and mindlessly, never questioning whether our lives will be any richer after we’ve consumed another mass-produced product.
The zombie-as-shopper metaphor isn’t very sophisticated obviously. “Dawn of the Dead” gets more interesting when it explores the shopping habits of the human characters.
Faced with the total breakdown of society, our four human heroes cling to 20th Century consumerism in a futile effort to find meaning. The helicopter pilot – Stephen – gushes to his girlfriend about all the wonderful free stuff in the mall, giddy with the drug-like euphoria of a shopping spree.
But in the ultra-violent final act, it is clear that consumer goods are all that he has left. When a band of armed raiders busts into the mall, our four heroes could simply hide and let the ruffians take what they want. But Stephen can’t part with any of it. “It’s ours … we took it,” he mutters as he chooses to fight to the death over his beloved stuff.
This is a subversive movie. I couldn’t find it on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. I couldn’t even find it for sale in the iTunes store. I had to watch it on YouTube. I’m pretty sure that the people who run our world don’t want us to see it. The last thing they want is for us to stop shopping.
George Romero was a first-rate filmmaker and an important social philosopher. “Dawn of the Dead” is a must-see.