Running time: 127 min.
Release date: September 1, 1978
George Andrew Romero recently left the living, hopefully not to return. I say that in jest because of the legacy that Romero left behind for us, the living, to enjoy. He essentially created an entire subgenre of horror which has extended beyond the cinematic world and into other realms of media such as television, comic books, novels, etc. He is the daddy of the zombie film, beginning in a humble but totally influential manner with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. He would not return to the land of the undead until his sixth film in 1978, Dawn of the Dead. The scope of Night is greatly expanded from a lone farmhouse to an expansive shopping mall, as we get to see that the nightmare of the dead walking the earth has reached catastrophic proportions. Dawn of the Dead tells a tale of horror and despair while simultaneously making a statement on the foibles of a consumerist society. Dawn of the Dead is almost the perfect horror film while coming close to transcending the genre altogether.
The film kicks things off with a scene of inside a TV studio that is chaotic with emotions running high. The recently deceased are returning to life and feasting on the flesh of the living while representatives of the government are urging citizens to turn their dead over to them for disposal; of course, things are not going as easily planned, and we find an apartment building where the tenants have hoarded their dead, in order to give them "dignity in death" as quoted by a priest. A SWAT team enters the building and attempts to diffuse the situation, with two in particular, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), making to plans to get out of this hopeless situation and leave with Roger's pilot friend, Stephen (David Emge) and Fran (Gaylen Ross), employees of the TV station. Stephen is a traffic helicopter pilot and flies the four of them out of urban Philadelphia for parts unknown. After a few close calls during fueling stops, the spy a shopping mall and land on the roof. After some deliberation, the group choose to stay in the mall, using the various resources at their disposal to survive. After devising a way to keep the zombies out, the four of them enjoy the luxuries a shopping mall can provide, leading to a decadent and hedonistic lifestyle. Meanwhile, a motorcycle gang (led by Tom Savini, who doubles as the make-up artists for the film) has spied their chopper on the roof, and they plan to make a run on the mall. This leads to a lengthy scene of violence, gore and chaos inside the mall which was inevitable. The plot is rife with disgusting and violent scenes but at the same time, there is still room for humor and a pretty brilliant display of disdain for consumerism. The world is falling apart around them, but our survivors, almost selfishly, still have time to enjoy superficial pursuits found within the confines of the mall. This is a story with something to say, and it is obviously blunt.
Romero fully intends on shocking his audience with the gore, stretching the boundaries of good taste beyond anything the average viewer can stomach. However, he attaches some humor in scenes of zombies attempting to traverse escalators in the wrong direction. There are even some poignant moments, like when a zombie wearing a baseball uniform makes eye contact with Fran through a store window, and there seems to be a moment of sympathy or sadness from Fran, even with the threat that the zombie poses. Romero goes from a humorous or touching scene straight into scenes involving gore and guts and blood several times throughout the running time. Aiding Romero in his quest to shock and awe is make-up artist Savini. With a decent budget, Savini seems to work overtime providing displays of severed limbs, tearing flesh, exploding heads and bright red blood in equal doses of brilliance and grotesqueness. Romero's screenplay is filled with logical scenarios compacted inside of a loose story. Some of the editing early on is a little off-kilter but it doesn't really affect the story being told.
The cast of unknowns really adds to the everyman feel of the story. These are four random people attempting to survive and none of them should be considered "the hero", as there are some quite non-heroic deeds throughout the story. David Emge as Stephen is good at flying a chopper, but bad at things that require brawn, such as in a scene where he almost shoots Peter in an attempt to take out a zombie, with Roger stepping in front of him to take the shot instead. He's not an alpha male and you get the sense that he and Fran are not exactly crazy about each other. Gaylen Ross as Fran is the lone female of the group and as such she feels that she is not always informed of what the next step might be. Stephen is asked if he wants Fran's baby aborted, which she takes offense to, since it's her body and all. Peter the SWAT cop, played by Ken Foree, is the alpha male of the group, and assumes the leadership role, as Scott Reiniger's Roger comes off as more of a hotshot, which eventually gets him into a trouble. The cast hit all the right notes, as it is a mostly low-key group effort. Tom Savini gets to chew some scenery as the leader of the biker gang, lustily pillaging and salivating at the chance to take out some zombies.
A near flawless production, Dawn of the Dead is a classic in the zombie horror subgenre, right behind Romero's own Night of the Living Dead. At a time when media platforms were nowhere near inundated with zombies, Dawn is able to deliver a message to the masses about consumerism and social class structures that still rings true today. Meanwhile, the practical special effects and make-up are still convincing and are still able to make the weaker among us cringe in disgust. After all, that was Romero's first task: grossing you out.