Is it necessarily wrong to assume that most people’s favorite film is one that they saw at an early age? A film that, as a child, you watched over and over again with unparalleled adoration. Since I was about ten years old, when I watched Back to the Future with my cousin for the first time, that film became my go-to response to the question of what my favorite film is.
Not a bad choice, right? That revered, timeless, wholesome classic, however, isn’t my favorite film of all time. Instead, that film actually happens to be George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
In a time when the video rental store was still a profitable business, I was always excited to rent a movie on a whim. When the internet was still in its relative infancy — and helpful film sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB even more so — 99% of your rationale for renting a film was based on how cool the cover was. At least, that’s how we did it in my family. This system wasn’t foolproof, of course, and sometimes you’d end up going home with a rather deplorable film like Ghost Ship. But other times, you’d happen upon great, little gems, and maybe even discover what would later become your favorite film of all time.
I wish I could say that I discovered Dawn of the Dead as a wide-eyed nine-year-old browsing the shelves at my local Hollywood Video (R.I.P.), but instead that was the luck of my older brother. He would go on to share the film with everyone he knew, and at some point, that included me. Before I’d ever seen Michael J. Fox’s time traveling escapades, the 1978 zombie gorefest that is Dawn of the Dead was my favorite film. And after recently watching the film again for the umpteenth time, it again enjoys that coveted top spot.
Now I just want to be clear and say that I am NOT talking about the 2004 Zack Snyder remake. You know the one; with the crazed, fast-as-all-hell zombies trying to make dinner of Ving Rhames? It’s a damn good film in its own right, and a solid re-imagining of the original story for a new era, especially within a cinematic landscape plagued by dreadful, unnecessary remakes. But the Dawn of the Dead that I am talking about, is George Romero’s 1978 original — the one with the slow-as-all-hell zombies.
Dawn of the Dead is set only a couple weeks into its zombie apocalypse, and opens with an introduction to one of our main characters, Fran (Gaylen Ross). She’s huddled in a corner, asleep, and seemingly experiencing a bad dream as she slightly jerks about. It becomes clear that she’s within a television studio as the station runs a talk show between two unhinged hosts who are debating how to survive the oncoming threat. It’s utter chaos; just about what you’d expect in this kind of situation. She’s soon accompanied by her boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge), who plans on stealing the station’s helicopter.
This opening scene brilliantly sets up everything we need to know about the state of the world. And whereas many epidemic films rely on simply showing TV news broadcasts in order to give some background on the situation, I admire how Romero chooses to put one of our main characters behind the scenes of one of these broadcasts.
Elsewhere, SWAT officer Roger (Scott Reiniger), is holed up on the roof of an apartment complex, awaiting the signal to storm inside. It turns out that the residents of the apartment complex have been hoarding their undead loved ones in the basement of the building, rather than handing them over to the National Guard as they’ve been ordered to do. As things pop off, we’re presented with a bloodthirsty, racist SWAT officer named Wooley, and simultaneously shown a small glimpse of a compelling topic the film will later tackle more directly — being that even in an apocalyptic event such as a zombie outbreak, the living can be even more destructive than the undead.
This scene also works as a wonderful introduction to the special effects work of the legendary Tom Savini. We’re provided an impactful head explosion, punchy gun-shot wounds, and the feasting of a zombie on his once-girlfriend. Things will only get gorier from here, and ever more impressive.
Towards the end of the scene, we’re introduced to our final protagonist, Peter (Ken Foree), a fellow SWAT officer. As Peter and Roger decide to team up, it is revealed that Roger and Stephen are friends, and both Roger and Peter are free to join Stephen wherever they end up going in their helicopter. Our group departs with no clue as to where they’re going; they just know they need to get out of the city before it completely destroys itself.
After a quick pit stop in order to refuel (a scene that isn’t entirely all that necessary, though we do get some lighthearted, funnier moments, along with a zombie getting the top of its head severed by helicopter blades, which is still an awesome effect to this day), our group finally makes it to their impromptu destination: a shopping mall.
The mall is inhabited by nothing but hundreds of ghouls, and Romero’s societal implications here are incredibly apparent. Fran asks, “Why do they come here,” to which Stephen replies, “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” Dawn of the Dead is not only a genre-defining film that greatly inspired every zombie property that would come after (along with its predecessor Night of the Living Dead, of course), but Romero also skillfully employs a darkly metaphorical and satirical look at mindless consumerism and greed in America.
[MAJOR SPOILERS FOR DAWN OF THE DEAD FOLLOW]
From here, our heroes do everything in their power to take the mall for themselves and rid the retail utopia of its undead inhabitants. As the three men go deeper into the zombie-infested shops, they leave behind Fran unarmed and alone in their sanctuary found above the mall’s shops. This ultimately leads to a lone zombie attacking her, and as Fran fights for her life against the monster, our remaining protagonists return just in the nick of time to save her.
It’s Stephen’s comment afterwards that is the scariest part of this scene, not the zombie. Instead of apologizing for leaving her there alone and defenseless, Stephen attempts to console her. “You should see all the great stuff we got, Frannie,” he says, continuing, “All kinds of stuff. This place is terrific. It really is, it’s perfect. All kinds of things. We’ve really got it made here, Frannie.” Ultimately, this scene is one of my least favorites in the film, but due to its final moment between Stephen and Fran, I still find this scene salient for where the story leads.
What you can interpret from Stephen’s dialogue is that not only do the zombies act as the perfect representation of our everyday window-shopping routines, but even the human characters — our leads in this case — succumb to consumerism and all the goodies the mall has to offer. This is a major theme throughout the rest of the film. One scene in particular, following the extermination of the zombie threat within the mall, shows the group decked out in fur coats and shiny jewelry. It’s a dick-measuring contest they partake in even when no one else is around to admire their prowess. The world has gone to complete shit, social standings and fashion have no bearing on anything, and yet they go out of their way to look nice.
And while Fran, too, does end up splurging in the riches that the mall provides, she’s also the first of the group to realize how they’ve become awestruck by their consumerist instincts, and that this will likely lead to their downfall. Fran pleas with Stephen, “I’m afraid. You’re hypnotized by this place. All of you! You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary, it’s a prison! Let’s just take what we need and get out of here!” But the men can’t leave; they’ve worked too hard for this. So much so, that In a scene that still makes me emotional to this day, Roger ends up being bitten — a death-sentence in Romero’s zombie fiction.
And this scene — which involves Roger and Peter using semi-trucks in order to block off the entrances into the mall — is one of my favorites of the film. Being that he never really went on to do anything else, and also being the no-name actor that he is, it is perhaps surprising that Scott Reiniger’s performance as Roger is the best of the entire cast and truly something special. The truck scene sees Roger taking the dire situation with nowhere near as much seriousness as he should, and it’s a terribly sad descent for a man who has been overwhelmed by his materialist desire and greed. And seriously, Reiniger’s performance is pitch-perfect.
Peter is at Roger’s side the entire time, and it’s in Roger’s final moments that I believe Peter finally realizes the group’s mistake — the same realization Fran had come to long before. As Roger comes closer to his last waking moment, he calls to Peter, “We whipped ‘em, didn’t we?”…”We whipped ‘em and we got it all!” Despite his impending demise, Roger is still overtaken by this desire. It’s the only thing he has left, and he hopes that his friends understand how good they’ve got it. Peter downs whiskey as he awaits Roger’s reanimation, soon having to reluctantly blast his best friend away.
The zombies are never truly the threat in Dawn of the Dead. As I mentioned earlier when speaking about that murderous SWAT officer, Wooley, the final act of the film focuses on a threat far more destructive than the living dead: human beings free to do whatever they want in a state of total chaos and a world that no longer bears social underpinnings. Fran, Stephen, and Peter are recovering from losing Roger when they get a call over the radio from an army of biker raiders, who let it be known that they’re getting into the mall, whether its current inhabitants want them to or not.
As the bikers approach, Fran, Stephen, and Peter gear up for a war. Peter and Stephen go down into the mall as the bikers blow open the entrances. The bikers have invaded, and subsequently let every zombie back inside. What ensues is almost comparable to disastrous Black Friday horror stories you hear every year, with the raiders acting as the ravenous shoppers tearing at each other in order to get whatever they can. The zombies still act only as distractions in this scene, only ever getting anyone due to their own stupidity or injury.
Tom Savini is finally allowed to really shine in the moments that follow. We get a machete to a zombie’s head (which Savini’s own raider character delivers), multiple raiders being gutted by zombie hordes, and countless decapitations, dismemberments, and brains blown to bits. And while the film is extremely gory, it’s not so very sickening. This is due to the fake-looking blood, which is a thick, paint-like, light red. This results in a cartoon-ish look, one that Romero has claimed adds to the film’s comic book sensibilities — a point I cannot agree with more.
While this is Dawn of the Dead‘s most violent scene, it still plays into the comedic undertones that run throughout the film. From the start, we get little jokes sprinkled in here and there (rednecks using zombies as target practice, Roger besting Stephen at blasting away ghouls, etc.). Then there’s the muzak of the mall that continuously juxtaposes the violence onscreen. Even the raid scene sees the bikers partaking in pie throwing/spraying zombies in the face with seltzer water. The film can be goofy as hell, but it just adds to the fun of it all.
But, of course, the film isn’t all fun. The raid ends up leading to Stephen’s downfall. Like Roger before him, Stephen is completely swallowed by the mall itself. As Peter calls to Stephen to retreat, Stephen aims down the barrel of his gun at the raiders, muttering to himself, “It’s ours. We took it. It’s ours.” Stephen takes on an entire army in order to protect what he believes is his, and he’s ultimately backed into a corner and shot in the arm within one of the mall’s elevators (they use the air vents in the elevator shafts in order to get to their sanctuary above the mall). Stephen slumps down and the elevator doors open to a group of zombies, his screams overheard by Peter through his walkie-talkie.
Peter dispatches a number of the bikers before he retreats back upstairs. He tells Fran to flee in the helicopter, stating that he doesn’t want to leave. At this same moment, a zombie-fied Stephen tears down the wall that camouflaged the stairs that led up to the group’s hideout, and he brings with him his own army of ghouls. Peter is again forced to eliminate one of his friends.
In Stephen’s final moment, it almost seems as though he’s cognisant of what he’s doing. He not only remembers how to get to their sanctuary, but when he walks through the door to the hideout and is confronted with Peter and Fran, he somewhat closes the door behind him and gives a look of recognition before Peter pulls the trigger. It’s a touching moment, and at the same time, shows that Romero’s zombies still hold some of the memories of their living counterparts — an idea I don’t think I’ve seen explored in any other zombie property (outside of Romero’s own sequels).
The original script’s ending was supposed to show Peter shoot himself as the zombies clawed at his bedroom door, while Fran would eventually stick her own head into the helicopter’s blades. This ending was thrown out during production, thankfully, though we do still see glimpses of each of these moments. Peter does hold a gun to his head, but after the zombies break down the door, he turns it on them and fights his way up to the roof. Peter barely makes it in time before Fran takes off, and our surviving two heroes fly into the distance as the sun rises, marking dawn’s arrival.
I do love a good, morbid ending to a horror film (see 2007’s The Mist), but Romero effectively crafts each protagonist so well here that you can’t help but root for them and hope for their survival, making the happy ending a relief.
Dawn of the Dead is an epic in every sense, and I wholly believe that it’s the horror genre’s answer to The Godfather or Citizen Kane, being that it’s at all times highly regarded, extremely influential, and a masterpiece in its own right. Romero shares with us an expertly crafted, dramatic tale of survival, capably applying important satirical and political metaphors that are as poignant as ever, all the while tackling taboo themes and subjects that include suicide, abortion, and cannibalism. Oh, and the soundtrack, in part done by Italian band Goblin, is fucking phenomenal, too.
It’s very possible that Dawn of the Dead isn’t the “best” film I’ve ever seen. It definitely has its fair share of problems, and it isn’t the most well made film by any stretch (which mostly stems from its incredibly low budget). But perfection doesn’t always equate to favorites. To me, Dawn of the Dead is as good as a film can get, and it definitively stands as my favorite film of all time.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor