I’ve seen George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) enough times that when I watch it, I pay more attention to things that go on in the background or margins of scenes because I’ve always been fascinated with the world he created in the Dead films. Unlike the many imitators and wannabes, he took the time to develop the protagonists, giving them flaws and vulnerabilities so that we care about what happens to these characters while still delivering the goods in the gore department. The end result is a smart, exciting and horrifying masterpiece that has more on its mind than killing zombies.
Taking place years after the events of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn begins with Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross) waking up from a nightmare into a living one. She works at a Philadelphia television station embroiled in chaos, trying desperately to stay on the air. In recent viewings I’ve paid closer attention to what is being said in the background as Romero gives us tantalizing hints to this world whose order is rapidly disintegrating thanks to the zombie epidemic.
Two pundits argue about whether people are actually coming back to life and eating the living. As the opening credits continue to appear, Romero shows people behind the scenes continuing to argue among themselves. Right from the get-go Fran has a forceful personality as she’s willing to stand-up to her boss when she goes against his orders and removes non-existent rescue stations from being broadcast. In a nice touch Romero uses one of the T.V. pundits to give us the low-down on the zombie rules in Dawn for those who might not have seen his other films. We learn that the President of the United States has implemented martial law in the country and people are no longer allowed to stay in their homes.
Fran’s boyfriend Stephen Andrews (David Emge), a helicopter pilot, urges her to take off with him. She hesitates, a last vestige of loyalty to her job perhaps, until a co-worker tells her, “We’re off the air by midnight anyway. The emergency networks are taking over. Our responsibility is finished.” The way he says that last line – in a resigned way – has always affected me and strikes a slightly ominous tone. Later on, our heroes find a television and Romero treats us to snippets of news from the outside world. One pundit suggests that the zombie outbreak might be a viral disease. We are never given the full picture, but in a way that is a smart move on his part as he realized that whatever we think up, filling the gaps with our own imagination would be better than anything he could come up with and so, in a way, we become a part of the creative process.
As if to illustrate the martial law orders for people to leave their homes, Romero cuts to a SWAT team carrying out a raid on a tenement building. We meet Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a smart and able man who tries his best to avoid a racist member (James Baffico) of his team as they enter the building to find a mix of people and the living dead. The racist cop is a continuation of the men that shot Ben at the end of Night of the Living Dead only he takes pleasure in killing African-Americans, living or dead. His actions give us a first real taste of Tom Savini’s groundbreaking make-up effects as he blows off some hapless civilian’s head off with a shotgun blast.
Fortunately, this renegade cop is taken out by one his own, Peter Washington (Ken Foree). Interestingly, the raid on the apartment building devolves into chaos just like at the T.V. station, minus the zombies, of course. I like how the sight of the living dead affects these cops. One man is so traumatized that he takes his own life. Roger is also affected and we see the shock play out on his face. Peter isn’t the cold killing machine he initially appears to be. When he and Roger clear the basement of zombies, a tear runs down his face as he tries to keep his emotions in check, but it must be difficult having to kill his fellow man. For me, the scariest part of Dawn of the Dead is the apartment building bloodbath because the protagonists don't know what atrocities are lurking behind every door and the terror and confusion in such an enclosed space is unsettling.
Peter and Roger team up and the latter knows Stephen so they hook up with Fran and escape in the helicopter. As they make their way across Pennsylvania, Romero cuts to a group of redneck hunters who’ve teamed up with the military and are treating the whole thing like a hunting party complete with beer and music. This echoes a similar scene in Night of the Living Dead only with more a satirical vibe as the country music and the laidback attitude of the hunters creates a bizarrely festive mood, punctuating the pervasive feeling of dread that has permeated Dawn of the Dead up to this point.
Our heroes discover a shopping mall and decide that it is just too good of an opportunity to pass up. As they systematically take control of the place, Dawn of the Dead becomes a fascinating treatise on the pros and cons of materialism as over time our heroes get complacent and over-confident that they’ve rid the place of zombies. As is often the case in Romero’s films, humans are just as big a threat if not more so to the protagonists than the living dead. This comes in the form of a gang of marauding bikers that threaten our heroes’ peaceful existence. It’s good in a way because the bikers wake them up, reigniting their survival instincts and reminding them that no place is safe and that the best strategy is to keep moving.
I’ve always felt that Dawn of the Dead has never gotten enough praise for its excellent screenplay that presents realistic characters thrown into extraordinary circumstances. For example, there’s a good exchange in the helicopter as everyone debates how they’re going to get more fuel and Peter lays it out for them, cutting through the bullshit: “Wake up, sucker. We’re thieves and we’re bad guys, that’s exactly what we are.” He makes a good point – societal order has gone out the window and it is everyone for themselves. There’s another nice bit when our heroes discover the rather large shopping mall and decide to check it out. As they observe the living dead shambling by stores Fran wonders, “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” to which Stephen says, “Some kind of instinct, memory, what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
I like that Romero isn’t afraid to have flawed protagonists. It’s more realistic and makes them more relatable. For example, Stephen isn’t as adept at killing zombies as are the well-trained Peter and Roger. His first run-in with the living dead is awkward as he clumsily tries to protect Fran. He’s also a lousy shot, unable to kill a zombie after three shots from his rife and then he almost shoots Peter while trying to nail another one. Roger is a little too cocky and over-confident when it comes to dealing with zombies. Interestingly, it is the characters with the least amount of flaws – Peter and Fran – that survive. Romero doesn’t pass judgment on any of these characters, but instead simply presents them warts and all and leaves it up to the audience to decide.
Romero’s script develops complex relationships among our heroes by introducing Fran’s pregnancy early on. While Roger, Peter and Stephen debate whether Fran should have an abortion or not, she sits in another room visibly upset at decisions being made without her two cents. Gaylen Ross handles this scene brilliantly and you really feel for Fran. I like that she speaks up, isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and lets it be known that she is not going to cater to their needs, that she wants to know what’s going on and be treated as an equal. She also demands to be taught how to fly the helicopter in case something happens to Stephen.
Scott Reiniger does a nice job of playing Roger’s transformation from empathetic cop to someone who takes too many chances and loses his objectivity with fatal results. I like how dealing with and killing zombies changes Roger. He covers up the trauma of it through false bravado. His gradual transformation into a zombie is a chilling one, not just because of Savini’s subtle make-up effects, but also how Reiniger conveys the change via his demeanor and the way he carries himself.
Ken Foree’s Peter is the calming influence on the group and he’s the natural leader if you can say it has one. He’s the first to support Fran’s demand to be treated as an equal, but with one caveat – she can’t go out with them until she learns how to use a gun. He also offers up chilling pearls of wisdom like the iconic line, “When there’s no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth.”
While Night of the Living Dead is rightly regarded as a landmark film, Dawn of the Dead is a more ambitious one. It is also better written with more fully developed protagonists dealing more with just survival, but things like pregnancy and a false sense of security. Like Night, Dawn is very much a film of its time as it offers up harsh critiques on capitalism and materialism, using the zombies as metaphors for mindless consumers. It also deliver the goods for horror fans courtesy of Savini’s impressive make-up effects, culminating in the biker’s siege of the mall, that stands the test of time and still looks better than the CGI effects of its noisier, flashier remake that dumped the socio-political commentary for stylish slam-bam action.
The image of the living dead wandering mindlessly through the mall while goofy-sounding muzak plays over the soundtrack is still one of the most potent images in any film of its kind because it speaks directly to our consumer culture. The living in Dawn of the Dead consume material items while the zombies consume them. Peter and Fran survive because they don’t need all their material items to exist. The mall being overrun by bikers and zombies forces them to leave all those useless creature comforts behind and take only what they need. It is implied that they don’t have much fuel left in the helicopter, which leaves their future uncertain, but they’re alive and for right now that’s enough.