24. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
If there were a Horror Movie Hall of Fame, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead would surely be one of the inductees. It has earned its reputation not only on the basis of its face-value storytelling, but also from its foregrounded social commentary—which, I have to admit, has been a little overstated and mythologized over the years. It's true that Dawn touches on themes like racism, proscribed gender roles, and consumerism, but the points that it makes—if they even have enough substance to be considered 'points' at all—are mostly trite and obvious. But as I understand the prevailing viewpoint, we should simply be grateful that anything like a zombie horror flick bothers with such commentary to begin with. The standards are admittedly pretty low in a genre generally content with amping up the scare factor at the expense of character development or sociological depth, so the argument is reasonable: I am thankful that George Romero had greater ambitions than creating a mindless splatterfest—not that mindless splatterfests don't have their place too—but I am less impressed with the banal thesis that consumer culture zombifies us than I am with the time and narrative space he gives to his characters. No, this isn't an Ingmar Bergman psychodrama—and the characters remain mostly true to type—but we get to know these four protagonists very well in the course of the two-plus hours we spend with them, and this raises the stakes for the viewers. Dawn of the Dead isn't just a novelty or a visit to the funhouse; it's a fully-realized human drama.
For me, Dawn of the Dead is the comfort food of the horror genre. I have to be honest: it's really not very scary—which might automatically make it a failure in the eyes of some horror fans—but whatever the movie is or deserves to be categorized as, I love watching it. The real sense of dread that it achieves is a function not of the imminent threat of the zombies, but of the more profoundly existential crisis of being left alone in the world. As time passes and more people turn into zombies, the remaining human life becomes more isolated and alone. It's frightening to imagine yourself as the last person on earth—and if you're cut off from all the others, you might just as well be.
But (as the photo above illustrates) you'll also find many of the familiar trappings of the horror film in Dawn of the Dead as well—if that's what you happen to be looking for. The special effects of course aren't quite up to contemporary standards, especially considering the film's minuscule budget, but there's enough viscera to keep gore addicts interested, I think.