In 1967, George A. Romero forever changed the landscape of horror filmmaking when he unleashed Night of the Living Dead on unsuspecting audiences across the country. No one had seen anything quite so disgusting, shocking, and terrifyingly real, and though he made a few films in the next decade, his sequel to this rampart of genre filmmaking would extend the gore, the scares, and the metaphors of its predecessors into something just as influential and a dozen times more revolting. That film, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, is the greatest zombie film ever made.
The trend of zombies in film didn’t really catch on again until 2003 when 28 Days Later blew the doors off, but the effect of Dawn of the Dead is felt in every remotely similar film that succeeded it. The action picks up without any mention of the events of the first film, but it’s clear that what was once a small outbreak of ghoulish creatures has blown up to encompass much of the country, and society is just starting to reach the breaking point.
We first encounter half of our protagonists in a TV studio as executives and hosts struggle to keep their broadcasts informative and controlled. Stephen, the helicopter-piloting traffic reporter, informs his girlfriend Fran, a producer who retains her moral integrity, that their best chance of survival rests in stealing the company chopper. Meanwhile, SWAT officers Roger and Peter are taking part in a doomed tenement raid in downtown Philadelphia that illustrates the lack of distinction in fear between the police, military, civilians, and criminals, but the shaken duo finds the opportunity for respite when Roger offers Peter a chance to escape the insanity via Stephen’s helicopter. Would that it were so.
The effort to flee the terrors of an inner city gone berserk frames the elements Romero uses to explore how a society breaks down; their journey ultimately takes them to one of the country’s first shopping malls, where the allure of accessible supplies and easily achieved isolation outweigh the fears of an imposing structure that would seemingly attract unrest. Putting zombies in a shopping mall must be one of the biggest metaphorical slam-dunks in cinema history, and Romero pulls it off without beating you over the head.
Naturally the reprieve has its advantages, but the unrest of a crumbling society is only made more apparent in the skeletons of its benefits; access to high-class food, expensive clothing, and the ability to make endless housing improvements is great, but once an upper-class lifestyle is achieved, perfection is unveiled as illusory; the stress of a bustling civilization is entirely removed, replaced by the fear of assimilation by a force which inevitably pulls everyone back to a more primordial state that unleashes the obsessive, animal nature of human beings. Even if you’re safe from the zombies, nothing can replace the vacuum of having nothing left to do.
The plot could not remain interesting unless there was something to disrupt the harmony, and the protagonists are left to deal with the shambles of a crumbling society that they had merely outpaced converging on their bastion of consumer goods. Reinvigorated against their will, they try to defend their ill-gotten goods and reap that which is inescapable, that which always remains ahead in spite of any and all achievements: death.
It’s often forgotten when watching this movie how terrific of a story it is, particularly in how perfectly it captures the tone of what we are witnessing; those who adore zombie and post-apocalyptic fiction delight in the feeling of adventure and removal of society’s values while its trappings remain intact, but Dawn of the Dead shows how necessary the banality and anxiety of life based upon the dollar is to humanity in a psychological sense. And it does so with jaw-dropping, stomach churning amounts of gore.
Of course many of the zombies are just cannon fodder and excuses for some admittedly brilliant demises, but observing their attacks, despite the green skin and fire truck red blood, is positively horrifying. An intractable scene has a man getting disemboweled while still alive, and seeing the undead slowly pull his skin open as he screams in pain is at the top of the most affecting scenes of violence I have ever witnessed on film. The gore is only made more effective by the fact that, for the most part, Romero invests enough in his characters to actually make us care. None of the protagonists are first-rate actors, but their ability to improvise and follow the rules of Romero’s twisted world create believable characterizations that help the audience invest better than perhaps any horror film I’ve seen; the characters aren’t real people, but they’ll have you believing they are.
A surprisingly good remake and the delightful success of the brilliant, loving send-up in Shaun of the Dead cemented Dawn of the Dead as a film well beyond its years, relevant but overlooked, permanently safe in the realm of cult movies, and unseen by many but ferociously loved by its adherents. Supporters of recent cultural developments by Left 4 Dead and The Walking Dead may think they’re getting the best the genre has to offer, but the pinnacle achievement was reached decades ago, and since it has been copied by every similar film to follow, it can be said with assurance that no one that will ever top Dawn of the Dead.
Easy enough for genre fanatics, there is really only one version of this one to own: the Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition. This immaculate set includes the Cannes Film Festival cut, the Theatrical cut, and the European cut along with a disc packed with awesome special features. At the moment, only the Theatrical cut is available on blu-ray, and though this is considered by Romero himself to be the definitive version, obsessive fans might enjoy the additional kills and character development represented in the Cannes cut. I know I do.