Zombies have become ubiquitous in just about every medium of our popular culture. In Italy, on September 2, 1978, when “Dawn of the Dead” first premiered, however, the massive hordes of decaying undead weren’t nearly as omnipresent. The movie is director George Romero’s follow up to his classic originator, 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead.” It follows the trials and tribulations of its four well drawn out main characters: two members of a Philadelphia swat team, a television executive, and a traffic reporter, as they seek shelter in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The mall might be the perfect place to hide while they wait for something that they hope will be their salvation. Case in point, it offers them innumerable supplies in the way of weapons, clothing, food, and the like. The band of survivors are free to take what they want, when they want, as if the mall was a utopia that catered to people’s material desires. The initial feelings the characters have of kids in a candy store, dissipates for the foursome, as the months of lockdown pass; cabin fever inevitably begins to set in. But, it is a problem that doesn’t last long, thanks to the actions of a gang of bikers that invades the mall, thereby, destroying the plans of the survivors, and forcing them into a confrontation with both criminals and monsters alike.
The film, which had a budget of approximately $650,000 and went on to gross an estimated $55,000,000, was amongst the first to present the now well traveled path of the desperate struggle for survival in the face of a zombie apocalypse. Regardless of the fact that this was his second film, it should be viewed as the premier modern day zombie movie. The film adeptly blends the thematic elements of comedy, drama, horror, and satire which move effortlessly from one frame to the next. Romero, in essence, is suggesting to the viewer, that perhaps the human race, under normal conditions, is more volatile than the shambling zombie corpses that have no regard for right or wrong, or the value of human life. Opinions aside, Romero invites the viewer of the film in, to vicariously share all of the anarchic thrills of the collapse of western civilization that would take place if the scenario presented in the movie actually transpired.
How did the film come about in the first place a decade after the original? Dario Argento (Suspiria), who is known as the “Italian Hitchcock,” heard that Romero was interested in making a potential sequel to “Night of the Living Dead.” Argento became consumed with the idea, so much so, that he invited both Romero, and his then wife, Christine Forrest with whom Romero has three children, to come spend time with him in Rome. Over the course of three weeks Romero, with Argento’s mentoring, wrote the screenplay for “Dawn of the Dead.” In addition to the advice he gave regarding the story for the film, Argento helped Romero secure financing for the picture on the sole stipulation that Argento would have complete control over the European edit of the movie. The film cut that American audiences have come to experience was lengthier and spent more time focusing on character development; conversely Argento’s edit features big action that takes place in a shorter run time, as well as a score from the director’s own music group, Goblin. As an aside, Romero has acknowledged that while working on “Night of the Living Dead,” he specifically garnered inspiration from the novel “I am Legend” written by prolific author Richard Matheson. The monsters that were created by Matheson’s imagination are more in sync with the look of Nosferatu in F.W. Murnau’s (Faust) 1922 classic of the same name, while the creatures in director Francis Lawrence’s (Water for Elephants) 2007 version starring Will Smith (Men in Black) are possessed with both heightened aggression and freakish speed.
The cast at the time of filming was comprised of four unknowns, three actors David Emge (Basket Case 2), Ken Foree (The Devil’s Rejects), Scott H. Reiniger (Danny), and actress Gaylen Ross (Creepshow). They do a fantastic job of carrying the film without ever displaying anything short of genuine emotion. Not once during one of my many viewings of the film over the years have I ever felt that there wasn’t a strong sense of realism to what I was watching. The cast plays off one another very well, which is essential in a film of this type where the story is mainly character driven. Gifted make-up artist, special effects guru, and actor, Tom Savini (From Dusk Till Dawn) appears in the movie as a leader of the aforementioned bikers that invade the mall.
Regardless of personal tastes, when it comes to horror films, there is no denying that “Dawn of the Dead” laid the foundation for the current climate of zombie mania that has invaded the pop-culture landscape in recent years. By today’s standards the film is nowhere near as jarring to the senses in a shocking way as it pertains to the violence that is shown on screen. Nor does it present the viewer with non-stop action like many of the films that deal with the same subject are apt to do. What it does do, and exceptionally well at that, is paint a portrait of a nihilistic society that has drowned in bleakness because eventually the realization that just surviving for survival’s sake might not be enough to warrant living. Would it be wonderful if every time any one of us wanted something we could just go to a shopping mall and take it without spending cash or having our credit cards charged? Absolutely! But in a world gone to a literal hell, do material possessions really mean all that much? I think not. If you love zombie movies, or for that matter horror movies that encapsulate the very best the genre has to offer, “Dawn of the Dead” is must see viewing.