The saga of horror auteur George A. Romero’s career is filled with copyright disputes, editorial interference, and financial shenanigans, so even the release of his most successful film, Dawn of the Dead, has weird baggage. For instance, Romero first delved into the zombie genre with his acclaimed debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968), an indie success that fell out of Romero’s hands and into the public domain. When he returned to the genre for this film, he wasn’t authorized to create a proper sequel, so made a loosely related follow-up—and whereas Night is a contained thriller with a small cast, Dawn is epic by comparison.
Ostensibly picking up where Night left off, even though no characters recur from the first picture, Dawn begins mid-action: Frenzied technicians at a Philadelphia TV station cover the story of a worldwide zombie outbreak, because some unknown X factor has caused the deceased to climb from their graves and feast on the living. Eventually, TV staffers Francine (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (Dave Emge) flee their station. Meanwhile, two S.W.A.T. cops, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), survive a horrific raid on a zombie-infested apartment building and join the TV staffers to escape Philadelphia by helicopter. The foursome selects an abandoned shopping mall as a potential fortress, realizing they can barricade the doors, kill the zombies already inside, and then help themselves to abundant supplies.
The choice of the mall as the film’s principal location is the genius contrivance of this movie, a satirical flourish that separates Dawn of the Dead from lesser gorefests. In trying to explain why zombies flock to the mall, the heroes surmise that the urge to shop is so ingrained in the American character that even death can’t suppress the consumerist call. Furthermore, the heroes go on several “shopping sprees,” usually punctuated with zombie kills, putting a dark spin on the American dream of unfettered materialism. Even the nasty plot twist Romero introduces late in the movie—a gang of vicious bikers invades the mall—feeds into his cruel lampooning of modern-day excesses.
Speaking of excess, Dawn of the Dead achieved instant infamy during its original release not just for Romero’s ingenious storyline, but also for the outrageous gore that permeates the movie. Makeup man Tom Savini (who also appears onscreen as the leader of the bikers) contrived realistic simulations of beheadings, disembowelments, dismemberments, gunshots, knife wounds, and even exploding heads, filling the screen with enough viscera to nauseate a butcher. Some fans love this stuff because it’s so over the top, but for those not indoctrinated into the cult of bloody movies, Dawn of the Dead is rough going. (To avoid an X rating, Romero released the movie unrated in the U.S.)
Adding another interesting wrinkle to Dawn of the Dead is the participation of Italian horror-cinema madman Dario Argento, who served as a creative consultant and also provided the film’s twinkly electronic music. As part of his deal, Argento got to re-edit and rename the movie for international release, so his version—much shorter than Romero’s—is called Zombi. In fact, multiple versions of Dawn of the Dead exist, with the longest sprawling across three hours.
In any event, Dawn of the Dead was a box-office success, so Romero continued his zombie cycle with Day of the Dead (1985) and other sequels. However, Romero’s pictures should not be confused with the spoof Return of the Living Dead (1985) or its sequel, Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988); similarly, 1990’s Night of the Living Dead is merely a remake of the original picture. To make things even more confusing, Dawn of the Dead was remade by director Zack Snyder in 2004, and a sequel to the remake is reportedly in the works—even though Romero is still making follow-ups to the 1978 movie.
Dawn of the Dead: GROOVY