Dawn of the Dead


Dawn of the Dead  (1978)    United Film Distribution Company/Horror    RT: 139 minutes (Extended Cut)    No MPAA rating (strong bloody violence and graphic gore, frightening images, language)    Director: George A. Romero    Screenplay: George A. Romero    Music: Dario Argento and Goblin    Cinematography: Michael Gornick    Release date: April 20, 1979 (US)    Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross.    Box Office: $40 million (US)/$55 million (World)



 In my not-so-humble opinion, Dawn of the Dead is the Gone with the Wind of zombie movies. It’s my all-time favorite zombie flick. George A. Romero’s sequel to his classic 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead is a total gorefest. It came out when I was 11 and what I remember most is the cool tagline “When there’s no more room in HELL, the dead will walk the Earth.” Obviously, I didn’t get to see it at the movies. In lieu of the X rating awarded by the MPAA, Romero opted to release it without one which meant it would automatically carry a “No One Under 17 Admitted” policy. I just recall being in awe of the tagline and freaked out by a zombie-in-decomp still I saw in a Newsweek article. I didn’t get to see Dawn of the Dead in its entirety until I was in my 20s and it blew my mind.

DawnoftheDead Romero had more money to work with this time; the budget was $1.5 million enabling him to shoot it in color this time. He filmed Dawn of the Dead at the Monroeville Mall (Monroeville, PA) from November 1977 to February 1978, shutting down for three weeks during the Christmas shopping season. Filming took place nightly while the mall was closed. It would end each day at 7am because that’s when the automated Muzak system came on and nobody knew how to shut it off. Romero was unable to secure any domestic investors for Dawn of the Dead; that’s when Italian giallo filmmaker Dario Argento (Suspiria) stepped in and helped him get financing in exchange for international distribution rights.

 While technically a sequel, Dawn of the Dead contains no characters from its predecessor. They all died, why would it? They don’t even return in zombie form. This time the story follows four characters who hole up in a huge shopping mall while looking for a safe place to wait out the worsening zombie situation. Steve (Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Ross) work at a TV station in Philadelphia. His plan is to steal the station’s helicopter and fly them to safety. Peter (Foree) and Roger (Reiniger) are members of the SWAT team raiding a housing project that’s overrun with zombies. While they’ve managed to somewhat contain the situation in rural areas, the cities are in complete chaos. Roger is a friend of Steve’s and invites Peter to fly away with them to the wild blue yonder.

 They land on the roof of the mall and decide to make it their new home. After blocking the entrances with big trucks and clearing the mall of those pesky zombies, they set themselves up in a very comfortable living situation with access to everything they could possibly need (including guns and ammo, this mall really does have everything). This lasts until a motorcycle gang, aware of their presence in the mall, shows up to loot the place. In doing so, they let in hundreds of zombies. Between the bikers and zombies, it’s going to be one hell of a fight for survival.

 I’ve already established that Dawn of the Dead is a rockin’, kick-ass horror flick. It has generous amounts of gore. There are decapitations, disembowelments, dismemberments, shootings, stabbings and bodies torn apart. In one scene, a man’s head is blown up by a shotgun blast. That’s on top of the cannibalism. This movie is neck-deep in blood and guts. I believe the death toll, both humans and zombies, is about 97. In short, Dawn of the Dead is crazy violent and blood nuts. It’s a gorehound’s dream come true. However, there’s more to Dawn of the Dead than gore. It’s also a satiric look at American consumerism. One character comments that the zombies came to the mall purely on instinct. They wander aimlessly through the place with blank expressions. It gives one pause to wonder how really different they are from human shoppers. Romero also incorporates slapstick and silliness into the mix. The bikers instigate a pie fight with the zombies at one point. Admittedly, that’s a bit much but it gives the movie a sense of fun. The only stupid thing in Dawn of the Dead is this biker who decides to test his blood pressure at one of those machines in the middle of the mayhem. I mean, who does that?

 Tom Savini was supposed to do the makeup for Night of the Living Dead but he got drafted into Vietnam. Romero gave him a second chance with Dawn of the Dead and he knocks it out of the park. Savini is a makeup genius. I love everything he does but this movie is his finest work. The zombies have a gray coloring to them, something that makes them both realistic and comical. The zombies themselves are an interesting bunch; there’s a nun zombie, a nurse zombie and a Hare Krishna zombie. They ride the escalators and play in the fountains where shoppers toss coins. The gore effects are absolutely amazing. Dawn of the Dead is the ultimate splatter flick!

 The acting in Dawn of the Dead is decent. One of the movie’s most interesting aspects is showing humanity’s darker side by way of the human characters. The four main characters go from survivalist to materialistic in a short span of time. Watch how they fight with the bikers over their mall. At the same time, they display courage, mercy (when one of their own is bitten) and even humor. The movie seems to be asking who’s more depraved, the zombies or the humans.  

 Dawn of the Dead is a lot of things: gruesome, violent, disgusting, sickening, hilarious, exciting, scary and brilliant. Even though it depicts a societal collapse, it’s a great deal of fun. I would love to see this one on a big screen. It really is one of the best horror movies ever made.

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