Dawn of the Dead (1978)


Director: George A Romero

Starring: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith

Words – Oliver Innocent

In 1968 director George A Romero rocked the horror genre with his zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later he repeated this trick with his follow-up to Night, Dawn of the Dead. The middle section of his three-decade dalliance with the dead (culminating with 1985’s Day of the Dead), Dawn takes place in a world where the tide has turned, and the zombies have begun to take over.

From the first night of the zombie apocalypse in Night to a world completely overrun in Day, Romero’s trilogy of the dead chronicles the deterioration of society and life as we know it. Each film is a product of its era as well as a comment on the issues and socio-political climate of the time. It is in this way that each entry in the saga has its own distinct personality, look and feel.
As a product of the ‘70s, Dawn immediately distinguishes itself from its predecessor with full garish colour cinematography in complete contrast to Night’s stark monochrome imagery. In keeping with the era of three-hour epics like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, Dawn is notably much longer, bigger and expansive compared with Night’s condensed claustrophobia.

Dawn of the Dead focuses on a new misfit band of survivors who take refuge from the zombie apocalypse in a large indoors shopping mall. Again, there is a strong cast. Standing out this time is Ken Foree who, thanks to his role as protagonist Peter, has become a genre staple, appearing in films such as Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and The Devil’s Rejects.
An interesting, unique setting, the mall’s various shops and features make for a multitude of imaginative ways to keep the zombie hordes at bay. As many critics have already noted, the mall setting also works on another level as Romero’s comment on consumerism. Indeed, the imagery of mindless zombie hordes aimlessly wandering around isn’t very far removed from what can be observed on a real-life trip to your local shopping centre. Zombies and shoppers both go for the same reason, to consume. The only difference is the zombies consume flesh.

It’s not just consumerism Romero tackles. There’s sensationalist TV worried about ratings even in the midst of the world coming to an end; police brutality and racism with cops going on a killing spree; abortion and a woman’s right to choose if she wants to keep her child; and man’s predilection for violence and enjoyment of a lawless world. Most of these issues seem to suggest that, even without the zombies, mankind is doomed.

Despite this, Dawn is fun, funny and exhilarating. It has some great action set-pieces like the biker raid on the mall, as well as some truly hilarious moments of black comedy such as the biker gang throwing pies at the zombies. Romero even inverts the standard bleak, downbeat ‘70s horror ending he himself popularised in Night with a relatively happy ending offering a glimmer of hope for the survival of mankind.
Just as Night informed the direction of the horror film genre in the ‘70s, so too did Dawn alter the course of the genre in the ‘80s. Inspired by Dawn, films like The Evil Dead, Fright Night and Re-Animator became more colourful, humorous, and over-the-top. They also became gorier and more effects driven.

Indeed, Dawn’s influence on the progression of practical special effects makeup and gore cannot be overstated. Thanks to Dawn’s effects wizard Tom Savini, special makeup effects artists became the rockstars of ‘80s horror.
They were often the main reason fans would flock to see the latest horror film. Not because of the actors or the directors, it was the tantalising draw of seeing the newest, most astounding special effects that really drew the crowds. Horror magazine Fangoria celebrated and popularised this fandom even further, with a focus on behind the scenes photographs and interviews with artists discussing how they achieved their effects.
Savini’s work on Dawn became the stuff of legend, paving the way for the increasingly complex and outlandish effects of the next decade. And for good reason; his effects are not only ground-breaking in terms of their technical prowess and believability, but also because of their creativity.

One of the most memorable aspects of Dawn of the Dead are the numerous creative ways in which the undead are dispatched. Heads explode in fountains of gore, guts are pulled out, and various body parts are dismembered with machetes and helicopter rotor blades. Simultaneously disgusting, entertaining, and funny, Tom Savini’s gory effects are the perfect punchline to George A Romero’s clever ‘70s satire.

See our retrospective feature on Night of the Living Dead (1968) >here<.

See our retrospective feature on Day of the Dead (1985) >here<.