CONTAINS SPOILERS, BUT IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT BY NOW....
When there's no more room in hell.....It's almost impossible to start even trying to describe what I love about this film: one of the very greatest films ever made and one of the few films that I never tire of watching in any of its various cuts (of which more later). Perhaps because it's not really about the zombies, it's about us, the living. Perhaps it's the idea of abandoning all personal, fiscal and social responsibilities in a playground world where everything's there for the taking - I love empty world and apocalypse movies, and Charlton Heston's The Omega Man is a personal favourite. Perhaps it's the familiarity of the location - we've all been in shopping malls. Or perhaps it's just the idea of unstoppable armies of the living dead walking the earth forever.
Everyone knows the basic setup of Dawn Of The Dead: in a world struggling to cope with the sudden and unexplained return to life of the freshly dead, four survivors flee the infested city and hole up, at least temporarily, in an out-of-town shopping mall where the mindless dead are a little more thinly spread. All they need to do is to clear the inside of the building and seal off the main entrances, and the mall provides pretty much everything that they need: the water and power is still connected, the supermarkets are full of food (including tinned and frozen) as well as clothing, weaponry and tools. Initially it's idyllic, but ultimately the walking dead bumbling around outside aren't the only problem - the remains of the living want a piece of paradise as well.
The opening, detailing the "story so far" as seen through the chaos of a TV news studio degenerating into yelling and childish squabbling, doesn't ease the viewer gently into the apocalypse; rather it starts at full throttle with the collapse of society already underway and no-one listening to the experts whose rational, logical approach goes against all our ideas of social and human dignity. And then not just maintains that pace but increases it with an action sequence as the National Guard storm a tenement block. It really is a film that doesn't let up for its first act at all. While it does eventually allow the audience to get their breath half way through, with the dead pretty much reduced to comedic relief as they fall up and down escalators and into ornamental fountains (they're still a threat, but a manageable one), it is only a brief respite before the real danger shows up in the shape of Tom Savini's anarchist biker gang.
Dawn Of The Dead was the second film I ever saw at the mighty Scala Cinema in Kings Cross: the first was Night Of The Living Dead with which it was playing one afternoon in late December 1986. At that point the VHS video version had been withdrawn as it wasn't certificated under the Video Recordings Act, and it would be another three years before it would be resubmitted to the BBFC (and was then cut, albeit by just a few seconds). At some point I'd obtained a fourth or fifth-generation copy of the full version but it wasn't until 2003 that the film was released with that gorgeous BBFC phrase "All previous cuts waived".
Much of Dawn Of The Dead is fantastically gory, thanks to Tom Savini's make-up and prosthetic effects, with liberal use of blood squibs, bites, machetes, dismemberment and one full-on disemboweling; given the sheer amount of gore it's astonishing that the BBFC didn't completely butcher the film (their site gives the final running time of the original cinema release at 125 minutes). Such moments as the "screwdriver in the ear" and "zombie walking under helicopter blades" are one-off splatter gags but the bulk of the horror is that of the siege: trapped against genuinely overwhelming odds not just by the shambling dead but by other survivors who are even more dangerous.
I tend to alternate between the different cuts of the film: the "director's cut/US theatrical version" which is the standard release version, the "Extended Version" which is 12 minutes longer, and the "European Version". This last edit was the one I watched a few nights ago and even though it's been edited by Dario Argento, it's my least preferred version. Part of the problem is, incredibly, the Goblin score. Whereas the Romero seamlessly mixes those Goblin tracks with an assortment of cues from the De Wolfe music library, the European cut simply needledrops the same pieces over and over again. Given how Argento and Goblin have performed so well together in Argento's own films, it's surprising how the soundtrack doesn't work here. The other problem, I guess, is merely familiarity with the Romero version, so you miss the bits that have been taken out and are surprised by the inclusion of the odd extra shot or line of dialogue.
As part of Romero's presumably ongoing Dead series (six to date), it's probably eclipsed by Day Of The Dead which I think is probably a better film - the writing, acting, effects and claustrophobic setting are all more powerful - yet I still enjoy Dawn a lot more. I've never been a massive fan of the original Night, although I haven't seen it in a long time now, and while the long-awaited fourth film Land Of The Dead was fun, its canvas was too wide. Night, Dawn and Day all concentrate on a small group of people in a confined space, while Land expanded its gaze to a larger cast in a city and the countryside beyond, thus losing focus.
Diary Of The Dead was an interesting entry adopting the "found footage" technique: a stylistic change which fell into the trap that most of the FF films have of keeping its characters pointlessly filming themselves rather than abandoning the cameras and running away from the flesh-eating zombies, and his most recent, Survival Of The Dead, was frankly pretty underwhelming apart from a few amusing moments. It says something, I guess, that I bought the DVD of Survival a few years ago and it's still in its shrinkwrap. Mention should also be made of the Zack Snyder remake from 2004. Which is fine. Since Romero's film is one of my all-time favourites, and the majority of modern remakes have tended to suck somewhere between massively and completely, the bar was incredibly high for Snyder but I actually ended up enjoying his take on it as a gory and entertaining popcorn zombie movie.
But it's just not in the same league as George A Romero's original: one of the highpoints of genre cinema one of my favourite films ever (along, for context, with Aliens and Blade Runner). I never get bored with Dawn and while I wouldn't go so far as to name my (nonexistent) children Peter, Steven, Roger and Fran or get tattoos of the film's logo or imagery, it's probably the only film where it will be stipulated in my will that the DVDs are cremated with me. While Goblin's remorseless "L'Alba Dei Morti Viventi" plays.
When there's no more room in hell....