Head to any multiplex this Halloween and it’s more than likely you’ll have to get your horror fix from yet another film set in a haunted suburban house, featuring a heroic single mum overcoming some past trauma as she tries to save her young children from whatever sort of indestructible demon has inhabited her mirror/children’s book/microwave.
From gross-out gore shockers to countless instalments of horror franchises long past their sell-by date, horror films are slowly losing all grounding in reality, and with it their ability to genuinely tap into our deepest fears. With the genre becoming more and more absurd, the scares are slowly losing their effectiveness. When the lights come back on, we leave the cinema knowing ghosts and vampires won't be waiting for us outside and the evening's film is quickly forgotten.
To find something genuinely horrifying you have to look back to 1978 and George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, a film that succeeds by making its monsters human. Here the line between human and zombie is held in place by good luck alone, with the vast majority of the population having already joined the legions of undead. It’s not for nothing people joke about a “zombie apocalypse” every time a new viral endemic breaks out.
The sequel to 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead hits the ground running, with the terrifying opening scenes of a frantic and claustrophobic SWAT raid on a decaying Philadelphian tenement where the re-animated dead have been chained up in the basement.
Having established that this is a world coming to an end, Dawn Of The Dead relocates to the infamous mall, a setting inspired by the rapid spread of a consumerist hunger that found its feet with the appearance of suburban shopping malls across 1970s America. As the four main characters take back the mall and start living the consumerist dream, Romero reminds us that they aren’t too different to the zombies waiting outside, “They don’t know why [they’re here]. They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”
Unlike contemporary horrors, our four protagonists are more than just fodder for the undead. They’re well-drawn characters, attempting to cope with the mounting tension inside the mall. When Roger, on the verge of dying from a zombie bite, tearfully asks the others not to kill him, it’s difficult not to feel caught up in this small display of heart among the horror.
Later, the appearance of the marauding motorcycle gang compounds the idea that the living can be just as destructive as the brain-hungry zombies and it’s during the battle between zombies and bikers that Vietnam-veteran-turned-special-effects-artist Tom Savini excels himself. Scenes of a trapped Stephen falling pray to a swarm of zombies in an elevator and an unlucky biker shrieking as the undead pull his guts out like strings of sausages remain some of the most memorable of the genre.
Sure, the zombie make-up is dated (and sometimes comical) but the knowledge that the “zombies” are actually just extras in bad outfits only serves to re-enforce the idea that with a little bit of bad luck, it could be us who’re stumbling around searching for brains, making Dawn Of The Dead that bit more terrifying.
As the poster states, “when there’s no more room left in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”