Film Review: Dawn of the Dead

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Benjamin Birnbaum, Contributor

While George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) revolutionized horror movies and the zombie sub genre as a whole, I think that Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was nearly just as important as it was a great mix of horror, action, comedy and satire put together by a talented crew.

While Night of the Living Dead showed the beginning of the zombie problem, as it was constricted to a small farmhouse, Dawn showed it becoming more widespread as it zoomed out to show how various institutions were dealing with the new reality. The film starts in Philadelphia, where radio station employee Stephen (David Emge) and his girlfriend, Francine (Gaylen Ross), escape in the station’s helicopter, accompanied by two renegade SWAT members, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree). The group finds their way to a shopping mall where they decide to hold up in the mall and try to make the place their home.  

Director, George A. Romero, puts energy into the movie, as he wrote, co-wrote and edited the film. His writing gives an exceptional satirical jab at society, people and consumerism. This is seen primarily in the mall, a captivating setting that serves as a majority of the movie’s backdrop, where the zombies gather like mindless consumers.  Stephen coldly states it as “some kind of instinct…a memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives” when they see the zombies roaming around the interior. The jab at consumerism isn’t just relegated to the zombies, but to the four survivors as they are drawn to the irresistible idea of having a whole shopping mall to themselves as they first raid JC-Penny for supplies. Once they clear the place out, they live out their wild shopping fantasies, which I found engaging to watch as it made me consider if a life of pure pleasure is possible even when society has collapsed and money has no value.

I found the four human survivors engaging to watch as they are portrayed as realistic and complicated. Most notably, Gaylen Ross, who plays Fran, despite being a first-time actress, gives a captivating performance as she doesn’t choose to coincide with societal norms of being the den mother and drag of the group because I think she realizes that all of that doesn’t matter during a zombie apocalypse. I also love the interactions between the four survivors as they try to think of a plan to survive and hold out in the mall, such as the fun interactions between the ex-SWAT team members, Peter and Roger, who form a close friendship that I can’t help but admire. I also laughed at how Stephen tries to prove he can be a manly man like Peter and Roger and fit in with them.

I think the music for this movie is really well done. With help from Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, the film got his long-time collaborator Goblin, who scores most of the movie, along with sound cues from the De Wolfe Library. The music by Goblin is top form as it helps with the world-building, creating an unsettling and chaotic feeling once you start the movie, which mixes well with the stock music that Romero used from the DeWolfe Library, which is in the theatrical cut of the film. I love Jack Trombey’s creepily eerie “Dark Earth” and Herbert Chappel’s “The Gonk,” an iconic head-bopping tune used when the zombies end up retaking the mall and during the closing credits, a great way to end the movie. Interestingly, “The Gonk” was used as the ending theme of Robot Chicken.

Lastly, all of my praise goes to the film’s special effects, done by talented special effects artist Tom Savini, whose effects steal the show with his amazing practical and makeup effects. I love the makeup he does for the zombies to bring them into color. His gore, while some may find disgusting, are stunning pieces of art to watch for its use of astounding practical effects. He gives us heads exploding, zombies being chopped by machetes, shoulders being bitten by zombies and zombies tearing bikers apart, all of which show the talent and care Tom Savini puts into his craftsmanship that you can’t help but look in awe at. 

Overall, Dawn of the Dead is one of the most compelling and entertaining zombie movies and is Romero’s best zombie movie. It showcases many interesting ideas, great chemistry between its characters, amazing world-building, hilarious comedy, fast-paced action and top-form special effects. The idea of holding up in a shopping mall is compelling to see on screen, and I would recommend it to anyone who is big into horror movies.