George A. Romero’s masterful Dawn of the Dead is an intuitive, alarming, clever horror film. Beyond providing some serious scares and nourishing gore, the movie features sheets of social commentary and character development that exceeds many horror movies. It suggests a truly worrisome world, one of disorder and despair, and introduces genuine characters that afford slender slivers of hope.
The appeal of the zombie film lies with its absolute obliteration of collective norms and subsequent restitution of said norms in different aesthetics. In the case of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the audience is lurched into an apocalyptic realm with stunning closeness. There are no choices other than to press forward and survive.
The picture follows Night of the Living Dead and finds the world plagued with flesh-eating zombies. Government efforts to contain the situation have failed and the survivors have effectively fragmented, forming different nomadic groups to endure as long as possible. The movie opens with chaos at a television station as Francine (Gaylen Ross) and her traffic reporter boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) work to steal the station’s helicopter to escape the zombie threat.
Meanwhile, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) meet up as two SWAT members fighting back the threat. Roger and Peter rendezvous with Stephen and Francine to escape and find themselves landing at a shopping centre, seeing endless potential and fortification from danger. Inside the mall, they construct a workable situation and manage to hold off the zombies until an idiotic biker gang ruins everything.
The formation of the group and their subsequent plan creation inside the mall makes for the most interesting parts of Dawn of the Dead. Romero has them work under definite social rubrics, but these are adjusted as different needs come up. The group delightedly takes to a department store, gathering what they need but pacing themselves. This is counterweighted by the gang’s approach, exemplified by their destruction.
At times, the situation inside the mall looks pretty attractive. The notion of living inside an empty shopping centre with a free pass to all of the stores and goods within is alluring, especially after the zombies appear to be modestly under control. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Francine grow to enjoy themselves and ultimately even try on outfits and “go out for dinner.”
The zombies run an interesting parallel to the human core of the picture, stumbling through the mall and going the wrong way up the escalator. They are there because “they remember” and because they’d formed attachments before they changed. Their humanity is buried in there somewhere, under the paleness and staggering, but the plague has reduced to the mere brutal pursuit of their instincts.
Pay attention to how this differs from the humans when they fight over the space in the mall. The arrival of the biker gang signals a new construct of anarchy, one of territorial warfare that moves beyond the mentality of fighting the zombies and into the inevitable self-destructiveness that appears to solemnly define the species. Couple this with the biting consumerist critiques and Dawn of the Dead becomes vital entertainment.
Romero’s use of humour and irony helps the zombie movie sink its teeth in further. With the comic book gore and utilitarian dialogue informing the audience as to the plans of the characters, Dawn of the Dead is also part zombie procedural. The instructive elements, like how to get their attention and divert it from one glass door to another, offer a sense of realism.
Dawn of the Dead ranks up there with the all-time finest horror films. It understands the art of gore as much as it understands the humanity of its characters, but it also understands that the greatest evils in the world are not from external and fantastical sources but from the ruthless but oblivious underbellies of its human beings. Embracing the wounded modesty in that discovery is what sets this 1978 masterwork apart from the rest.