WARNING – SPOILERS!
Director: George A. Romero
Year Released: 1978
When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
‘Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them, it gets up and kills – the people it kills get up and kill!’ – The second instalment by Romero, Dawn of the Dead is in this writer’s opinion, the finest zombie movie to date.
The film focuses on the attempts of a group of four individuals to survive in the midst of a zombie outbreak (of possible global proportions). The opening scene, set in a WGON television studio in Philadelphia, is one of chaos where we are introduced to one of the main protagonists, Fran (played by Gaylen Ross) who is stirred from a nightmare and left to face an even more terrifying reality. During a live heated debate with a scientist trying to explain the situation, Fran rightly goes against the producers’ foolish decision to intentionally keep an outdated rescue stations list on the air, in a scurrilous attempt to gain more ratings. Meanwhile, the scientist being interviewed claims that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living. His proposals to resolve the epidemic by remaining detached and unemotional when handing over any deceased bodies to the National Guard are met with ridicule and anger by the surrounding studio crew who simply refuse to accept the facts. Fran is then met by her boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge) – the WGON traffic helicopter pilot, who plans on stealing the helicopter and fleeing the zombie-infected city along with Fran and friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) who makes his first appearance in the very next scene.
As a member of a Philadelphia SWAT unit, Roger and his team are called in to neutralise an apartment building where occupants have been hiding the reanimated corpses of their relatives. As soon as the SWAT teams enter the building, things take a chaotic turn as rooms full of zombies are released and both civilians and officers are attacked and killed. It is here that Roger meets Peter (Ken Foree), a member of a different SWAT unit, whom he invites to join them in their escape. Shortly after setting off, the group witness crowds of armed officials and rednecks (of whom Stephen describes as ‘probably enjoying the whole thing’) patrolling the countryside. The group then avoid a number of close encounters with the undead while stopping to refuel – involving a memorable scene in which a zombie meets his demise when shuffling too close to the rotating helicopter blades. They eventually come across an abandoned shopping mall, and after landing on the roof, they decide to take refuge in the store rooms of the upper floor. While Stephen is sleeping, Peter suggests that he and Roger check out the lower floors in order to gather essential supplies and, despite Fran’s objections, the pair head out, leaving her with a gun just in case. Together, they successfully find a set of mall keys, outrun the few zombies remaining in the mall and obtain supplies including a television and a radio.
Meanwhile, Fran informs Stephen of the SWAT members’ plans and he decides to go out and stop them, taking Fran’s weapon with him. He meets up with Peter and Roger and they make their way back up to the store room with the supplies – this scene features another notable zombie-kill, whereby Roger is suddenly grabbed by a zombie and during the struggle, manages to introduce a screwdriver to the zombies’ cranium. However, before they return, while Fran is left vulnerable, a single zombie manages to makes its way up to her and she struggles to defend herself. Before long, the men return and as Roger and Peter deal with the infected individual, Stephen comforts the distressed Fran. It is at this point that Stephen reveals to the SWAT members that Fran is in fact 3-4 months into pregnancy. Fran, on overhearing the three discuss their options, argues with Stephen that they are hypnotised by their present location and, blinded by the material goods available to them, do not see it for what it really is: a prison. She believes that the group should stock the helicopter with supplies and keep moving, but the others do not share her view. She goes on to ask the others not to treat her any differently just because she is pregnant and insists that Stephen teaches her how to operate the helicopter, should anything happen to him.
Next, Roger and Peter plan to secure the entrances to the mall using trucks, with Stephen as lookout in the helicopter and Fran on the roof with a rifle. However, while parking the trucks in the car park full of zombies, Roger begins to crack under the pressure, acts recklessly and gets bitten as a result. Having successfully blocked off the entrances they return back to the mall and Fran dresses Roger’s wounds. Once level-headed and a sharp shooter, Roger was a valuable member of the group, but is now left to face the grim inevitability of joining the ranks of the living dead. The group then go on to lock down the entrances and deal with the zombies still residing in the mall.
They are then free to take advantage of having a shopping mall to themselves, however this carefree lifestyle does not last as Roger’s condition steadily worsens and the number of zombies surrounding the mall continues to rise. After a few days, it becomes apparent that Roger is not going to make it and Peter offers to stay with him. Before he dies, Roger asks Peter to take care of him if he turns into one of them, promising that he’ll try not to come back. Nevertheless, Roger does indeed die and reanimate, leaving Peter with no choice but to shoot his friend. Weeks pass and the atmosphere soon turns to despair as boredom kicks in and television and radio broadcasts end abruptly, leaving the remaining survivors with a growing feeling of hopelessness in finding life outside their fortress. At this stage, having every material possession they could ever wish for available to them does little to alleviate the unsettling mood.
Eventually the mall is invaded by a gang of raiders, one of which: ‘Blades’ was played by Tom Savini (formerly a Vietnam combat photographer) who was also the man behind the film’s make-up and special effects. Before their arrival, Peter and Stephen sneak downstairs and attempt to lock down the stores. Even so, the gang manage to break into the mall (consequently allowing a huge crowd of zombies to also gain access), and proceed in the simultaneous looting of stores, slaying of zombies and throwing of pies. Filled with anger upon witnessing the raiders stealing ‘their’ property, Stephen goes against Peter’s advice of staying out of sight and foolishly opens fire on the invaders. This possessiveness over the mall and its material goods leads to Stephen’s downfall as he is subsequently shot by the invaders and then suffers multiple bite wounds by a crowd of the ravenous undead. At the same time, Peter succeeds in taking out a number of looters, including Tom Savini’s character who is shot and falls from a balcony, whilst the majority of the gang relinquish and abandon the mall.
After losing contact with Stephen, Peter reluctantly makes his way back to Fran in the storeroom and they wait for Stephen’s return. Meanwhile we are greeted with a particularly gruesome scene as zombies overwhelm the few remaining stragglers and voraciously feast on their innards. Hours pass and, having heard nothing from Stephen, Peter and Fran fear the worst which is indeed the case as the reanimated Stephen (with an impressive zombie shuffle) leads others like himself to their hideaway on the upper floors. After shooting Stephen, Peter tells Fran to get to the helicopter and go on without him, insisting that he doesn’t want to go. However, as zombies slowly surround Peter while he sits with a gun to his head, he has a last minute change of heart, makes his way to the roof and climbs aboard the helicopter just in time. As dawn approaches, the last two remaining survivors take off to an uncertain future and, as the credits roll, we see crowds of zombies shamble aimlessly through the retail stores as an out of place jolly tune plays in the background.
Initially, a bleaker outcome was intended for the film which had Peter losing all hope and shooting himself, leaving Fran who, while waiting in the helicopter, hears the gun shot and also decides to take her own life via the spinning helicopter blades. This alternative ending sequence was never filmed however.
In Dawn of the Dead, as in previous and subsequent projects, Romero successfully tackles several themes in addition to the horror of an undead plague including materialism, consumerism and the flaws (and breakdown) of society – topics which are just as relevant today, if not more so. The need for material wealth taking unjust precedence (over relationships etc.) is a strong recurring concept – this is exemplified in one particular scene when Fran asks why the dead are returning to the mall, to which Stephen replies, ‘Some kind of instinct, memory, what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives – even in death, people are still drawn to the consumer’s paradise.’ When the dead begin to walk the earth, it doesn’t take long for society to fall into complete disarray (as illustrated in the introductory scene) – the breakdown of communication, trust and cooperation rapidly welcomes chaos and, it could be said that this is even more detrimental than the undead threat itself. The film was an instant success and, quite rightly, has a huge cult following. After thirty years, its influence can still clearly be seen in a wide range of films and videogames of the same genre. As well as thought provoking themes, the characters are likeable and excellently portrayed with a lot of depth – making the audience really feel for them as they go through the ordeal. In addition, each character has unique attributes which makes for an interesting group dynamic;
Fran – the strong female protagonist who, despite her condition, refuses to be a burden for the group
Peter – a leader, tough with a talent for survival
Roger – a happy-go-lucky SWAT member who truly believes that he can overcome any obstacle, in spite of the odds (which ultimately crafts his fate)
Stephen – essentially a normal guy who isn’t comfortable with firearms, often makes mistakes and is frequently helped out of sticky situations by the SWAT members
The soundtrack and special effects also add to its charm. In short, with memorable quotes and scenes in abundance and a winning combination of action, gore and humour, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is a worthy addition to any zombie fan’s collection. If you have yet to see this film, I strongly urge you to stop what you’re doing and get your hands on a copy, for you shall not be disappointed – we give it ten rotting thumbs up!.
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