Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.
George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is, simply put, one of the all-time greatest and most influential horror movies of all time. Check out almost any website or podcast dedicated to the horror genre, and you’ll see this movie on almost every “Top 10 of all time”-type list. It has been referenced in so many movies, anything from horror/comedy Shaun of the Dead to the Dead Rising videogames – pretty much any zombie movie or show or book where a group of survivors hole up in a store, bar, restaurant, radio station, or mall owes at least a small debt of gratitude to this classic. It was remade in 2004 by Zack Snyder, one of very few horror remakes that gets any love around the horror community. The Monroeville Mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, where most of the film was shot, is legendary today based mostly on this movie (okay, part of Flashdance was filmed there, too). Night of the Living Dead might have started it all, but Dawn of the Dead is arguably the most influential zombie movie of all time.
The zombie outbreak has begun to spread, and cities are in a panic. Martial law is enacted, people are scared, and no one quite knows what to do or what will happen next. A small group of people steal a news helicopter and fly away: a couple of SWAT team members – Peter (the legendary Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) – as well as traffic reporter Stephen (David Emge) and his television executive girlfriend, Francine (Gaylen Ross, who later also appeared as Becky Vickers in the “Something to Tide You Over” segment of Romero’s Creepshow). They end up finding safety in a shopping mall, which is kind of genius. Think about it, everything you might need is there: food, clothing, shelter, and in this case, guns. But safety in a zombie movie is always fleeting, and they soon have their hands full not only with zombies, but eventually a gang of rowdy bikers as well. Add in the inner turmoil that is inevitable when people are trapped together, then double that when Francine discovers she’s pregnant and one of the group gets bit, and throw in a pie fight just for fun, and you’ve got Dawn of the Dead.
So why is this movie so important, so far above all the rest? There’s a lot of factors involved. Romero is almost always sending hard-hitting social commentary through his films, and Dawn of the Dead is no exception. The mall setting, with store after store as far as the eye can see, mixed with the plodding zombies pounding on the doors, fumbling through the unnecessary but expensive items at the stores, is a sharp criticism of our consumer culture. Romero also touches on the social unrest and income inequality of the time in the first act of the film, showing a SWAT team bulldozing through an inner city housing complex, shooting at anyone in the way in an overly zealous fashion, while the people who live there opt to protect their zombified loved ones rather than deal with the police, who they see as the enemy.
Another thing that makes this one stand out is the effects work, and we have the master himself, Tom Savini, to thank for that (he also plays a small role as one of the bikers in the film). Night of the Living Dead shocked us with its creeping zombie mob closing in on a house, but now that we know the undead, we need the stakes raised. The blood and gore in this film is turned up to eleven in comparison to the first of the series. When our heroes are fending off the horde, it isn’t just the bang of a gunshot and a zombie falling backward anymore. We’ve got heads splitting apart, lots of red splashing everywhere. And the zombies here aren’t just gnawing on meatless bones, they’re tearing off fresh limbs and ripping their victims apart. They’re biting open throats. They’re walking into helicopter blades and losing their heads over it. They’re making a very bloody mess. And this gory trend has definitely continued in the genre, moving forward into the zombie era that we know and love today.
Dawn of the Dead is both an action packed zombie movie and a slow-building, tension filled horror story, thanks in large part to Romero’s brilliant writing as well as the effects and stunt work. But there are other things that make this one so memorable, little things here and there. The actors, particularly the main characters, are good and convincing, drawing us in and making us care about their struggle. Dario Argento’s name can be found in the credits, both under “script consultant” (don’t forget, he’s got his own cut of the movie out there) as well as in the music section (years later, Romero and Argento would work together again on the movie Two Evil Eyes). That second one, the “music by” credit, is kind of a biggie. Some of the soundtrack for this movie is done by “Dario Argento and the Goblins,” aka Goblin, the legendary music group that has supplied consistently amazing horror movie soundtrack music (especially for the Italian films, i.e. Suspiria and Deep Red). And right alongside the televised debates about the zombies, about what created them and why they’re coming back from the dead and how to kill them, we’ve got Peter’s line: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” That’s the kind of line that turns a movie into a legend.
Dawn of the Dead is now almost forty years old, yet it still stands up today. It continues to inspire new filmmakers, and remains one of the best the horror genre has to offer. Bringing together masters of horror George Romero and Tom Savini proves to usually create good things, but this is without a doubt their greatest creation. So many quotable lines, so many memorable zombies – for real, the fact that there are specific zombies that everyone knows from this movie is just further proof of its legacy. I can’t begin to guess where the horror genre would be had Dawn of the Dead not come along, but I am positive it wouldn’t be as cool. So yeah, I like this one a whole lot.