Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Hmm. Someone's going to have to explain this one to me, because I really don't understand why this is revered so much.
I've not seen it before. All I knew going in was that it was set in a shopping mall and it was supposed to be one of the best zombie/horror films ever made. Granted, its been about 43 years since it first came out, so its original impact is impossible to replicate. That said, however, I'm guessing it's really not dated very well at all, certainly compared with several other 70s films released either before or shortly after this which I would count among some of the best ever made - The Godfather, Jaws, Apocalypse Now, Alien, for example - all of which I think still hold up extremely well. I suppose it's not really fair to compare those films to this one (I get the impression that this was made on a far smaller budget, even with all the extras and the helicopters and so on), but I don't understand why this stands alongside films like those in lists of the best cinema of the time.
The acting is pretty terrible throughout from everyone bar Foree and (sometimes) Ross (it's quite telling that I don't think I've seen any of the cast in anything else, before or since). I didn't find Scott Reiniger's performance and his transition into a blood-crazed hot-head convincing at all, although he's not helped much in that regard by the script. Other performances are just laughably rubbish, and often bizarre, like the weird copper asking everyone for cigarettes near the beginning (wut?), or Wooley talking about the 'Bastard, bastard' Puerto Ricans (one of whom is obviously some skinny white bloke in blackface) in an early scene. Very strange.
As a social commentary about the evils of consumerism, by modern standards this just feels extremely on the nose, about as subtle as a big sign on the screen that says 'Materialism is bad, kids'. Moreover, once this original point has been shoved in your face, it's just repeated throughout the film in slightly different but similarly obvious ways, never really developed into anything more nuanced or interesting. Maybe social commentary in mainstream media was rare enough in the late 70s for this to be notable because of its novelty, but I found the lingering shots of zombies going clothes shopping or pressing their noses up against the window displays annoying by the end.
As a gory zombie movie, the special effects are pretty poor, even when compared with other films made at the same sort of time - the blood looks like magenta paint and the bits where people get bitten look like they're made of cake. The 'zombies' are only zombies because they're daubed with white make-up and have rings under their eyes. They're entirely unthreatening and just sort of goofy (see the weird monk guy in the screencap above, for example - what was that about?) Watching it made me appreciate the special effects in The Thing (which only came out 4 years after this) a lot more.
On a technical level, the continuity between quite a few of the shots just don't make sense. Like, a character will look at something they find interesting through an air vent, for example, and you'll expect the next shot to be what they can see, but, instead, the next shot is what a different character can see, in a completely different location - there were three or four shots like this I found entirely jarring. It's the same with the bit when they first get on the chopper at the beginning - the camera suddenly cuts from all the characters talking excitedly to one another to one of them being asleep, and then there's another cut to another character being asleep, without there being any other indication that time has passed. It's hard to explain, but it doesn't work. I actually rewound the film on two different occasions because I thought I'd missed something, but it was just bad editing.
The narrative itself and what happens in the film is also just pretty...dull. I didn't really think the plot was very entertaining, and it's absolutely not scary or horrifying in anyway at all (again, you could argue that I'm desensitised to it as a media-hardened millennial, but The Exorcist, which predates this by 5 years, is still pretty fucking disturbing). Even beyond the horror, though, there isn't even that much tension, and any tension that is created is almost immediately undermined by some random comic moment, intentional or otherwise, like a zombie dying in a stupid way or pulling a silly face, or the characters suddenly happy because they can loot fur coats or expensive watches, or the annoying music, which often feels like it's been taken from a different film entirely, or several other films, being a mixture of the gothic stuff you'd find in a Hammer Horror and weird Blaxploitation movie-style funky basslines. Compare the score in this to something like the one used in The Shining (1980) and the difference in quality is notable.
I dunno. Maybe I'm just not clever enough to understand it, or maybe you just had to be there, man. I've done a bit of reading on it this evening since watching it and it sounds like it's seen as an 'important', 'seminal' film for the horror genre, and maybe if I was more of a film studies student I'd be able to appreciate it more. I can see why, without this, we wouldn't have stuff like The Walking Dead, or The Last of Us, or (obviously) Shaun of the Dead.
Nonetheless, just because something's influential doesn't necessarily make it good, and watching this cold in 2021 for the first time, I thought it was bemusing, but also quite boring and just kind of stupid, as much as I'm aware that I sound like a brat typing that. I didn't turn it off, but I thought about doing so a couple of times, and I spent most of its 2.07 runtime looking like this , wondering when it was suddenly going to become this genre-defining experience, or if it was actually all some big piss-take that I wasn't getting.
I will say that the second half is better than the first, once the characters are more established in the mall and the
show up. But, even then, it sort of just...fizzles out.
All I know is that I paid about £25 for the super-duper 4K boxset and I'll definitely be selling this one on.