I grew up in a world of civil servants. My father was a fireman (later a fire chief) and my mother, after having brought up us Kiernan kids, went back to work as a receptionist at a local hospital. Most everyone in my parent’s social circles, be they friends or relations, worked for counties or townships and served the people more than they did themselves – cops, medics, other firemen, telephone men, gas workers, even priests. They all made decent livings and, most importantly of all, were decent people, those who could be depended upon when you needed help, the kind of people who were (are still are) the backbone of America. I’d never met any kind of intellectuals or liberal hippie types growing up; everyone was what you would classify as middle class (the working middle class in this case), and they were never the type to talk trash about the government, have key parties or discuss Moliere, because they simply weren’t those kind of people. It was a good childhood, and although I knew early on it was not a life that I could live for myself, it gave me a core set of values and ideals that I keep with me through this day, along with a respect for those who do the kind of work that my parents and their friends did. It takes a certain kind of person to run into a burning building, chase a purse snatcher or give someone CPR, and I’m proud to say that I’ve known people like this all of my life and can call some of them family. But rarely do I ever see them portrayed convincingly on a movie screen.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I first sat down to watch George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD on January 17, 1985. I knew it was a zombie movie, I knew it was set in a shopping mall, but that was about it, and Romero’s zombie epic hit me like a ton of bricks. Going beyond all the elements that have made it so popular over the years – the gore, the zombies – DEAD OF THE DEAD was a major revelation to me because (and granted, I’d seen a lot of fantasy-type stuff that appealed to kids of the era before it), it was honestly the first time I’d ever seen an existence like the one I knew of in a movie. The characters in DAWN OF THE DEAD all felt like people I knew in one way or another, and they acted like real people to me, too. The choices they made were the kind that honest, decent people made only in the name of survival and their actions were worth rooting for because of the good people they were. In most similar-type genre movies that I’d seen before it was usually the scientist or the military man who were the lead characters, but here it was cops and helicopter pilots who were people I understood, even related to. Anyone one of them could be my dad, my uncle, a neighbor, anyone I grew up with, and I felt I could follow them through this adventure as a fellow survivor of the oncoming apocalypse and be alright. I knew these people had my back and I'd have theirs, too, even giving my life up to ensure their survival if I had to. And it should go without saying that I absolutely understood the appeal of holding up in a shopping mall. Those places were special to me at the time, the kind of place you went to only on weekends, special occasions or during the holidays, and whenever you did, you’d find something new, something cool. Not just a place to buy stuff, but another town to visit, all bunched together with a roof over it where it would never get too cold or too hot. Beyond just the whole consumer culture satire (which I definitely got), the mall setting remains part of the genius of DAWN because it made the film something everyone could understand and relate to. After all, when all hell breaks loose, who wouldn’t think of holding themselves up in the local mall?
It’s this element about DAWN that is the one reason I believe it’s endured for so long; DAWN OF THE DEAD reaches beyond class systems to become a film that can appeal to most anyone. Romero understands the working class of America better than most any American filmmaker I can think of, and he made a film that showed the bravery and will of these folks in a manner that was completely respectful and honorable. But the film is also very smart, quite clever, and emotionally powerful at points (its many effective shifts from extreme horror to comedy to action to sometimes tender drama can leave a stunning effect on the viewer), so much so that it can admired by intellectuals and even film critics (well, some film critics). And if you’re not that bright then, yeah, it’s as gory as fuck and has a lot of zombies getting blown up and shit, so it’s definitely a picture that can be appreciated with several brews in ya, no question. While you might not look at it as a picture that requires you to think, even dumb folks tend to think about what it says it afterwords, and I think that's saying something, and when you talk about films that have universal appeal, DAWN OF THE DEAD isn’t brought up enough, but it damn well should be. Yes, certain elements seem a little dated (specifically Tom Savini’s makeup FX, so revolutionary back in 1979, but have been outdone by many, even Savini) and it’s not quite as technically proficient as many other great films can be (seen theatrically, Michael Gornick’s cinematography contains so many out of focus shots that it’s sometimes embarrassing to watch). But it’s brilliantly edited by Romero and scored with a perfect selection of Romero-chosen library music and a score by Goblin for an effect that still makes DAWN a one-of-a-kind film experience for me. I look at DAWN OF THE DEAD as being 100% unique and original (amazing when you consider it’s a sequel!), a film that hit upon something in the American psyche that we still carry with us, a crystallization of both what makes us great and what’s wrong with us at the same time, about how the world is going to end due to our own self gratification. It’s not a hopeful film in the end, but it’s still, in an odd way, also a celebration of those people in this country and in this world who are good and decent and are going to be swept up by all this when the shit goes down, as tremendously humane film a film as it is a violent one (and it's pretty damn violent). I doubt anyone would have anticipated that when DAWN OF THE DEAD opened 30 years ago today that not only would we still be talking about it, but that it would be a film whose relevance hasn’t faded one bit. The fact that we are, however, says less about shitty state of the world or movies than it does the power and the greatness of George Romero as a filmmaker. He understands us better than many of us do ourselves, and he brings us to places that we may not want to go, but probably will eventually. This is just part of what makes DAWN OF THE DEAD not only the greatest American horror film of all time, but one of the great American films of all time. And it will most likely outlive us all.