Zombies are everywhere!!
Thankfully that’s not an actual proclamation but, over the last ten years or so, it seems that every other horror film or TV series features the undead in some way. Sometimes they run (World War Z) and sometimes they shuffle (Shaun of the Dead) but, when they get you (and inevitably they will) you’ll find yourself eaten alive (gotta be up there as one of the nastiest ways to go).
Zombies have been around in cinema since the 1930’s. Indeed, it has been said before that, in many ways, Frankenstein‘s Monster is a kind of zombie.
It was, however, 1968’s seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead directed by George A. Romero that introduced us to the flesh-eating, shuffling corpses we inevitably picture today when we hear the word “Zombie”.
Romero returned to these monsters in 1978 with Dawn of The Dead but you don’t need to have watched the previous film beforehand. All you need to know is quickly explained in the early parts of the movie. Any deceased human with an intact brain has risen from the grave and is driven to seek out and devour the flesh of the living. The hows and the whys don’t really matter here. We’re dropped into a world where the balance is shifting in the favour of the undead. Humans are becoming an increasingly endangered species and civilisation as we know it is steadily falling apart.
We’re introduced early on to our four primary protagonists. Fran (Gaylen Ross) works at a TV station along with her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge), pilot of the stations traffic helicopter. Seeing how bad the situation is getting, Stephen decides to steal the helicopter and make a break for it taking, not only his pregnant girlfriend, but his good friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger).
We meet Roger, a SWAT trooper, along with his team on a mission in a tenement building, dealing with refugees who are refusing to leave the building where they are also harbouring their dead.
Things don’t go to plan as we see a horde of zombies in the basement as well as how trigger happy other members of the team are. As we’re introduced to the first of many scenes of zombies tearing chunks out of people (courtesy of the legendary Tom Savini) Roger can see how badly things are deteriorating and retreats to a now clear basement area.
There he meets Peter (Ken Foree) a fellow like-minded trooper who Roger invites to join him and his friend, a helicopter pilot, as they escape the city.
Meeting up, Stephen allows Peter to join the three friends as they take off into the night, destination; anywhere else.
After a fuel stop where we, once again, see how every situation is fraught with danger, the helicopter flies over a shopping mall. Though there are a lot of zombies outside (and inside as well) Stephen lands on the roof and they enter the mall.
It’s not long after an initial scoping of the large complex that the humans come to an agreement that if they can clear the mall of the zombies that infest in smaller numbers than are outside they can survive here for a while as they decide what course of action to take next. Fran is the most against this and feels that they should keep moving but with limited supplies in fuel, food and ammunition, concedes to the three men, ultimately agreeing that they can settle here and have some respite from the madness going on outside.
After clearing the mall of the zombies we see time pass through a montage of moments as the four shop to their hearts content. Money means nothing anymore. They can strip clothes shop bare and play dress up, eat like Kings, play cards for cash (which may as well be Monopoly money), go ice skating, play arcade games and, ultimately build a home from home with any of the furnishings and trappings of modern society they deem fit.
Days pass into weeks and eventually months. They’re now a man down following an act of reckless carelessness and Fran is much more noticeably pregnant. Having already learnt to shoot and better defend herself, it is Fran who also declares they all need to be able to fly the helicopter should anything happen to Stephen.
Settling into a life of mundanity amidst the madness it’s Fran who remains the most pragmatic and the strains on her relationship with Stephen become more evident. She reminds them all that this was only ever meant to be a temporary stop and they’ve let their resting spot become a home which is something it just can’t be.
Soon after, a stark reminder of these words occurs when a large gang of bikers led by Tom Savini (doing triple duty here as actor, stuntman and special effects) spy the helicopter on the roof as they’re scoping out the mall and smash their way in bringing a horde of zombies with them.
Our three protagonists are now forced to leave but, with dangers both living and dead to contend with, it will be a desperate flight for survival.
You don’t have to dig too deep into the film to not see that Romero is making a strong point about consumerism and materialism. The zombies flock to the mall and, when Fran questions why, Stephen tells her “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives”
The protagonists build a home for themselves in the mall, filling their mock apartment with things they don’t really need.
Romero doesn’t beat us over the head with this allegory but it’s clear to see.
If you’re not that interested in the message it makes no odds as this can be enjoyed as a straightforward zombie horror movie.
The special effects still hold up today as limbs are ripped from bodies, tops of heads are sliced off with helicopter rotor blades and bullet after bullet is fired into the brains of the undead horde. Tom Savini shows here why he’s considered one of the best in the business regarding practical, bloody effects, his time as a photographer in the Vietnam War informing his ability to show the effects of trauma to the physical body.
Mention should be made to the soundtrack as well with giallo maestro Dario Argento‘s band Goblin contributing heavily though it is the short, muzak-like piece called “The Gonk” that will be the most recognised tune in the movie.
Romero would continue his trilogy with Day of the Dead in 1985 before returning to the zombie sub-genre twenty years later with Land of the Dead quickly followed by Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. While I’m a fan of “Day” the subsequent films were, for me, just not as good despite the increased budget and ability to draw better names (Dennis Hopper being one of the bigger ones).
This film would get a remake in 2004. Directed by Zack Snyder I found it enjoyable enough though it’s far more action oriented than the original.
George A Romero sadly passed away in 2017 but his contribution to the horror genre can’t be questioned. Though he was involved in other movies and TV projects, it is for zombies that he’ll be forever associated. For a little over 50 years most interpretations of these flesh-eating monsters in human form owe a debt to Romero and zombies continue to be a strong presence in horror to this day so it seems fitting in that regard to end this piece with a line from the movie.
“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth”