George A. Romero wasn’t the first to envision a dystopia world where a virus has turned humans into something else. Richard Matheson did it with I Am Legend which had been turned into The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man. Then in the late 1960s, he made Night of the Living Dead. The characters were called “ghouls.” There were ghouls in previous movies but it was the first time we had seen them eating human flesh.
Mixing ghouls with the zombies of Haitian voodoo culture, Romero in many ways created a new subgenre of horror that influenced others directors. Bob Clark, who made the original Black Christmas, made Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, which was more about having a great title than a great plot. There’s about 15 minutes of zombies if that in the whole movie. And other directors such as Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento were interested in Romero’s movie.
So in the mid-1970s, he began to focus on a follow-up to Living Dead. With help from Argento and other overseas filmmakers, he made Dawn of the Dead. Even though a decade has passed since Living Dead, it appears not a month has passed in the timeframe of the movie as chaos has engulfed the country if not the world. When it opens in Philadelphia, Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) a producer at the fictional WGON TV studio is dealing with a place in chaos. The studio manager is wanting to keep the show going as people are walking off in anger as there are hours away from switching over to the Emergency Broadcast System.
The government is about to declare martial law as things have gotten so bad SWAT teams and National Guards have been called out to quell the unrest. Stephen Andrews (David Emge), a news helicopter pilot, tells Fran that he has a plan to leave at 9 p.m. with the station’s helicopter in hopes of getting away from the city. Their SWAT team friend Roger DeMarco (Steve Reiniger) is at a housing development that has been ordered to evacuate the residents as well as kill any of the reanimated corpses. The housing development consists of Latino and black residents who are refusing to turn over their dead to the government.
And firefights ensue as they are all mostly gunned down by the police officers. One of them, Wooley (James A. Baffico), goes mad and begins to start shoot people, leading to another SWAT member, Peter Washington (Ken Foree), to fatally shoot him. Going to the basement to get away from things, Roger and Peter meet up and Roger tells him of their plans to leave in the helicopter after the leave the development. Peter goes with them.
They spend a lot of time in the air, where there observe the National Guard and regular Appalachian folks turning out to a wooded area to gun down the dead. As Stephen comments, “Those rednecks down there are probably enjoying this.” And then we switch to them shooting at people as it their paper targets. With their families, it looks more like a community event as they take pictures and pass around cups of coffee and snacks.
After a close call at a isolated small airport where they refuel the chopper, they then find a shopping mall the next morning. Noticing there is an isolated storage area on the top floor they can climb down, they stop and rest, so Stephen can get some sleep. As they rest, Roger and Peter decided to go down and see if they can find some items to use. Finding a set of keys and some outlay of the mall, Roger and Peter go looking for supplies. When Stephen is awaken by Fran, he foolishly goes after them and ends up actually helping them as he finds a ventilation shaft so they can move around easier. But it’s not before a hare krishna dead person finds his way into the storage area to go after Fran. Yet he is quickly killed when Roger, Stephen and Peter return.
Traumatized by the experience, Stephen tells Peter and Roger than Fran is pregnant. They had been hoping to make it to Canada. But since they can work to isolate themselves in the mall, they work on a plan of moving big rig trucks from a nearby factory facility in front of the doors to keep the reanimated dead people away. This is also a clever way to block out any of the exteriors. The movie was filmed at a mall in Monroeville, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. However filming had to take place late at night into the wee morning hours. At the most filming could only be from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. They even had to take a break from filming in the mall because Christmas decorations had been set up and the film crew estimated it would be pointless to take them down and then set up back up each night.
Unfortunately, Roger gets careless as they are trying to move trucks and gets bitten twice on the arm and the leg by the dead. They are still successful in blocking the entrances but are worried that it’s a matter of time with Roger who still helps them get rid of the dead inside the mall. He is able to enjoy a little of the fun of having everything they could ever need, though. They play video games in the arcade, load up on all the food for the grocery store and take all the guns they can carry from a sporting goods store. Peter makes a comment as he admires a very expensive rifle that the only person who will be able to enjoy it is the one rich enough to buy it.
Romero’s comment on the rise of consumerism in the 1970s is on full display. Stephen, Fran, Roger, and Peter are all in their late 20s or early 30s. They are Baby Boomers and now considered part of the Me Generation that came up in the post counterculture/post Vietnam War era. Peter checks out some of the expensive watches to wear. In one hilarious moment, Stephen takes a coat off the rack, checks the price tag and scoffs. Peter and Stephen even decide to take some of the cash from the bank because as Stephen says, “You never know.” They then smile and hold up the money for the camera.
They got the whole mall to themselves. What could go wrong? Well, for one thing, Roger finally succumbs to the virus from the bites and dies, reanimating so Peter shoots him. With a friend dead, a somber attitude takes over them. They become more zombies like themselves just going through the routine. Tensions increase between Stephen and Fran as he suggests they wear wedding bands as they’re married but she rejects it because it’s not real. Soon, the only time they are talking to each other is to be angry and hateful.
You can see similarities between Dawn and the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when people had to stay away from work and social events and remain indoors. In February of 2021, I heard them say that most married couples had spent more time together in the past 11 months since late March 2020 than most couples spend together in about five years. Even with access to the entire mall, they are still shut in. Peter plays racquetball on the roof. But not being able to go other places nor interact with other people has affected them.
In the final act, some bikers and looters including one played by Tom Savini, who did the make-up, notice Stephen teaching Fran how to fly the helicopter. They decide to hit the mall later that night but radio in pretending to be a few people seeking help. However, Peter knows better and they see a huge cavalcade of bikers coming their way, reading to undo all the work they’ve done by raiding the mall.
Of course, the raiders, even though armed themselves, underestimate the hordes of dead and some become victims. The images of a dozen or so gathering around a biker and going at their body parts is another comment on the rise of consumerism. You’ve seen this same behavior from shoppers rush through stores on Black Friday trying to get the best deals. It’s a horrible disgusting look but it’s no different than people shoving other customers out of the way to grab Cabbage Patch Dolls or Tickle Me Elmos. Ever gone into a store when they offered a good discount or deal on a product? If you’re not there as soon as possible, it can be gone. I went into a Casey’s General Store the other day because I had a BOGO digital coupon on a two-liter of Dr. Pepper. There wasn’t any Dr. Pepper two-liters in the store. And this was a deal that was good for 2-3 days.
When shown overseas, Dawn of the Dead was called Zombi: Dawn of the Living Dead in some markets, particularly Italy, where it would inspire Fulci to make an unrelated sequel Zombi 2 or Zombies, which has become a horror classic in its own right. Peter makes mention only once in the movie of calling the reanimated dead “zombies.” But it stuck with pop culture. Many overseas countries were making good use of the Z word, even though Romero never did in the Dead movies.
While horror is often considered the red-headed stepchild of movies to film critics, many were praising the movie. Roger Ebert, who was known to be very vocal against horror/thriller movies awarded Dawn four stars and said it was “one of the best horror movies ever made.” This quote would be used on poster art when the movie was released on the home video market. Because of its content, Dawn was released unrated which was the same as Night of the Living Dead. Despite this, the movie went on to make $66 million.
A remake directed by Zack Snyder and written by James Gunn was released in 2004 to favorable reviews. Romero made four more Dead movies following Dawn, but was never able to duplicate the success. Edgar Wright would use snippets of the musical score by The Goblins and Argento in the opening of his zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, which is obviously a play on the title. It was also released in 2004. And Robot Chicken ends every episode with chickens sounds bawking to the tune of the mall music played over the end credits of Dead.
Of the main cast, Foree is the only one who still mainly appears in TV shows and movies, even making a cameo in the 2004 remake where he utters the same phrase he said in this one which is “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” Reniger and Savini also appeared in the 2004 version. Emge for the most part hasn’t had many credits since Dawn, except two in low budget horror movies Basket Case 2 and Hellmaster in the early 1990s. After appearing in horror movies Madman and Creepshow, which Romero also directed, Ross has been more busy behind the camera as a documentarian.
As The Walking Dead has begun its final season, which it should’ve ended years ago, it’s obvious it owes a huge debt to Dawn of the Dead and the works of Romero, who was very vocal about how he didn’t like the show. I gave up on the show around its fourth or fifth season as it seemed to do the same thing over and over. What TWD kept doing in episode after episode, season after season, Romero did in five minutes of screen time. Unfortunately, the whole system collapses and we turn on each other has become so cliche in zombie movies as well as dystopia/apocalypse movies, they miss what Dawn was trying to do.
At the end of the movie, there was a little bit of hope for a new better day in spite of all things. You can’t just give up.
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