Critics have universally credited Romero’s 1968 horror film as one of the genre’s best-of-all-time. He would direct other films over the next decade that would remain mostly obscure and unknown. In 1978 he would team with now legendary special effects guru, Tom Savini for Dawn of the Dead. This film would set the zombie in motion towards its eventual place in the leading echelon of monsterdom as the standard-bearer.
Like many fans who would feel on inexplicable draw to the zombie, Dawn of the Dead touched something deep inside me. Much like the zombies in the film, once the “infection” set in, there would be no cure. Romero would become the Pied Piper to legions of devoted fans who would treat his creation with an almost religious reverence.
Like most life altering moments, I recall the date I fell prey: September 18, 1979. Dawn of the Dead was the second film of a double-feature. I never recall seeing so much as a commercial; thus, I had no idea what to expect. From the opening moment when Gaylen Ross’ character, Francine, wakes from an obvious nightmare to utter chaos in a television studio, the film sets a barbed hook that won’t let go.
All fans have that one seminal moment that etches the zombie in their mind as The Monster. My own personal moment takes place less than fifteen minutes into the movie: Pandemonium reigns inside a Philadelphia tenement building. National Guardsmen, cops, residents, and zombies are everywhere. Up to that point, the zombies were merely bluish, shambling, and clumsy. In the midst of the turmoil, a woman bursts out onto the landing outside her apartment door and into the arms of a man she is apparently familiar with. She clutches at his shirt, sobbing incoherently in Spanish. Police scream for her to get away. His bluish hue and vacant eyes are obvious to everyone but this woman. With no emotion or warning, the man takes a bite out of the woman right at the meaty part where the neck and shoulder meet. The flesh tears away and there are actually connective strands of skin that stretch until ripping free between the wound and the zombie’s mouth. Blood wells up in an unnaturally bright red; and as the woman screams, throwing up her hands to defend herself, he takes another bite from her forearm. Then, bullets riddle his body…with no effect! (Bet you thought it would be the scene with the helicopter lobotomy…didn’tcha?)
Until that moment, I had considered The Exorcist to be the most horrifying, truly scary film ever made. However, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead held me transfixed. His apocalyptic vision and Savini’s imagery were spell-binding. At the moment, like most who witness history being made, I was unaware that I was seeing the rise of a horror icon. No zombie story since has failed to pay homage to the dual Adams of Romero and Savini.
This film would establish the zombie as the perfect monster. The zombie would exemplify the horror formula. Being a member of the undead, it could not be considered human. Because it looked like friends and loved ones it could get close enough to wield damage and this spread the “infection”. It possessed a fatal weakness: damaging the brain was the only method of destruction. It could be used to display human flaws and evils. The zombie gave horror purists a bona fide monster.