In 1978, 10 years after his undisputed horror classic Night Of The Living Dead built an entire subgenre from the ground up, George A. Romero returned to zombie territory to create quite possibly one of the most influential horror movies ever made. Virtually every piece of zombie themed entertainment from this point on, be it the trashiest Italian ripoff to the classiest video game homage, would directly reference this seminal classic either in story, tone, or execution. A practice that goes on to this very day.
What is it about this low budget epic that causes it to endure decades after it’s initial release and has inspired legions of filmmakers from Edgar Wright to Zack Snyder?
Much like the rubber timeline of the James Bond franchise, Dawn isn’t a strict sequel to Night but instead takes the stage phase of a zombie outbreak and plants it in the time period in which it was made. So as Night deals with the beginnings of a zombie takeover as the numbers of the dead steadily swell, Dawn handles the tipping point where the infestation is just starting to get out of hand.
In this new world we are introduced to tense couple Stephen and Francine who both work for a television studio in Philadelphia and as news of the dead roaming the land starts a panic (shown beautifully in a credits sequence set in a angst soaked studio where the mood is rapidly starting to collapse) the couple decide to flee in the traffic news helicopter. Meanwhile across town, SWAT members Roger and Peter have just finished a harrowing mission flushing out foreign immigrants from a housing project who are in direct violation of martial law as they have refused to deliver the bodies of their (not so) dead loved ones for processing. Lamenting the accelerated collapse of society and how dangerous the cities are getting, Roger invites Peter to join him, Stephen and Fran in running to less urban areas where the living dead problem isn’t quite so dire. After some uneasy bonding over a couple of near-death misadventures, the quartet eventually happen across a deserted shopping mall and stop for supplies only to find that the place is not only a goldmine of food, ammo and truly hideous 70’s fashions but is also potentially easy to defend. After painstakingly clearing the place out of zombies and fortifying the entrances with trucks, the place is eventually all theirs but at some physical cost and as the days and weeks tick on and the group’s attachment to a place jammed packed with luxuries and creature comforts grows starts to eat them up inside as the numbers of the dead outside steadily increase as they, like our heroes, seem drawn to the place. Eventually the group have to make a decision to fight or flight when the mall gets scoped out by a huge, heavily armed biker gang led by Tom Savini’s sentient porn ‘stache. Will the mall go from the group’s salvation to their prison and then eventually become their tombs or can they all possibly survive? And even if they do, where else could they possibly go?
Dawn Of The Dead’s greatest assest, despite being unfathomably cool, is the satire on show with our heroes butting heads with zombies who have come back to mindlessly wander in and around the various retail outlets because in the deepest recesses in their rotting brains it’s all they can remember. The fact that our leads are also willing to die for their perceived oasis of clothes off the rack and arcade machines.
Not only is the film a timeless snap at consumerism but it also has quite a few things to say about on screen violence.
As the film progresses, Romero ensnares his gawking, unbelieving, 1970’s audience with jaw dropping images of bloody grand guignol that dares them not only to accept the outlandish comic book grue on display, but to fully embrace it, to cheer for it therefore creating the unwritten rule that when making a zombie movie, you’d better get some red on you. As if to point out how ludicrous the level of violence on display here really is, at one point during the gruesome climax the raiding biker gang pause their assault to indulge in a pie fight with the flesh eating undead. A perfectly normal reaction, I’m sure you’d agree.
Admittedly Tom Savini’s (pulling triple duty as effects guy, actor and stuntman) incredibly enthusiastic effects work are very much of it’s time and there’s a gag or two that hasn’t aged particularly gracefully like the curiously flat headed zombie who meets the business end of a helicopter propeller or the fact that most of the stumbling undead are Pittsburg natives simply painted blue; but the sheer amount of crayon red splatter on show more than makes up for the more dated aspects of this undisputed classic.
Something else that may confuse new viewers may be the extraordinarily eccentric yet fantastically iconic score by Italian prog rockers Goblin (brought in by producer Dario Argento) which compliments the pulp atmosphere Romero has on display here (some might say too much in the closing seconds of the film).
As the credits roll and the ironic, jaunty theme plays as swarms of zombie start repopulating the mall en masse we are left with a clock loudly chiming, possibly signalling the end of the human race giving this action packed, yet thoughtful epic a truly sobering ending.
“When there’s no more room in Hell,” gravely intones Ken Foree’s Peter, “The dead shall walk the earth.”
They’ve been walking ever since.