George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead is still one of the most important movies ever made
In theory, I try hard not be one of those film/media culture writers that repeats ad nauseam that “zombies are everywhere,” but for the purposes of this piece, I have no choice: zombies are indeed everywhere. In film. In comics. In games. On television. And with AMC‘s The Walking Dead preparing to start production on its 8th season (and the remainder of the 7th airing imminently), mass-marketed ghoul entertainment won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
But it’s vital to remember where all of this apocalyptic, cannibal corpse mayhem comes from and it’s not a stodgy heavy-handed hipster lecture to do so, either. Because the source is still as potent today as it has ever been. In many respects – perhaps outside of the state of the art improvements in special effects – the blueprint of the living dead is even more effective than any of its slicker contemporary counterparts. Certainly, the novel that lit the fire, Richard Matheson’s vampire holocaust horror story I Am Legend is still ample powerful, despite the many tepid and wrongheaded film adaptions and George A. Romero‘s landmark 1968 nihilistic gore thriller Night of the Living Dead — which is a primal, probably accidentally political rip-off of the Matheson book — changed the way Americans watch horror films. And it’s still a tough movie to handle. It’s still darker than pitch and truly terrifying and oddly prophetic.
But it’s Romero’s full-blooded, full-color and near-operatic 1978 NOTLD companion film/sequel Dawn of the Dead that set the rules for the modern zombie movie. Dawn is the one everyone copied, from the European clones and tail-riders, to the wave of ghoul-free end of the world shockers, to the name brand remake and the other millennial fast moving flesh eater epics like 28 Days/Weeks Later, Resident Evil (the games and the films) and yes, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comics and the aforementioned series that realized its stories.
Dawn is the gold standard of living dead cinema and it’s the first film that I was afraid to watch. I had this cousin who lived in Windsor, the bordertown to Detroit. Not sure what happened to him. His name was Jamie and he was 15 years older than I was and he loved KISS, Alice Cooper and horror movies. I thought he was the coolest person I knew. I remember sitting in his car when I was 6 or 7 and listening to rock and roll and thrilling raptly to his tales of driving to Detroit to see this movie called Dawn of the Dead, a movie that was so scary and bloody that Canadians weren’t allowed to see it (Dawn was banned in Canada at the time). He told me about key scenes and how the audience screamed and howled and how he drove back the following week just to watch it again. Years later I saw a copy of Dawn at the first video store my family became members at, the Thorn EMI clamshell case with Scott Reiniger’s Roger “rising” in three headshot images. The movie looked cheap and eerie and came armed with a quote on the top of the box from Roger Ebert, praising the film as a “Savagely Satanic vision of America”. Oddly, a much younger Ebert was one of the critics loudly panning Night of the Living Dead in 1968. A decade later, he finally saw the light.
I finally rented Dawn at a sleepover on my 11th birthday with 2 of my friends. We ate garbage and watched Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter first, which meant nothing to me (I found it mechanical and dull, like most American slasher films) and then chased it with Dawn. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was a Tom Savini double feature.But Dawn changed my life. From its first shot against that blood-red carpeted wall (a sign of the sanguinary splatter-thon that was to come), pulling back against Gaylen Ross’ Fran waking from a nightmare only to find that what was happening in reality was far worse, I was hooked. In those first five minutes as the crude credits appear and that metronomic Goblin bass-line drags us into the action, Romero captures a world spiraling out of control, very, very quickly. A Pittsburgh TV news studio is in chaos. Talking heads talk over each other in a volatile, unorganized fashion, the crew running around in a panic and many just running out, period. No other movie I’d seen literally jumped into Hell like Dawn does. Watching it today, it still has a power unequaled.
But after that urgent opening, it was the parallel tale, that of Ken Foree’s Peter and Reiniger’s Roger, two S.W.A.T officers who are called-in to infiltrate a housing complex filled with superstitious minorities who have refused to give up their dead, that kicked my head in, as it did so many unprepared viewers. Savini’s squibs and exploding heads, his grey/blue-faced ghouls appearing out of every corner, stiff and wide-eyed and casually lunging at anything warm; dead husbands embracing living wives and eating them alive. And Peter and Roger stepping away from the madness momentarily as they plot ditching their duties and running for their lives. The one-legged Priest who urges them to “stop the killing”, lest the living dead conquer the world (“The people they kill..get up and kill”, to quote the TV pundit at the beginning of the picture). And the basement where the “kept” and starved ghouls have now begun cannibalizing themselves. It was all too much. It was death and horror overload. There was no comfort. Nothing safe to hold on to. I was lost in Dawn of the Dead. I was at Romero’s mercy.
And I still get lost in it. It still has its way with me, every time.
As of this writing, the world doesn’t feel very safe. In fact, it never is safe, really. Safety is an illusion after all. But at the moment, much of that illusion has collapsed. In honor of this woozy global socio-political state, I popped in Dawn again the other night, the Romero preferred U.S. theatrical cut, and even more profoundly felt the slap of what Romero was using his heroes, villains and zombie Greek chorus to say. Those zombies in all of Romero’s films – but most potently in Dawn – are the common man liberated and devouring that tenuous illusion of social safety. They are death. They are nature. They are apathetic and operating on instinct. They are born out of our hate, out of our idiotic need to coat the world in chrome and pretend everything is alright, when it’s anything but. Men, women, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, children, the elderly…it doesn’t matter. All will die. All will come back to eat who and what is left.
Nowhere is this more potent than when our quartet of heroes are flown in by David Emge’s Stephen to the abandoned Monroeville Mall, where they infiltrate the fortress and begin the arduous, dangerous process of eliminating the dead and setting up their own utopian society. The dead are drawn to this commercial slop-pit, stumbling up the down-escalators, falling into fountains, mesmerized, while cheery muzak drizzles out of the mall’s speakers. Romero said it first and he said it best and since then no one who has seen Dawn and responded to it can go to a mall and not be struck with the fact that this is what they are doing. What everyone who shuffles through those self-contained consumer death traps do, distracting themselves with “stuff”, even when we are collectively falling apart.
There’s no other movie like Dawn of the Dead, not even in Romero’s own diverse and distinct cannon. It’s a film of many flavors and delights, some there by design, some by organic accident. As the movie was famously kick-started by Italian maverick Dario Argento, co-financed in exchange for Dario getting the rights to cut a European version (called Zombi, which differs by eliminating some of the American satire, pumping up the action and saturating the film with more Goblin heavy metal prog-rock music), there’s a certain European flavor to the film, a kind of exuberance and emotional gravitas that mark many Italian films, horror and otherwise. There’s Savini’s amazing and revolutionary DIY gore effects (Savini and Romero are the ones who, with Dawn, invented the term “splatter movies”) as well as Tom’s own performance as the leader of the biker gang who haphazardly try to “steal” the mall from our heroes. There’s the quartet of strong, layered characters played by equally unforgettable unknown actors at the center of the film that anchor the movie in humanity and give the movie so much of its endless replay value. We LOVE these characters and, even though we know who will live and die, we are perpetually swept up in their plight. There’s that mutant Goblin rock music which hammers home so much powerful doom and sweeps us away during the more exhilarating action sequences. And there’s Romero’s reliance on “needle drop” music from the De Wolfe library, something he used to exploit often but sadly has abandoned. This collection of strange, dichotomous cues and stings add so much humor, horror and weirdness to Dawn, jerking the viewer around emotionally and viscerally. All of these things coupled with the feeling of genuine invention and indie spirit are what make this movie so joyously horrific and enduring. You can’t fabricate this sh*t. It just happens or it doesn’t. This is a small movie that feels as epic as Gone With the Wind and yet so many of today’s movies are SO big yet feel dwarved by comparison. Why is that?
And while The Walking Dead and Greg Nicotero’s startling make-up effects are vast improvements technically on the house that Romero built, the show – and most if not all contemporary zombie entertainments – is missing the key element that makes Romero’s ghoul films, especially Dawn, so effective: Romero genuinely feels sad. There’s a sadness at the loss of the world and, most importantly, he pities the zombies. In Dawn, each zombie isn’t just a pile of gooey rubber and fake blood and decay, they are ghostly echoes of what we are. Each one has a soul. Whether it be the shirtless obese zom falling into the fountain, the pair of child zoms who are gunned down, the relentless Hari Krishna ghoul, the nurse, the nun, the amateur baseball player who seems smitten with Fran through the department store door while her heart breaks at the fate that has befell the young man or the regal African woman who is outraged when the bikers steal her jewelry…there’s a powerful feeling of empathy and grace about these shambling flesh-eaters. And by the end of the movie, when what’s left of our heroes fly off in the chopper and the dead once more take back their capitalist graveyard, there’s a feeling of hollow triumph and eerie melancholy. As “The Gonk” plays over the end credits and the dead shuffle aimlessly through the mall once more, we feel like whatever they are, they deserve this. They are owed this. This is their kingdom. I absolutely find the end of Dawn of the Dead to be an uplifting one and feel like Romero is – like David Cronenberg felt with Shivers and his other films about invading species – that the zombies have triumphed in their coup against their oppressors and righteously won the war. It’s a theme Romero would explore again in both 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2005’s Land of the Dead, but never as eloquently or artfully articulated as it is here.
Dawn of the Dead is a movie for all time. A movie for OUR time. Though there are thousands of movies like it…there’s no movie quite like it. Does that make sense? Watch it again or for the first time. Keep it alive. We need this movie, now more than ever…