While we'll pretty much make up any reason to watch a zombie any time day or night, much less one written and directed by the de facto creator of the genre, George Romero, the release of Zombieland gave our appetite for undead entertainment some legitimacy this week. And while Zack Snyder's 2004 reimagining of Dawn of the Dead might be the more obvious candidate for a "Shelf Life" column given Snyder's status as an emerging auteur himself, not to mention the fact it's the best American zombie movie in the last decade, we elected to go back to Romero's 1979 original and see if its classic status is still deserved.
The Facts: Also known as Zombi, George Romero's follow-up to the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was released May 24, 1979 after premiering in Italy almost a year before. With an estimated budget of $650,000, Romero's film grossed $55 million to date worldwide (equal to $181 million in 2009 dollars), and is widely acknowledged as the best zombie movie of all time – even if its predecessor likely remains the most influential.
Its Tomatometer rating is currently at 95 percent. While the movie failed to win any major awards (it netted a Saturn Award for Tom Savini's superlative make-up), the film was praised both for its terrific storytelling and of course gore as well as its social commentary, which was in many ways one of the first times mainstream audiences were introduced to horror movies as a specific metaphor for modern events and ideas.
What Still Works: Romero's straightforward and largely elegant execution of a zombie story, which set the stage for countless other films. While the idea of slow-moving zombies sounds unexciting given the aggressive pace of the zombies in Snyder's remake, much less of contemporary horror monsters in general, the film creates this horrible sense of inevitability – an encroaching doom – that lingers with the audience and keeps them off balance much more powerfully than if the creatures were constantly jumping out or peeling down the street after the protagonists. Meanwhile, the four characters at the center of the story are all fully-realized, realistic and deeply fascinating, going through a wide and interesting array of reactions to the zombie invasion that definitely seem dramatic, but always believable.
Best of all, Romero wisely avoids explaining what caused the zombie uprising, instead simply dealing with the creatures' slow, inescapable conquest of the world of the living. Using the mall location as both a physical fortress and a metaphorical prison, the living character struggle to learn what to do after they've satisfied their immediate needs and more frivolous desires. While the film more or less concretely states Romero's theory that malls are a wasteland of empty consumerism, the characters' evolution past survival towards complacency offers a powerful reminder that getting everything we think we want often comes at a price too high for us to pay.
What Doesn't Work: The only minor quibble I have about anything in the film is the make-up work, which even Savini admits was unevenly done or at least unevenly effective. One can't help but wonder how strongly the contrast between the zombies' grey skin and the tempera-paint blood would have registered on the film's original negatives or in an era where presentation both in theaters or home video was less sophisticated, but the combination creates a certain kind of cartoonish vibrancy that emphasizes the film's structure as a metaphor or social commentary moreso than an actual physical reality. That said, even the obviousness of the make-up fails to lessen the film's overall impact – and for gore-fearing girlfriends, it makes this movie one of the few they can see without getting totally grossed out.
What's The Verdict: Hell yes, Dawn of the Dead holds up. Romero's film is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, but ultimately I'm not blinded by nostalgia; technically, artistically, intellectually, and viscerally, Dawn of the Dead is a brilliant, brilliant film, which is precisely why its appeal transcends the boundaries of "typical" horror audiences, and remains a seminal classic – in any genre - that stands the test of time.