George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978)
It's a modern horror filmgoers misconception, and I'm here to put it straight, so remember this:
The Best Zombie Movies Have Little To Do With Zombies.
If a filmmaker tries to make it about zombies it will fail because zombies, the dead, are not all that interesting.
It's the living, the struggle to escape from those lifeless hands that makes a film like this any good, not zombies.
George A. Romero is important to me because I grew up not only watching his films but I grew up where he made these made those films.
I'm from Western Pennsylvania, it is The Zombie Capital of the World. I met people who made the films with Mr. Romero but never the man himself and yet I know him...somewhat.
Romero is not just interested in blood and gore, and there are tubs of it in Dawn of the Dead, but like any good artist his subjects are people escaping, quite literally, from a zombie, mauling, teeth-grinder.
Characters will always show you who they are under extreme distress and what worse kind of distress is there then people being eaten alive by monsters who loved you, whom you still love and who are now dead.
Romero was smart never to tell exactly why the dead are coming back. Romero didn't explain it fully in Night of the Living Dead and he doesn't explain it with this sequel. There is a line though, one of best I've ever heard in a film, horror or otherwise, that is just as feasible as any. It comes at the beginning, where a blind priest utters the sentence to a pair of SWAT officers who've just savagely killed evil men and zombies. I quote:
"When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth."
It was chilling and it still chills. I even laughed because it was chilling and honest and because the truth can be funny.
Those two officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) go looking for a friends of Rogers, Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross), who are waiting for them and will take a helicopter from a TV station where the couple works.
In all that is happening who cares who takes what, right?
They fly, stopping only a few times for fuel and food and whatnot, getting into some trouble with the living dead but surviving until they find a shopping mall and feel safe (after barracking the place and killing the dead occupants) for the first time in a long time.
The film, believe it or not, is funny. It's a comedy about the dead and even in death they still feel the urge to want to go to their local store and pick up shoes, milk, a new TV and maybe get a good deal on some gulf clubs.
Yep, that's funny. But again, it's not about zombies. It's about the people who became zombies who want to live again, in their own grisly way.
Now, landing there and being there is a pretty neat idea. They have food forever, they have guns and ammo in the local sporting goods and hunting apparel. They have TVs and books and music and video arcade machines, there is nothing they don't have.
It's a good dream, a good place but there are still dead around, even when they killed all of them in the mall, and they have each other, which they get on each other's nerves and not mention, later in the film, a gang of bikers who want to "share" the mall.
Each of the four main characters are full realized even though not much backstory is explained for them. Hell just think of your friends, your own family and that is their backstory, given that the dead are rising and killing - what would the people close to you react like in situations like this?
Zombie movies do not have happy endings, they never do. How the hell can anyone be happy in this situation, even when you survive...and maybe that's the point.
George A. Romero has been writing and directing films about misery for as long as he has been an artist, maybe even before just thinking deeply about it.
Dawn of the Dead is about misery and blood and humanity and humor and yes even death...also shopping.
It's the best horror/zombie film of its kind...even though it's not really about zombies.