I fully admit that I don’t understand how it took me so long to watch 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. With the recent and terribly devastating passing of horror legend George A Romero, this felt like the perfect time to sit down and watch one of his finest films.
With the wild popularity of all things zombie in this wonderful world of horror media, it’s easy to become disinterested in yet another zombie film. But Dawn of the Dead isn’t just any zombie film, it’s one of the few that actually meant something. It helped create the sub-genre we have today, all the while delivering a poignant message through splatters of vibrant gore.
Dawn of the Dead earned it’s place in Stephen Schneider’s book of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die“. It’s a classic, and I feel like a cranky senior when I say this, but they really don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Romero created the modern day zombie with Night of the Living Dead, moving beyond the voodoo days of old to create the infectious threat we all know and love. In Dawn of the Dead, he built on the reanimated lore to add commentary about the shambling, mindless consumerism so prevalent in society that it still echoes through, clear as day, when watching for the first time in 2017.
The film starts off in a TV studio following the events of Night of the Living Dead. The zombie outbreak has grown exponentially, panic is setting in, and no one really knows what to do.
While the on-screen hosts are arguing, headstrong TV executive Francine (Gaylen Ross) makes the decision to stop running the scrawl that informs viewers of the “safe zones” in the area. That information is out of date and she absolutely will not send anyone to a potential death trap. This is the first real glimpse we get at any of our protagonists through the film, and it’s made clear right away that she’s no flailing damsel.
Reportedly, during filming, Ross refused to scream. Francine was a strong female character and screaming would diminish that strength. She also refused to play a character who would not fight the zombies on her own. That capable confidence that Ross fought for is monumental. Her character is not a wilting flower, she’s as essential to the survival of the group as any of the others.
Her partner, Stephen (David Emge), a traffic reporter, plans to escape the chaos with Francine via helicopter. Their relationship is respectful and balanced, and it’s actually pretty wonderful.
Rounding out our cast of characters is Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), two star-crossed future best friends from different SWAT teams. They meet while their teams are trying to clear out a housing project that refuses to turn their dead over to the National Guardsmen.
The sequence involves a fantastic scene in the basement of the complex where Peter encounters a room full of abandoned bodies.
As the mound of undead pulses and squirms, aching for the flesh of the living, Peter is faced with the horror of shooting each person close-range. They may not be living, but it’s still a traumatic order to execute. Roger aides Peter in his task and they decide to join forces. Once their bond is built, Roger invites Peter to join him, Stephen, and Francine on their aerial escape.
After a few stumbles on their route, they make their way to a (mostly) abandoned mall and set up camp. I have to give them credit, because unlike the lollygaggers in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, they work to secure their space right away, using various creative methods of corralling and blocking the undead.
As I mentioned previously, it’s very intentional that the film is set in a shopping mall. It’s a great location to camp out as you’ve got access to everything you’d need (clothes, guns, food, The Brown Derby Luv Pub) and it also serves as a reflection on pointless consumer culture. The zombies show up in droves as they’re all effectively functioning on auto-pilot, clambering towards that familiar place of comfort.
Now, as an aside, I want to take a moment to say how much I appreciate the reveal early on that Francine is in the early stages of pregnancy. It helps to establish a timeline throughout the film – we can see their progress through the growth of her baby belly – and builds a new challenge in the back of your mind.
The music for the film was done by Dario Argento and The Goblins (unrelated, but “Dario Argento and The Goblins” would make a great band name). After my recent re-watch of Suspiria, I found that I really loved Dawn of the Dead‘s score.
It’s oddly cheerful and playful, but it reminds you a lot of the Mall Muzak that you used to hear while trapped on a packed escalator. It’s absurd at times, particularly when paired with the gruesome acts you’re witnessing on screen. They combine to create a comic effect that is vivid and lively – an interesting juxtaposition to the death we see on screen.
And perhaps, overall, the film is more about life than death. Our heroes escape from death into their own safe haven, nurturing the new life growing inside Francine, and celebrate the time they have together rather than mourning their fate. It’s surprisingly positive for a film about flesh-eating monsters.
Much to my delight, the film features a hefty cameo from the Godfather of Gore himself, Tom Savini. Naturally, Savini did all the vicious makeup effects. The blood pumps a glorious bright red, the flesh stretches and tears, and the crushing zombie bites are visceral and meaty. It’s everything you’d want from a zombie film, plus, a pie-in-the-face fight scene. I shit you not.
Overall, I really, truly enjoyed Dawn of the Dead and I am so glad I finally set the time aside to make it a part of my film vocabulary. If you haven’t seen it either, I would definitely recommend it. It may be dated, but it’s a damn good time.
Feature image by Chris Fischer