Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Dawn of the Dead, 1978

Jesus fucking Christ – I guess this is what it takes to get me back into a movie theater post COVID – a 3D release of George Romero’s 1978 Zombie masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead.

44 years ago I had my mind properly scrambled by seeing this film at The Park Square Cinema in Boston. So how did it hold up?

Quite well, actually, although my perspective has changed. In 1978, the over-the-top violence and gore probably made the biggest impression. Understandable, since there had never been anything remotely like it. I mean, Sam Peckinpah did squibs with gunshots, and Herschel Gordon Lewis did amateurish gore, but this? WTF!? With Tom Savini using his experience as a combat photographer in ‘Nam to ground the special effects in reality, this was disarming to say the least. And relentless. By the time you get to the disembowelments in the third reel, you’re already numb from exploding heads and chunks of stretchy flesh being bit off screaming humans by zombies that used to be their loved ones. Sheesh. Just writing that sounds disturbing.

But this time, that’s not what struck me. What really stood out was Romero’s richly layered script, an allegory rife with commentary on the shallowness of consumerism in a capitalist society. And of course, the age old question: If everything went away, how would the survivors cope? Watching this film one can’t help but think about what’s happening in Ukraine. My money says Romero has a lot of fans over there.

The other thing that struck me was his mastery of editing. He had a limited budget, which showed. But it was the script and his ability to tell the story through editing that makes this movie consistently rated as the greatest zombie film ever made.

Oh yeah. Let’s not forget fearlessness. Romero wasn’t afraid to go places no one had gone before, even under extreme pressure not to do so. When it became clear that the MPAA was going to give his film an X rating if he didn’t make draconian cuts, what did he do? He released it unrated in an environment where that meant many theaters wouldn’t show it! Talk about balls and having convictions about one’s art.

The 3D transfer was done in Korea, and they did a fantastic job. From a production standpoint, the film looks dated but still packs a punch. You have to understand that this was a regional filmmaker working in Pittsburgh with a budget of $640,000, so Hitchcock level craft was never going to happen. The cast, however, was uniformly great, and the films underlying message was clear.

To truly understand why some art is so great and influential, one has to understand it’s historical context. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane don’t sound so shocking today because they set the standard everyone copied. Romero was no different.

But if you understand the medium, when you land on ground zero, it’s a mindfuck.

Romero would laugh if he read this, but it’s the Citizen Kane of zombie movies. Dig it.