It was early 1986 and almost everyone I knew was desperate to see Rocky IV. The trailer looked amazing – this time, Balboa was taking on a Russian behemoth and every punch sounded like a nuclear missile exploding. In a post-Star Wars playground, expectation was high, but we had a long wait until the UK release date. I’d already watched a clip on Film 86 – a moody montage edited to ‘No Easy Way Out’ by Robert Tepper. I was hyped.
Then a classmate – let’s call him John, because that’s his name – mentioned he had a VHS copy at his house. He delivered this in such a laid-back fashion, that we didn’t quite believe him. Rocky IV right? Not III or II?
No, he assured us, it was the real deal – he’d already watched it. His uncle was a very good man to know and could get hold of pirate videos. Me and two mates rolled up to John’s house one weekend, ready to see The Italian Stallion, Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago in action and took our places on the settee.
“Oh, it’s not there,” he said. “I’ve got the cover, though.”
He showed us the tape box, which did indeed have ‘Rocky 4’ written in biro down the spine.
“We could watch this instead,” he said, holding up another box: Zombies: Dawn of the Dead.
It was a crushing letdown. Our hearts had been set on Stallone, and we’d been left with some ropey-looking video nasty. Then we started watching, and it was incredible. I can remember the tense opening scenes as Ken Foree’s SWAT team enter a tenement block where people have been hiding their dead from the authorities. It’s bedlam. A woman embraces an undead loved one, and has a chunk of her neck bitten off. Someone’s head explodes with a shotgun blast. Down in the basement, zombies ﬁght for scraps of human ﬂesh. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.
We didn’t get through the whole ﬁlm. I was let down by the weak attention spans of my classmates, who wanted to go off and explore John’s dad’s magazine collection. Then I went home and was off school with the ﬂu for a week. The bits of Dawn of the Dead I’d managed to see made their way into my fevered brain and have been there ever since.
It was a couple of years before I tracked it down. A pirate third or fourth generation VHS copy bought by mail order. I closed my curtains one Saturday afternoon and watched it in his entirety. It was brilliant. It had a vibe all of it’s own, an otherness. It was clearly done on a budget, yet the surreal combination of the zombie-occupied shopping mall setting and Tom Savini’s grisly special effects elevated it to another level altogether.
Dawn (and Night of the Living Dead, released a decade previously) established the basic rules of the modern zombie ﬁlm from which every other movie is a variation. And it’s a sub-genre that shows no signs of abating. Much like the vampire movie, it’s one that’s open to endless reinterpretation and reinvention, and one I’m very much there for.