George Romero’s second chapter in his Living Dead series, Dawn of the Dead (1978), picks up after the events of Night of the Living Dead (1968). Dawn of the Dead is a fantastic, gory and at times satirical look at America and especially at American consumerism. Despite it gruesome effects, many consider Dawn to be of the greatest horror films ever made and it still continues to hold records for its popularity in pop culture and rankings among film critics.
Set not too far after the events of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn opens where the United States (and possibly the entire world) has succumb to a phenomenon which has caused the bodies of the recently dead to return to life and to pray on the flesh of the living.
The U.S. Government is powerless to counter this threat and society is beginning to collapse. Two television employees for WGON TV in Philadelphia, PA Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross) sense that it’s only a matter of time until the TV broadcasts stop and that it will be impossible to get out of the city successfully, decide to steal the TV station traffic helicopter and attempt to find safety elsewhere.
The opening scene in the film is brilliantly executed by Romero and is one of the best opening sequences in my opinion. Newsroom associates and film crews are working to keep the news broadcasts going in order to let the public know what to do during this crisis. Certain people begin to abandon their jobs, while others like Francine fight to make sure that the news is being broadcasted. A news anchor is conducting an interview with a scientist who is explaining the phenomenon, while being heckled by various members of the crew.
The scientist explains that if the dead are not properly disposed of, they will return to life and attack the living. At the same time, local police and military units have been dispatched to parts of the city to deal with the increasing issue of people who refuse to give up the bodies of their reanimated loved ones.
One of my many favorite parts of the film is the scene when the military and SWAT units raid an apartment where the residence have ignored a martial law order to deliver over the dead to the National Guard. Many residence are killed by either the SWAT team units, or by their own reanimated friends and neighbors. During the raid, two members of different SWAT units Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) decide that they too should run if they hope to survive. Roger tells Peter that his friends have a helicopter and are attempting to flee the city that night. Once all four main characters come together, all four flee the city and head west toward some imagined safety.
After several close calls with zombies while attempting to refuel at an abandoned airport, the four survivors happen upon a shopping mall complex and decide to land and reconnoiter the area for supplies and possibly a place to hold up for a while. They enter into the top of the mall and find a storage room filled with civil defense supplies and figure that they have it made. Later on while the others are resting, Peter and Roger take advantage of the vast supplies that are available to them in the mall and decide to forge for supplies while keeping their presence to the hundreds of zombies at a minimal.
Peter and Roger are successful in avoiding contact with the zombies and are later joined by Stephen who helps them procure things like food, a radio, and TV set to keep up on outside events. While trying to figure out how to get back to their hiding place, Peter tells Roger and Stephen that they should hold up there indefinitely and make preparations in securing the mall.
As our heroes begin to secure the mall and exterminate the zombies, their sense of relief and salvation turns to despair and a sense of incarceration within the mall. In one scene all four are overlooking the mall from one of the balconies and hear the zombies rapping on the outer doors. Stephen says that they still know that they’re in there and are after them. Peter says that they’re only after the place and that they don’t know why, but that they need to be inside the mall. This is the scene where Peter delivers the film’s famous line about a story his voodoo-practicing grandfather would tell him “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
Production on Dawn of the Dead began in November of 1977 and would continue for the next few months on location at the Monroeville, PA mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Production was filmed at night to bypass the mall’s upcoming holiday shopping and was then suspended for the last few weeks of 1977 so that the crew wouldn’t have to remove Christmas decorations throughout the mall. While trying to secure a site for the film Romero had a connection with an old Carnegie Mellon acquaintance that worked for a company that owned the mall property. Romero was intrigued by the fact that the mall had many hidden parts to it that his contact jokingly said that if an emergency ever occurred, someone could hold up there indefinitely. Romero had found his location and began to edit the script to incorporate the mall as the principle location.
Dawn of the Dead was shot for less than five hundred thousand dollars and grossed over fifty five million dollars worldwide. The film holds a very positive 94% ratting on Rotten Tomatoes.com and has been celebrated by many publications as one of the most influential horror film ever made. Roger Ebert proclaimed “four out of four stars” ratting for the film and wrote “Dawn of the Dead is one of the best horror films ever made.” and “Nobody ever said that art had to be in good taste.” Dawn’s success led to many international imitators and also spawned not only a final chapter seven years later with Day of the Dead (1985), but would help to influence current award winning shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead which is now enjoying its third season with very high ratings and praise from critics and fans the world over.
Dawn of the Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray thru Anchor Bay Home Entertainment and can be streamed via Netflix and Vudu.