Dawn of the Dead (1978)

For the most part, I prefer to review films that aren’t necessarily considered classics (by any stretch of the imagination). Some are “cult” classics, a la Evil Dead II, but few of them would be deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress. There are a few reasons I tend to avoid reviewing “good” films, but the main one is that I just don’t feel qualified. I don’t have a film degree; I really haven’t even seen all that many movies. I only recently saw The Godfather for the first time. I’ve never seen a John Wayne movie, and so forth. I do believe there should be some modicum of respectability to the profession of critiquing works of art.

Dude, grunge is so fifteen years ago.

On the other hand, there’s a difference between analyzing the themes of a film for an art journal and assessing how entertaining it is for a general audience, and on that level, I feel I can make a few comments about Dawn of the Dead. Of course, Dawn of the Dead is not exactly Citizen Kane or Requiem for a Dream, but it still has a better critical reputation than most of the stuff I review on the site. So think of this less as a “review,” and more just general ruminations on a topic.

Let me say up front that I like Night of the Living Dead more than I do Dawn of the Dead. For one thing, Night, despite being released ten years earlier, looks less dated, thanks to the outrageously distinctive 1970s fashions in Dawn. Second, I just find Night‘s narrower scope and brutal survival politics more compelling than the social commentary of Dawn.

However, Dawn of the Dead has the greater reputation among zombie film fans and the general public alike, and having recently re-watched it I decided it would be ideal to fill in a day on this insane project I’ve undertaken.

Dawn of the Dead is a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, and is followed by 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2005’s Land of the Dead. Though each film is representative of the decade in which it was shot (black-and-white televisions in Night, cell phones in Land), there’s a general understanding that each film follows the same zombie outbreak. In each subsequent film we’re a little further into the outbreak. Night takes place just as it begins; Dawn is a week or two into it; Day is several months to a year into it; and Land is several years after.

Wow, Warheads really are sour!

Dawn of the Dead begins in a television station in Philadelphia, where newscaster Francine (Gaylen Ross) and her boyfriend, helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) are trying to plan an escape amidst all the chaos that understandably ensues following an outbreak of cannibalistic revenants. The plot then abruptly shifts to a tenement building where a SWAT team is clearing out zombies in brutal fashion (this is the beginning of the “lock ‘n load” clich&ecaute; of zombie films). Here we meet blonde-haired Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and mega-badass Peter (excellently acted by Ken Foree; as in Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead, the most competent, mentally stable character is a black man whose race is refreshingly never commented upon by anyone).

“You know Macumba? Vodoun. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'” —Peter

Stephen, Fran, Peter, and Roger hop into Stephen’s chopper and eventually make their way to a shopping mall. After clearing out the zombie infestation and securing the doors (and a lot of the film’s running time is taken up with this process), they enjoy the fruits of their materialistic paradise as long as they can.

What can I add to the volumes of lore written about Dawn of the Dead? I can say I was a bit underwhelmed the first time I saw it. The film felt pretty low-budget and wasn’t particularly horrific. That was over a year ago; on my second viewing, more recently, I was knee-deep in a living dead obsession and was more positively predisposed toward the film. In this mind-set I was better able to appreciate its strengths: its tone of apocalyptic loneliness; the anti-materialism themes, which, though obvious, are still valid; the fairly realistic character development, including Roger’s descent into madness and Stephen’s ill-advised heroics; the slavish attention to detail in terms of how the protagonists go about setting up their fortress against the onslaught of the living dead; and finally, the sad, inevitable loss of that protection when humanity, as always in Romero’s films, turns on itself, and people die because they’re unable to work together to save themselves (Romero could never have made the Lord of the Rings films).

The inevitable result of a Flavor of Love marathon.

Dawn of the Dead is definitely one of the great horror films (as is its predecessor), and it’s one you should try and see at least once. You may not become a diehard zombie movie fan, but at least you’ll see what all the fuss is about.

  1. On pure reputation alone, this was the one film I avoided like the plague, as I feared my fragile teen psyche couldn’t handle the atrocities on display. Years later, I caught this film Unrated on IFC, and was stunned by how ordinary it felt. The much discussed sequence where that zombie slow walks into a helicopter blade was no big deal (I’ve had more visceral paper cuts). I can see why the film has its reputation – but I think Romero’s films feel more dated than those of his contemporaries (even Carpenter’s flicks – despite their synth-pop scores – tend to hold up decades later).

    I will say that I was genuinely impressed with the DotD remake. I have a post going up next week (in my Top 5 series) where I expound on that film’s virtues.

  2. I agree that, in terms of the gore and whatnot, Dawn of the Dead is pretty tame by today’s standards (though the part with the guy’s stomach gets torn out and eaten is still pretty gross). Day of the Dead is a bit more horrific.

    I still have to see both of the “fast zombies” movies–the DotD remake and 28 Days Later…

  3. I absolutely LOVED the Dawn of the Dead remake. The first 15 minutes are genius – and down right chilling. Also, director Zack Snyder throws a number of shout-outs to Romero – including a shot of the WGON helicopter in flight and Ken Foree is seen on television as a military general. He even utters his trademark line – “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” Seek that flick out and watch it before Halloween. Just a great zombie flick.

    The Dead remake also benefits from some decent performances – including indie stalwart Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames. Rhames is cast in the Day of the Dead remake (currently filming) although – if you stay through the credits of Dawn, I’m not quite sure how he makes it to Day.

    Last thing – there’s some nice music choices – including a great credit sequence set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”.

  4. My understanding is that Day of the Dead is a remake of the original Day but not a sequel to the remake of Dawn of the Dead. So, Ving Rhames’s character won’t be the same character as in the Dawn remake. Get this: Rhames was even considered for the role of Ben in the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake.

    My question is, what is it with Ving Rhames and zombie film remakes? Why not, say, Michael Duncan Clarke, Laurence Fishburne, Tiny Lister or heck, Charles S. Dutton?

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