Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Synopsis: In 1968, director George A. Romero brought us NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It became the definitive horror film of its time. Eleven years later, he would unleash the most shocking motion picture experience for all times. As modern society is consumed by zombie carnage, four desperate survivors barricade themselves inside a shopping mall to battle the flesh-eating hordes of the undead. This is the ferocious horror classic, featuring landmark gore effects by Tom Savini, that remains one of the most important – and most controversial – horror films in history. When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth: The original DAWN OF THE DEAD is back!

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Dawn of the Dead (1978) 8.25

eyelights: Ken Foree. its social satire. its setting. its gore effects.
eyesores: its pace. its undead make-up.

 “Who the hell cares! Let’s go shopping!”

When one of my best friends dropped by my place one evening with a Blockbuster Video-branded copy of ‘Night of the Living Dead‘, I had no idea what I was in store for. I expected low budget garbage. It was instead intelligent and well-crafted – though admittedly held together by a shoe-string.

Watching that movie created a dramatic shift in my appreciation of horror films.

I had never even casually glanced at the zombie genre before: mobility-impaired, inarticulate, intellectually deficient undead? Give me an f-ing break! What could possibly be scary about those shambling corpses? Now, after experiencing ‘NOTLD’, I wanted to see more of George Romero’s zombie pictures.

The first on my list was ‘Dawn of the Dead’. While both this and ‘Day of the Dead’ were readily available, I had seen this one around more and had been intrigued by the many editions that had been released on VHS. I eventually settled for Anchor Bay’s two-tape copy of the so-called “Director’s Cut”.

Here’s the thing: ‘Dawn of the Dead’ has been released in various forms in various markets. The main ones are the “Director’s Cut”, which is really a workprint version, the “Theatrical version”, which was used in English markets, and ‘Zombi’, the Dario Argento re-edit for most European markets.

Here we tackle the “Theatrical version”. (But keep an eye out for the other two!)

‘Dawn of the Dead’ came a decade after ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Though it’s not a direct sequel, with no actual references to its predecessor, it suggests a follow-up to the events of the first film: the initial undead attacks have now become a full-fledged epidemic that’s overcoming the United States.

The picture follows two newspeople and two cops as they travel away from Philadelphia by helicopter to find refuge elsewhere. When they find a deserted shopping centre, they realize that there they have the resources to survive nearly indefinitely – barring zombie and roaming biker attacks, of course.

Since 1968, much of the North American landscape had changed: the Vietnam War was over, Richard Nixon had resigned in shame, second-wave feminism was nearing its end and consumerism was spiking. As with its predecessor, Romero’s new zombie movie reflected and commented on societal changes.

For starters, as with ‘NOTLD’, its key protagonist is an African-American: a take-charge, intelligent, capable individual, Peter naturally leads the group in their endeavours. While this was nearly ground-breaking in 1968, it was less impactful in 1978. But it says a lot about Romero’s vision of the world.

Contrary to the previous picture, its female lead is also a more self-assured and skilled individual: Fran is a key production staff at WGON, can fire a rifle, and easily learns to pilot a helicopter. Further to this, she demands equal say in the group’s decision-making; she’s a far cry from the catatonic Barbara.

Romero’s view of society is clear here: it has become soulless, its values astray, with the masses getting instant gratification from consumerism, their new religion. One by one, people are turning into shambling shadows of themselves while North America becomes one large mall full of “zombies”.

Even religious figures aren’t impervious to this new reality, as evidence by the zombie nun or the Hare Krishna – who, ironically, is probably the most tenacious and fervent zombie of them all. In Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’, consumerism is a plague that no one can escape once they’re infected.

The most representative image of this worldview is the mall itself, with its wandering undead, aimless but unwilling to leave because it fulfills whatever sense of self they have. When our heroes power up the mall, the sight of the zombies moving about to the elevator music cements that notion further.

In this reality, it’s everyone for themselves: there’s a pervading sense that the authorities have lost control of the situation and can no longer help their citizens, as evidenced by the Rescue Stations going dark. Societal structures are crumbling; the only way to survive is to be resourceful and focused.

Part of the joy of watching this picture is seeing Peter, Rog, Fran and Steven work together to build their own little enclave, pitting themselves against the undead methodically and pragmatically. It’s a story of survival, certainly, but it also has an anti-establishment undercurrent that’s satisfying.

Ultimately, though, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is a horror film, and it certainly serves up its fair share of violence and horrifying sequences while it sets the stage initially, and later on, as our merry band face the invaders in their midst. It’s, in fact, spectacularly grotesque for such a low budget picture.

The make-up and gore effects were handled by Tom Savini, who had wanted to work on ‘NOTLD’, but got drafted. Though he would become a legend in his field, his work here is more creative than realistic. For instance, we can see a zombie get scalped by the helicopter’s rotors, but it’s predictable.

Similarly, when zombies take huge bites out of their victims, the flesh looks rubbery. I don’t know what material Savini used, but you can’t mistake it for flesh. Still, Romero’s staging compensates and there are, admittedly, a few truly well-executed gore effects along the way (ex: the disembowelment).

And the violence isn’t always gratuitous: there are plenty of shocking moments that remain with you, like Rog and Peter’s mass execution of the undead in a tenement building at the beginning of the picture; they’re clearly doing this more out of necessity and/or compassion than out of bloodlust.

These are real people dealing a very real apocalypse. They’re trying to survive, but it goes beyond a base “life or death” stance: they also try to retain their humanity in the process and want to maintain the building blocks of society, which consists of every member pooling in for the benefit of all.

In all this chaos, it’s no easy feat.

Romero’s zombie pictures aren’t just an excuse for grossing people out – and that’s what makes them timeless. Romero shows a genuine concern for people and the world we currently live in. As the talking heads discuss how to move forward, he’s trying to give us perspective on society’s fragility.

Its underlying theme is that society is key to our survival, but that its foundations aren’t secure and entirely reliable; it doesn’t take much for them to crumble. And neither consuming nor hoarding will help us to survive or bring happiness if we’re not working together for our mutual benefit.

The zombies are reminders of the soullessness of our consumeristic society, and the mall’s mannequins highlight the dehumanization that we’re already subjecting ourselves to daily. In ‘Dawn’ we’re shown that, if we don’t reconsider our approach, we will all end up shambling shells of humanity.

For a horror film, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is pretty deep.

It would probably be one of the greatest horror films ever made if not for the fact that it clearly could have been greater; it’s very much limited by its low budget, a couple of unfortunate performances, and its jarring shifts in tone, from action to tepid drama to even Vaudevillian humour.

Still, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remains a powerful entry in the genre, and it’s a fitting sequel to the legendary ‘Night of the Living Dead’. It’s a different beast, with a different tone, but it has similar concerns. That Romero was able to make an equally powerful motion picture is quite impressive.

This is a must-see.

Story: 8.0
Acting: 7.5
Production: 8.0

Chills: 3.5
Violence: 3.0
Gore: 5.0

Date of viewing: August 1, 2017

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