George A. Romero, 1978
Starring: Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Famously shot in the Monroeville Mall just outside of Pittsburgh, Dawn of the Dead interestingly doesn’t contain any of the same characters as Romero’s first major film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and has a completely new plot line. It continues the theme of a zombie apocalypse spreading across the U.S., this time bigger and more devastating in scale. A news station is in the throes of panic as they debate whether or not to stay on air during the ongoing spread of a zombie plague. The cause of zombism is unknown and some refuse to believe that the dead are rising to feast upon the living. Fran, a worker at the station, decides to escape with her helicopter pilot boyfriend Steven.
They are soon joined by two SWAT team members, Roger and Peter, who will provide some protection. The foursome flees Philadelphia and travels for some time in the helicopter, eventually finding an abandoned mall near Pittsburg. Needing food, shelter, and sleep, they decide to land on the roof and have a look around. The second floor of the mall is relatively secure and they are able to protect themselves from zombies fairly easily. Eventually Roger is bitten during the process of clearing the mall. As his injury develops, they raid the mall and build a life of relative comfort for themselves, but how long can it last?
For a few years growing up, this and Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead were tied as my favorite zombie film, possibly also for my favorite film of all time. That makes Dawn of the Dead a little difficult to write about. Though my tastes have matured and I can recognize some of its flaws, I still think this is one of the best zombie films ever made (and the best film ever set in a mall). It seems strange that this sequel came out ten years after Night of the Living Dead, but it is certainly unique compared to other horror sequels of the ‘70s and ‘80s. While most horror series were made up of repetitive attempts to recycle the same villains and stock characters, Romero’s Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead are all remarkably different films that just happen to be set in the same universe.
Dawn of the Dead doesn’t have the same sort of horror or scares as Night. Zombies were already introduced in stark black and white and Dawn’s colorful sets and outlandish gore is a welcome change. The feeling of a long term sense of dread and hopelessness that began at the end of Night is intensified here, as well as boredom and a strange sense of ennui. The characters try to survive, but why? In some ways, Dawn has not aged particularly well. There’s a brief opening commentary about the role of news and media, though the film quickly transitions into a not-so-subtle argument about the negative aspects of capitalist culture. Though his commentary seems a bit obvious after 30+ years, it remains to be powerful. I’ve always thought it was a shame that the section of the film where the characters become lost in a consumer frenzy, gutting the mall for all its worth, is rudely interrupted by some cheesy looking bikers.
The bike gang simply feels out of place and introduces a shade of Romero’s motorcycle-themed, rebellious oddity Knightriders. The gang in Dawn is actually made up of some real Pagans who ride around causing chaos, plus Tom Savini, whose character was improvised by he and Romero. This was also Savini’s first major job providing special effects and he does a fantastic job with dozens of memorable effects that have not really aged at all.
In addition to the effects, one of Dawn’s enduring strengths is Romero’s writing. Different and more complex than Night, overall I think the characters are better written and more fleshed out than in the first film. Though the plot moves quickly, Romero gives us plenty of time to get to know the foursome, with the exception of maybe Steven, who has very little personality at all. SWAT agents Roger and Peter are the most likable characters and I think Scott Reiniger (Knightriders) and Ken Foree (From Beyond) also give the best performances. David Emge (Basket Case 2) is downright unlikable as Steven and though Gaylen Ross (Creepshow) is decent as Fran, she is frustratingly subdued for much of the film.
Dawn is an Italian and U.S. co-production. Romero couldn’t find enough funding to make a sequel to Night as soon as he wanted to, but director Dario Argento was a fan and decided to help with the production of a second film. Apparently the two directors became close friends and Argento’s involvement meant that Romero could make the film he wanted without too much studio interference. It also meant that Romero had complete control over the English-language/American release, while Argento had control of the European cut. Argento’s friends Goblin did the memorable score, which is represented in varying degrees based on which version you watch. There are actually five different cuts of the film: the 119 minute European/Argento cut, the 127 minute US theatrical release, the 128 minute DVD version, a 139 minute extended version, and the 156 minute “Final Cut.” The three most important of these are included in the Ultimate Edition DVD box set, which comes highly recommended and with a number of great special features.
Dawn of the Dead in general comes with a very high recommendation. While I’ve grown to prefer Day of the Dead, Dawn is fun, fast paced, and entertaining. It remains one of my favorite zombie films and is still a breath of fresh air compared to recent tired zombie films and television shows like the awful Dawn of the Dead remake or The Walking Dead, which I will die happy if I never have to hear about again. Dawn of the Dead was followed by Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009).