George A. Romero delights in assaulting the sensibilities and challenging the perceptions of audiences. Dawn of the Dead is a disturbingly violent journey into the human psyche that forces you to come to terms with some of the less beautiful parts of human existence. All the gore, is offset by just enough camp and just enough depraved humor to force you to laugh even when the only appropriate action total is revulsion.
Dawn of the Dead is the second film of Romero's original zombie trilogy and it's release comes 10 years after Night of the Living Dead changed the face of American horror movies. In typical Romero fashion, it stars a cast of little known actors to combat the coming horde of the undead. It's unclear how the film relates to it's predecessor, but it is hardly important. Dawn of the Dead is the story of four survivors who decide to barricade themselves inside a shopping mall and the things that occur after they do.
The film plunges it's cold, dead fingers deep into your mind and forces you to come to some uneasy realizations. The themes of consumerism and the zombie as a symbol of it's effect on people is so obvious that it barely deserves mention. It's the primary purpose of the setting and an extremely effective tool. Zombies riding escalators to mall music is comical and disturbing at the same time. The more subtle social critiques are significantly more interesting though. Dawn of the Dead, like most of Romero's movies, makes very strong comments about racism. When you find out Francine is pregnant, you can't help to laugh when Peter tells everyone he knows how to abort a child. Then you realize, it was you, not Romero, that ignored all other options and assumed Peter knew how to do it because he is black. Dawn of the Dead is hard to beat as a satire of the social and political climate of the late 1970's.
The ingredients in Dawn of the Dead, while slightly missmeasured at times, combine to enhance the commentary and focus the films tone. The make-up and effects deserve a special mention because of how perfectly they play into this satire. The excessive make-up on the zombies and the fluorescent red blood that was used by the gallons is a perfect foil for the gaudy, opulent fashion and lifestyle of the era. It also helps to take some of the edge off the violence and add to the comedic effect that prevents the movie from becoming too bleak. This comic effect, which Romero strives to maintain through the bulk of the film is an important element in the movies effectiveness. His ideas are so good and so well developed, it's a shame that he has difficulty fully expressing them.
Dawn of the Dead suffers from two distinct, but interrelated problems. The first is a poor script. It has bright spots, but it generally fails in portraying the sorts of important details that would create life in otherwise wooden characters. We learn so little about our protagonists and their lives before things went wrong, it's hard to really connect with any of them. Along with the script's inadequacies, the actors in Dawn of the Dead, while acceptable, are far from quality. This plays into the camp factor in the film, but the negative effects of their average performances are hard to miss. Had these two issues been addressed by Romero, the film may have lost some of it's campy appeal, but the things it would have gained are indescribable.
Dawn of the Dead holds a special place in American cinema history. It's a gripping, disturbing satire of human existence that just so happens to be full of flesh eating zombies. The film is proof that enough vision and determination can create on-screen magic even when the odds are against success.