Dawn of the Dead (1978) Retrospective

Braaaaiiiiinnnnsssss oh thats the wrong zombie franchise I actually meant to say let’s take a look back at George Romero’s Brain of the Dead, I mean Dawn of the Dead…

Which is a 1978 Zombie horror film, written and directed by the master of zombie horror George Romero.

One of the greatest zombie horror movies of all time, perfectly blending horror, gore and social commentary on how material society has become, but before I get ahead of myself let’s start at the very beginning.

Obviously a sequel to Romero’s earlier work 1968’s Night of the Living Dead that essentially invented the modern Zombie horror genre, although not sharing any characters or settings from that film, instead focusing on the wider consequences of a zombie outbreak.

Romero had held off making a sequel to Night of the Living Dead as he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the zombie horror guy.

In 1974 he was invited by his university friend who worked for the Oxford Development company for a tour of Monroeville Mall, whilst showing him secret areas of the Mall joking that people could survive in the mall in an emergency.

With this as the inspiration Romero started work on the screenplay.

The film almost didn’t get financed as Romero and producer Richard Rubinstein were unable to secure any domestic financing for the picture. However legendary Italian director Dario Argento whose film Suspiria I covered last year was a big fan of the Night of the Living Dead and agreed to secure financing for a sequel in exchange for the international distribution rights.

They actually shot the majority of the film at the Monroeville Mall around christmas time, which severely affected available time for shooting. Shooting from 11pm until 7am every evening, having to stop when automated music commenced. 

They also stopped production for 3 weeks at the end of the year to avoid continuity errors due to Christmas decorations being in place throughout the mall at this time.

Due to the deal between Argento and Romero to finance the film, both had editing rights on it. Argento controlling the Euro cut for non-English speaking countries and Romero having final say on English language territories.

This has led to there being many variations of edit for the film, with differing scenes, amounts of gore, lines and music. 

With Argento’s soundtracks largely using the prog-rock band he collaborated with many times Goblin, whereas Romero’s versions did not.

I have no idea which version of the movie I actually own, there are that many of them.

On release the movie was a critical and commercial success. Earning back $66 million on a reported budget of $1.5 million.

However, according to the Producer Rubinstein that figure was greatly inflated to impress foreign investors and the real figure was actually much closer to $500,000.

Either way it is the most profitable film in the Dead series.
Critical consensus was widely positive with the film holding a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and my old friend Roger Ebert writing for the Chicago Sun saying:

“one of the best horror films ever made. gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling, nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”

I hadn’t until rewatching Dawn of the Dead for the purposes of this review actually seen this film since I first bought the DVD around 15 or 20 years ago.

The first thing I appreciate about this movie is it doesn’t mess about introducing us into why or what or where, it just does, which is something I wish modern movies would learn from.

The unexplainable does not require explanation, so don’t bother trying. Zombies are just zombies because they are.

We open with a SWAT team attempting to clear out a tenement populated by black and hispanic people in an inner city ghetto.

Where we are introduced to the absolute chaos that is reigning throughout this film’s universe including and not limited to a glorious head explosion.

Which was provided by Tom Savini who did all of the stunt, make up and effects work on the picture. The head used is actually that of Francine played by Gaylen Ross who in the original script was going to commit suicide by placing her head into the blades of the helicopter.

During production they decided to change the ending and have her and Peter escape instead, however the cast of her head was repurposed by Savini for the head explosion, which is so glorious I’m going to show it twice.

Tom Savini is a true master of practical gore effects and although by today’s standards they look very cheap, actually hold up pretty well even 4 decades later being extremely over the top, Savini is an artist and this is his David.

Although admittedly the zombies do look ridiculous with many of them looking blue rather than the grey they were meant to be.

Our 4 protagonists eventually escape the chaotic and diverse inner city to closited and pampered American suburbia and really to the shining monumental edifice that represents that the most, the shopping mall.

This is where the film’s social commentary kicks in. With our 4 protagonists building a utopia within the chaos. Clearing out the zombies and locking themselves into a shoppers delight.

One where they build a beautiful home and pamper themselves with furs, caviar and diamonds, becoming so enamoured with the delights at their disposal they become blinded to the danger that exists beyond the barricades.

Even the zombies who flock to the mall, because as a character says “It’s something they remember doing” represent the brainlessness at the centre of a lot of consumerism. With many people mindlessly buying and consuming ever more tat.

All whilst our very much alive main characters mirror those exact actions and emotions even whilst they try and survive the apocalypse.

With the motorcycle gang then reintroducing the chaos from the beginning of the film being almost anarchic in their disdain for the zombies going as far as to creampie them and bash them in the head not for survival but for fun as they attack and loot the mall mindlessly trashing it.

The ending asks the question are we the monsters or are they?

I just reviewed the latest flick in the Dead series that being Army of the Dead by Zack Snyder and one of my biggest complaints about that film was it’s length. 

Dawn of the Dead is a similar length and has a similar structure but whereas the middle calm in Army seems superfluous here it is the perfect filling for the chaos that sandwiches it, so I never felt the length of this where as I did with Army.

Mainly because that calm in the centre has something to say. 

It also allows the characters to breathe and expand as people meaning you care for them as an audience and want them to survive.

The cast are fantastic with David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger and Gaylen Ross carrying the majority of the runtime appearing in almost every scene. Being entirely believable as a group and even seemingly growing as a group and characters together as the movie goes on.

So that was Dawn of the Dead which I’m sure we all agree is one of the greatest zombie horror movies of all time if not the greatest, mainly because it wasn’t content to just be a schlock horror it attempted and in my opinion succeeded in saying something profoundly important about society all whilst providing the Sistine Chapel of head explosions and gore.

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