Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)

Dawn of the Dead is relentless and exhausting. Director Romero burns out the viewer and not by the end of the film but probably three-quarters of the way through. He establishes the ground situation with a sense of impending doom, not just with the principal cast and how they’ll fare in the zombie apocalypse, but in the human condition itself. Specifically the American human condition.

It comes up a few times throughout the film, first in an awesome, horrifying action sequence and later as a talk show aside. Dawn of the Dead is a black comedy and a very effective one; Romero gets there by making the characters as real (and as self-aware) as possible. He gives his actors moments, big and small, and all of them are spectacular, whether it’s Gaylen Ross and David Emge arguing about her equal vote or the bromance between Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger.

Romero gets the character conflict out of the way relatively quickly in the film. It makes the characters more sympathetic and (potentially) more tragic. He never relies on melodrama to perturb their character arcs. Dawn is always sincere when it comes to its characters and the actors excel with Romero’s direction. There’s a plain realism to their performances, with Romero’s editing and emotive compositions elevating everything further.

The film has a number of big action sequences, usually lengthy, amid more summary sequences. Occasionally Romero goes with montage sequences, set to Dario Argento and Goblin’s fantastic score. The score does a lot for Dawn, simultaneously giving the viewer insight into the characters while celebrating the lunacy of the film itself. Not absurdity, but lunacy. From the start, Romero wants Dawn to be outlandish but always believable.

Great photography from Michael Gornick.

Dawn of the Dead is breathtaking from the first scene. Romero, whether writing, directing, editing, does phenomenal work on this picture. He gets these amazing performances out of the cast. Like I said, he burns the viewer out before the end of the film as far as hoping for a positive outcome. The last fourth of the film, after all hope has drained from the viewer’s soul, should be academic and somewhat by rote. Instead, it’s the most compelling part of Dawn. Romero and his actors have shown time and again they’re worth the emotional, intellectual investment.

It’s complex, thoughtful, exciting, hilarious, mortifying, revolting. Dawn of the Dead is wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, edited and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Michael Gornick; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; produced by Richard P. Rubinstein; released by United Film Distribution Company.

Starring David Emge (Stephen), Ken Foree (Peter), Scott H. Reiniger (Roger) and Gaylen Ross (Francine).


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