31 Days of Horror 2022: The Performances That Make Us Scream — “Dawn of the Dead (1978)”

This installment of The Performances That Made Us Scream comes courtesy of guest writer Bev Vincent.

I didn’t get to see many horror movies growing up. I lived in a rural community and we had only two TV channels, one English and the other French. If they played horror movies at all, they would have been on late at night, but I suspect they didn’t air there at all. 

I saw some light afternoon TV matinees, like Abbott & Costello meet [insert monster here] and a few other early classic horror films, but that was it. The nearest movie theater was 10 miles away, so I couldn’t just go at the drop of a hat like people who lived in town could, and the local drive-in was pretty much out of the question.

So, when I went to university in the early 1980s, my horror movie horizons broadened greatly, especially when I bought my first VCR in about 1982-3. Using the list of recommended films at the back of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, my best friend and I haunted the local video store every Friday afternoon, essentially taking a master class in horror.

We saw all the classics, as well as whatever new was on offer in the horror section. I remember being quite disturbed by that flying orb in Phantasm. However, the “performance” that had the most profound effect on me was really a performance by the special effects team in Dawn of the Dead. I’ve always loved that movie, but the scene where the zombie (Jim Krut) gets too close to the spinning rotors of the helicopter and the top of its scalp spins off like a hairy Frisbee just blew our minds. 

The funny thing about the scene is that the pilot is fueling the helicopter (with the engine running!), so we expected him to douse the approaching zombie (who looks a bit like an overstuffed scarecrow) with jet fuel and light him up. Wait. What just happened? Why is there blood pouring out of the zombie’s head. Why does the top of his scalp suddenly look like Herman Munster’s?

Rewind, rewatch (no high-def digital playback then, just grainy analog on a tiny CRT screen). How much damage did we do to that VHS tape by freezing the scene, slowly stepping through it, backing up with the read heads still engaged and watching it again. And again. And again. 

Oh, so that’s what happened! Rewind, watch again. Over and over. It was silly, almost a throw-away moment, but it was so…damned…cool! All practical effects. We almost killed ourselves laughing at that scene. Screaming with laughter rather than with terror.

The scene is famous enough that you can find the clip on YouTube. Just google “helicopter zombie.” There’s also a recreation video that’s worth checking out.

Bev Vincent is the author of Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of His Work, Life and InfluencesThe Dark Tower CompanionThe Road to the Dark Tower, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, nominated for a 2010 Edgar® Award and a 2009 Bram Stoker Award. In 2018, he co-edited the anthology Flight or Fright with Stephen King.

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