Never saw the newer version I’m afraid, not in a position to compare the two.
But Dawn of the Dead is fascinating enough on its own and in its own right. Still, there’s lots to learn if you look at it in relation to the worldwide zombie craze that’s now, thirty years later, gripping the world like some kind of virus that fell from space with A BLOODTHIRSTY LUST FOR HUMAN FLESH!!
That’s the tagline that was on my DVD of Night of the Living Dead. Dawn stands in relation to that movie as the best kind of sequel: it takes that brilliant, simple, raw, skin-of-the-teeth budget film and expands on it. It’s wider in scope, it’s longer, it’s more complex, and it’s still scary and fascinating in today’s zombie-saturated world.
It leaps right in on the action with a minimum of all that “what’s going on” and slow-descent-into-chaos stuff. Of course that can be really cool, seeing the world slowly burn in front of our eyes, but here the focus is elsewhere: the main characters have accepted zombies as a fact an are trying to survive.
The startling, ahead-of-its-time feature of Dawn of the Dead is what happens to these characters. At first I thought I was in for a bore: 2 white guys sit in the front seats of the helicopter making plans for survival; a black guy and a white woman in the back seats chatter sentimentally about the people they’ve left behind. In her first action scene this heroine, reminiscent of the one in Night, stands there too shocked to move.
But the dynamics of these characters play out really well as the story went on. Most interestingly, Romero explores a fact that is really at the heart of the genre, especially in its 21st-century form: a zombie apocalypse is fun. The best piece of zombie theory I’ve seen and the best explanation of the phenomenon is here on cracked.com:
… but here, in 1978, it’s at the heart of the movie. The total breakdown of society gives us the freedom- no, no, the need, to go and loot everything we want, to carry around guns and blow stuff up. Most of the world’s population are reduced to mindless savages you can –need to- kill without remorse. Our dog-eat-dog world is given a literal expression, the savage struggle for survival that underlies it all is made open and clear. And one-on-one, these zombies are not even hard to kill, especially if you’ve got guns. Zombie apocalypse turns the survivors into supermen.
This all comes out really strongly in Dawn. The machismo of some early gore scenes gets you into a false sense of action-movie security; the three male characters get, to one extent or another, drunk on it too. There’s two cops, blue-collar guys, and a middle-class reporter type, who gets really sucked into the fun of it all, trying to prove his badass credentials to the other guys and getting frustrated by his girlfriend telling him, very sensibly, to cop on a bit. We see characters, given the freedom to loot and kill, getting to like it- laughing with hysterical joy and leaping around the place blowing heads off in a splatter of ’70s stop-motion gore. You can see it coming, and you pat yourself on the back when it does: somebody’s gonna get bitten. And this mania is exactly what we’re (I am) engaging in with our (my) zombie fixation.
Even the more subtle allure of the shopping centre (which attracts the smart-ass main characters every bit as much as it attracts the zombies with their residual memory of places and things that were “important” in their lives) gets into their heads. There’s something sick about the snug little secret annexe they carve out for themselves, which comes to look like a trendy little apartment. Meanwhile, with the whole place and all that’s in it theirs and theirs alone, we can see them reveling in the luxury and plenty of it all- while walking dead corpses throng outside and people talk on the TV about nuking cities.
It can’t last, of course, and a spectacular action sequence finishes it all off. In this the zombies look almost pathetic, a bunch of invading bikers tearing them to pieces, and we start to sympathize with the shambling hordes… a bit.
The music is hit-and-miss; mostly hit. But the 70s synths sound bad sometimes, and some of the action and dramatic music seems just like bad action-movie or drama-movie music. Are they being ironic? Maybe, but I don’t find it works. Other times the music hits the spot exactly: wait for the cheery cheesy supermarket music that plays over the end credits.
The film focuses on humans, so at times the zombies don’t seem threatening. Sometimes when a character is on the ground, overpowered by a gang of them, they just mooch and stagger around while he kills them one by one. Makes you long for 28 Days Later: zombies on fast-forward vs. normal-speed people. The truth of this other cracked.com article, another fine piece of zombie theory
…seems clear. But the living dead get their own back, don’t you worry. It’s a staple of zombie fiction, and indeed horror in general, that we have more to fear from humanity than from outside threats. These threats just reveal how weak, stupid and morally crap society is.
We got plenty of that in Dawn of the Dead, along with lots of blood and brains and a gripping struggle-for-survival plot. It’s one of those films that’s based around an unchanging locale, in this case the shopping centre, which allows us to focus on the minds and development of the characters.
I wanna see Day of the Dead now.