Dawn of the Dead (1979)

In 1968, George Romero changed horror film history. Inspired by Richard Matheson’s gripping novel, I Am Legend, the independent filmmaker from Pittsburgh envisioned a trilogy of films depicting a chaotic world where the recently dead are reanimated and viciously attack the living. Also known as Anubis (the Egyptian God of the Dead), Romero’s “dead trilogy” presents the irremediable collapse of authority and order.

The initial film of the series, Night of the Living Dead (1968) takes place during the first night the dead come back to life. Dawn of the Dead (1979) happens a few weeks later, during the last stages of social collapse. Finally, Day of the Dead (1985) shows the beginnings of a new world, where survivors learn to domesticate the zombies. Though they tell a single story, the films are quite different. Romero has said that each mirrors the cultural and political climate of the decade in which it was made, including critiques of racism, the Vietnam War, military and family institutions, and consumer society.

Timed to coincide with March’s theatrical release of Zach Snyder’s remake, Romero’s Dawn is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. It begins at a Philadelphia TV studio engulfed in chaos. A scientist appears on screen, presenting the basic facts of the nightmarish world originally depicted in Night of the Living Dead: the dead are coming back to life to feed on the living, and they can only be “killed” by destroying their brains. When a producer insists on airing a list of inoperative rescue stations, technician Fran (Gaylen Ross) confronts him. Rather than fight this particular good fight, her pilot boyfriend, Steven (David Emge), thinks they should flee the city in the TV station’s news helicopter.

Like most of Romero’s films, this one doesn’t concern itself with how the crisis originated, but instead focuses on the collapse of social structures brought on by human stubbornness, selfishness, and greed. The living humans repeatedly appear more brutal than the zombies. When the Hispanic inhabitants of a tenement building protest the government’s disposal of their dead loved ones, the military raids the building, killing the protestors.

At the time of the raid, SWAT trooper Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) invites his colleague Peter (Ken Foree) to run away with him and his friends, Fran and Steven. Their helicopter escape shows how the zombie menace has spread across the state, and how overconfident members of the National Guard and the National Rifle Association use the crisis as an excuse to have BBQs and zombie-hunting competitions.

Their arrogance leaves authorities unable to deal with the crisis seriously. Running short on gas, Steven is forced to land on the roof of a quintessential suburban American symbol, a shopping mall. Tempted by all the products in the stores, the survivors barricade themselves inside the mall and wait for an end to the crisis. At the beginning, this seems a good idea. However, Steven and company fall prey to the temptations of their now extinct consumer society. They take money from the bank, expensive clothing from designer boutiques, and fancy watches from jewelry stores.

From the TV producer who is willing to endanger people for a rating, to the members of the Hispanic ghetto who respect their loved ones even after they become flesh-eating ghouls, to Steven’s desire for worthless luxury items, everyone is willing to kill and die in order to maintain a way of life now rendered meaningless.

Even the living dead can’t abandon habits they had before dying. As Peter explains, the zombies gravitate towards the mall, not because they know there are survivors hiding inside, but because they remember the place as an important part of their lives. The zombies are, of course, the ultimate consumers. They wander aimlessly inside the mall, unaware of each other, resembling the crowds of shoppers we see any day at the mall. As Peter concludes, “They are us.”

From the first frame, the film makes such thematic connections visual. The tv studio’s deep red carpet looks forward to the bloody overkill that will follow. Terrific work by special makeup effects maestro Tom Savini brings to mind the spirit of the colorful 1950s EC horror comic books, and establishes the aesthetics that would become typical of the gore film in later years.

The gruesome aesthetics and complex narrative structure of Dawn of the Dead are underlined in the new, uncut DVD incarnation that features a pristine new transfer of the U.S. theatrical print. Even so, the DVD’s highlight is an insightful audio commentary by Romero and Savini, detailing some of the hurdles they confronted. For example, Romero was only able to film at the mall during the evenings when the shops were closed, and he had to stop shooting during the Christmas season, due to the holiday decorations.

In its emphasis on the tragic effects of human failings, Romero’s film looks beyond Snyder’s latest version, which is, until its closing credits sequence, less bleak. In the new film, humans and monsters are clearly differentiated, and survivors quickly learn to work together in spite of their differences. Ironically, this makes Romero’s Dawn of the Dead look more relevant today. Consider that our current times are characterized by terrorism, wars, financial scandals, and economic and political turmoil. Romero’s apocalyptic vision looks more like prophecy than fiction.