Movie Project #36: Dawn of the Dead [1978]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Dawn of the Dead [1978]
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: George A. Romero
Country: USA
Genre: Horror
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Running Time: 127 minutes

(The end of this review contains possible spoilers.)

One of my concerns going into Dawn of the Dead, the spiritual sequel to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, was that I wouldn’t get the full effect of the film. Put simply, I am burnt out on zombie flicks. However, I shouldn’t have worried — this is a horror classic for good reason.

Dawn of the Dead takes place in Pennsylvania, right in the middle of a massive nationwide zombie outbreak. There is chaos everywhere, especially in Philadelphia, where four people somehow manage to escape via a stolen news helicopter. Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) are two SWAT team members who fly out with traffic pilot, Stephen (David Emge), and his girlfriend, Frances (Gaylen Ross). Their destination? Anywhere but there.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Eventually, the four of them end up in a shopping mall just outside of Harrisburg. They plan the stop initially to gather supplies, but instead they decide to make it their sanctuary. And why not? The mall is huge and loaded with food, guns and other resources. There doesn’t appear to be any other signs of life in the general vicinity — it’s just a matter of avoiding those pesky zombies also found within.

What makes Dawn of the Dead stand out from other like-minded films is its scathing social commentary. The aimless wandering by the zombies in the mall is not far off from the mindless consumers who do the same in reality. One of the characters even remarks that the zombies have returned to the mall simply because this is what they remember enjoying in their normal lives. It’s a sad — and unfortunately still relevant — look at our society.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Naturally, there are plenty of confrontations with the undead as well. Some of the face-offs offer up some impressive gore special effects (designed by Tom Savini, who also has a small role in the film), though the blood looks a bit tacky today. Decapitations, disembowelments and the like are all performed with occasionally startling execution.

The characters are generally a likable bunch, with Peter being the standout. Played charismatically by Ken Foree, Peter essentially becomes the leader of the group, and he’s the one with the best head on his shoulders. On the flip side, Roger is incredibly reckless, and his behavior causes problems more than once.

As it goes in life, all good things must come to an end, and eventually the group’s time in the mall runs out once a psychotic biker gang shows up. It is here that we learn perhaps Dawn of the Dead‘s most important message:

Humans are their own worst enemy.

8/10

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Movie Project #24 and #25: Night of the Living Dead [1968] and Double Indemnity [1944]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Night of the Living Dead [1968]
Night of the Living Dead [1968, Romero]
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman

Ah yes, the godfather of zombie films. Romero’s low budget black-and-white horror classic can be found EVERYWHERE thanks to its public domain status, yet I didn’t actually sit down to watch it until recently. This movie’s influence is massive, as the popularity of zombies has went through the roof in recent years. And to think, none of this would be possible without this 1968 film. The premise is simple: a group of survivors are holed up in a farmhouse and are trying to survive the attacking hordes of zombies (of the slow moving type). During this, the humans fight amongst each other (as expected) and struggle with their collective intelligence. The women, in particular, are a waste of bodies as they mostly just act comatose and offer little value to the group. You would think that if your house is being swarmed by zombies that you would actually make an effort to fight for your life! The men in the group suffer from testosterone issues (“I’m right!” “No, I’m right!”), but at least they try to survive.

While I was annoyed with the general ineptitude of some of the characters, I still really enjoyed the movie. Perhaps aided by the low budget, the film feels more authentic and is still genuinely frightening today. It was also refreshing to see a black lead character (Duane Jones), which was not a common occurrence during the time period. Night of the Living Dead holds up rather well, and is a fun watch some 40+ years later. 8/10

Double Indemnity [1944]
Double Indemnity [1944, Wilder]
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

Double Indemnity is a film that I have been looking forward to seeing for a while now, as it seems to get brought up often when discussing Film Noir. I was especially excited to watch this because I had never seen a Billy Wilder film before (a travesty, I know). This classic tale seems to be the quintessential example of Film Noir. Fred MacMurray stars as an insurance salesman who gets caught up in a dangerous murder plot. He becomes deeply enamored with a lonely housewife (Barbara Stanwyck, the fantastic femme fatale), who comes up with the idea of having her husband murdered while making it appear as an accidental death. The duo concoct a plan that would evoke the double indemnity clause in the insurance contract, meaning that the payout would be double the normal amount. While the murder plan is meticulously carried out, other unexpected issues come up, particularly from the insurance company who have their suspicions about the incident.

The screenplay, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, is fantastic. The dialogue is fast and witty, with lots of sharp one-liners. The story is well-crafted, with many twists and turns. I was impressed with the two leads, as Stanwyck and MacMurray have a dynamic chemistry. I believe this was the first movie I had seen with either star, though I am sure it will not be the last. I would be remiss not to mention Edward G. Robinson’s role as Walter’s boss, as he was a very likable and intriguing character with exceptional investigative skills. Essentially, Double Indemnity is a perfect example of everything I have loved about Film Noir so far. It’s easy to see why this is so well-regarded. 9/10