George Romero's second, and most popular zombie flesh eater story is something that really shouldn't work. The sound quality is poor, the library music is weird and often feels 20 years older than the movie itself. The living dead make up is just blue paint for a large proportion of the extras and the blood is well, orange at best. Yet in spite all of these weird problems and oddities it endures, shambling on like its rotting menace. Recut in Italy on release and remade in the 2000s, the original version remains a cult classic whichever edition you see. Let's begin the dissection and take a look at what makes this cadaver tick; all the little things that made is so influential.
The opening mayhem, and most of the action in the first action is ... not well paced. The hysteria in the news room and the tenement building shoot out sequence serve to introduce our characters, but they don't do it with a lot of finesse. This is the clunkiest part of the story where there's a feeling of social break down. Maybe that's the whole idea but from a narrative perspective it's hard to engage with. There are of course some memorable moments of death and destruction, and a certain sense of reality, but there are so many weird distracting actors from the lunatic SWAT member to the odd police officer asking about cigarettes at the docks. The latter feels like they've wandered in from a Zucker brothers movie. Once everything hits full speed it begins properly, but these are the moments that probably turn off new viewers unwilling to stick with it. You gotta stick with it.
The bulk of the plot is of course about four survivors hiding in a shopping centre. The zombies as consumers gag is not subtle, but it is very entertaining. Ken Foree as Peter gives the best performance and also delivers all the cool lines about the waking nightmare they're trapped in. The others are passable, but have their little highlights throughout. The leading lady Fran (Gaylen Ross) is one step along from the catatonic wreck Barbra in Night of the Living Dead, but it's an awkward middle ground and a long way from Day of the Dead's no nonsense lead Sarah. Fran gets the most character development but it feels minor at best. Some of the cast do better zombies than their living selves, which is also where the best makeup comes into play. The washed out crowds are not great, and get too many closeups, but the individuals given more attention look a lot better. The resurrected Flyboy is still probably the best zombie acting ever filmed.
The brain dead congregation waiting for them below gets a lot of screen time as you'd expect. The ones given personal touches are the most memorable, including those dressed as nurses and Hare Krishna followers. You can spot them in many scenes, personally I always liked the wild eyed fellow in the tank top trying to get up the escalator when the power comes on. There are multiple appearances from this central group. Elsewhere the Tom Savini effects are fun but not exactly refined. Still, there are enough dismembered body parts and spilled intestines to get the tone across. There are numerous zombie kills including a plethora of headshots and truck hits once the gang put their plan of securing the stores into action.
The big clean out where they lock the place down and remove all the trouble making corpses is one of the best parts, particularly once the entire mall is theirs for the taking. It's the kind of thing people would do given the chance. The fun and games also segues nicely into the most eerie parts of the film where their existential problems start to surface. There are various levels of horror involved whether it's the bloody kind - the fear of being eaten by your own family, or the more cerebral kind where life as you know it is over, and all sense of ambition and future aspiration has been lost. It's a good mixture, which why I guess this is so satisfying. Of course it helps that the mood never totally downbeat for the whole thing, as exemplified by the zombie walk Gonk music and the looter insanity in the finale. The ropey effects and rough film making edges are just part of a bigger story which throws everything in. It provides plenty of iconic moments, chopped heads and twisted humour in what is still the most watchable movie in this undying genre.