Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
Across the nation, the dead have risen to feast upon the living. Fran and Stephen work for a television company that is covering the crisis. Peter and Roger are two policemen whose unit has fallen apart while clearing a slum of the living dead. When it becomes clear that their world is doomed, they steal a helicopter and escape. They decide to wait out the chaos in a shopping mall. But while the supplies in the mall allow them to live luxuriously, the zombies still want to shop – and kill – and other humans have their eyes on the goods inside the mall.

Dawn of the Dead (1978) is the second and, I think, the best of George Romero’s initial trilogy of zombie films (to which he has added more, with varying success). It’s a long, messy, sprawling film, uneven in pace and style. It engrosses and disturbs rather than thrills. That said, there are some remarkable moments of gore: anyone wondering what could happen when a tall zombie lurches towards a low-flying helicopter will not be disappointed.

It’s not a consistent film. While the four leads are good, some of the supporting acting is pretty ropey (as happens in the Sergio Leone westerns). Dawn lacks the furious pacing (and editing, I suspect) of the 2004 remake, and veers between cartoony violence (the blood looks like a mixture of ketchup and highlighter ink) and glum, brooding claustrophobia. The satire of zombies as consumers is blatant (“This place was important to them”, Stephen muses), but the sense of how the survivors are trapped by the luxury of the mall is equally powerful. There are also interesting bits of social commentary: Peter, the hero, is black and clearly not the “streetwise” character one might expect from a film of the 1970s. Fran refuses to play mother to the men and becomes increasingly skilled as the film goes on.

The strongest effect of zombie films (especially “slow zombie” films) is the sense of individuals struggling against the endless tide of undead, as if against a disease. How, and for how long, can anyone hold out? How do you give life any sort of meaning in such circumstances? The last shot of the film shows the mall filled with the undead, as tinkly music accompanies their pointless attempts to shop. As Peter puts it, watching the shuffling mass of zombies, “They’re us”. Recommended.