A look at George Romero’s first two Zombie classics.
Night of the Living Dead is a movie that changed the entire shape of the Horror industry. Our modern conception of Zombies comes largely from that film. Many of the elements of the nature of the undead here were seen in earlier movies, but this is the first time it all came together into something that’s remained an indelible part of pulp culture. It’s akin to the Universal Monster movies in terms of indelible iconography.
As important and influential as this version of the undead, that would come to be known as Zombies is, Night of the Living Dead stays true to the principle of speculative fiction: Humans are the real monsters. The horde of living dead outside the walls of the cabin serves to heighten the tension of the situation and push the characters together into a corner, but it’s the tension between the characters that the movie really runs on.
One of the reasons Dawn of the Dead is such an effective sequel is it takes this same idea and twists it into a very different context. Where Night eases the audience into the horror, unnerving them and the characters into an anxiety fueled nightmare, Dawn starts out by just kicking the door down. The early sequence of police raiding kicks the movie off with exhilarating spectacle. The scale of the zombie outbreak is clearly larger, but that also makes it more manageable psychologically. The external threat is so large and immediate there’s no time for an existential crisis.
The characters don’t get along at first, but their common goal and need to work together allows them to quickly overcome that. They understand their situation and their concerns are practical. Much of the movie plays out procedurally, like a heist movie. There’s a job for them to do, they form a plan and execute on it. Here we see people overcome their differences, learn to work together and successfully solve their problems.
This also allows the movie to breathe a bit more. The characters earn their own reprieve, and we enjoy it with them because of the adrenaline fueled road it took to get there. Instead of being frustrated at their inability to get along, and desiring some of them die, we root for them succeed and cheer along with them. The movie has the confidence in itself to allow for some fun before it tears everything down.
The rule still holds though: Humans are the real monsters. Dawn of the Dead delves deeper into an idea that came only in the final scene of Night of the Living Dead, with the ultimate threat to our heroes being an outside group of Humans. Part of the Romero’s Zombie story is the idea of dehumanizing those around you. The existence of creatures that look human but that you need to think of otherwise, and the amount of psychopathy it takes to survive in that world.
To me, Night of the Living Dead succeeds because it repackages classic Horror into something more modern. It’s important historically, but it also lives between two worlds of horror in a way that makes it unique. In many ways it’s closer to the speculative fiction that proceeded it, but it’s put so much of that together that it’s speaking the Horror language we use today, in a way a lot of those older stories don’t.
Dawn of the Dead though really stands out to me because of the way it makes the audience invested in the character’s struggle, and allows both groups to have fun. There are so many great lines and moments of joy here, and for me that makes it much more meaningful when it all falls apart.