Here we are at long last. After 31 days of horror films including 13 days of sequels, we’ve finally ended up at the big day itself. Now that it’s Halloween, I can finally unveil the number one film on the countdown, Dawn of the Dead. Where Romero’s Night of the Living Dead invented a genre of film, Dawn of the Dead redefined it for a whole new generation. The societal woes that influenced Night had faded in the ten years since it had been released, and Romero turned his sites on a new set of problems with this sequel. It’s hard to imagine that it came about from something so simple as a trip to the mall.
Four years before the film was released, Romero was invited by an old friend of his to visit the Monroeville Mall that his friend’s company had built. At the time, malls were just beginning to be all the rage, and Monroeville was the largest of its kind ever built. Romero marveled at the blissful, slack-jawed look on the shoppers as they moved from store to store, and when his friend mentioned that in case of an emergency someone could survive quite well in a mall, inspiration struck the director. Romero and his producer started feeling around for investors in the film, but they were unable to find anyone willing to take a chance. Word got around to Italian director Dario Argento, and a deal was struck, in exchange for the international distribution rights for the film, Dario would get his brother Claudio to help with the financing of the film. At Argento’s request, Romero traveled to Rome for a holiday, and there with input from the Italian director, the script began to take shape. Three years after the first inkling of the film that would become Dawn of the Dead, Romero secured access to the Monroeville Mall as the setting for his film and principal photography began.
The film opens with the outbreak detailed in Night of the Living Dead reaching epic proportions. Looking for a way to escape the plague, a TV station helicopter pilot Steven, (David Andrews) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross) plan to steal the station’s chopper. They are joined by Steven’s friend Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) who are two deserters from a local S.W.A.T team. After taking the helicopter, they find a deserted mall and stop to check it out. They find the mall inhabited by only a few zombies, and with some creative planning, they believe they can survive there. They loot the mall, at first taking what they need, but that soon devolves into plundering all the material desires they can imagine. The foursome seal themselves in the mall, and they begin to live out their new lives in a kind of idyllic peace. They receive infrequent radio and television transmissions detailing the devolution of society. The group begins to feel safe and secure from the menace outside, but when a group of bikers threatens to break in and disrupt their consumer’s Eden, hell on Earth comes to the survivors.
Being a child of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, one of the things that has always attracted me to this film was that the mall is much like what I remember from my youth. Everything is decked out in browns and oranges, and the open spaces are littered with potted palms. Even the stores bring back memories. This era of my early youth is the time when consumerism as we know it today really took hold, and the creation of the mall was the Frankenstein’s monster that it spawned. One of the most interesting things about Dawn of the Dead is the commentary as to why the zombies came to the mall. Ken Foree‘s Peter remarks that, “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” The zombies wander aimlessly around the mall because something in them tells them it’s the thing to do.
The mall is almost like another character in the film. The mall provides medicine, weapons, food, and for all their little desires. Even as our heroes become lost in the excesses of the consumer world, they are provided with safety from the outside world. In the end, it even provides a grave for some of them, nestled in the shade of those potted palms and bubbling fountains. My only criticism of the setting is that it’s a genius place to hide from zombies, but now that everyone’s seen the film; in an outbreak, it would be as crowded as Black Friday in there.
Where Night of the Living Dead gets a lot of strength from the precious few moments of solace in the prison like farmhouse, the peaceful times they spend in the mall devoid of any other life or un-life as the case may be shed light on the emptiness of the desire for material things. The foursome has everything their heart can desire, but trapped in those walls, cut off from any pockets of humanity, they find little peace. Instead, they find unrest, and their uneasiness reaches beyond the screen to build tension in the audience. Their near idyllic life has nowhere to go, but to be shattered. When it finally occurs, it is not because of the zombies. The greed of others becomes their undoing.
As important as the themes of the Dawn of the Dead are, what is equally interesting are the stylistic qualities of the film. Working with cinematographer Michael Gornick, who had previously shot his film Martin, Romero created a very true to life looking world. Other than the fact that the dead roamed the Earth, there is little to nothing to point to as fantastical in this film. It also gains a great deal of strength from the work of Tom Savini. Famously, Savini was supposed to have worked on Night of the Living Dead, but he was called up for Vietnam. He finally got a chance to work with Romero in Martin, but the effects in that film were limited. With Dawn of the Dead, he got a chance to go crazy. The zombie kills are impressive, my favorite being the machete to the head that Savini himself delivers, and you can even thank Tom for the look of the zombies. In later years, he was unhappy with how the grey makeup looked on film and thought it came out too blue, but I rather like how the zombies are portrayed. As if this was not enough of a contribution, Savini also appears as one of the invading bikers, and if his first appearance where he combs his trademark mustache doesn’t make you chuckle, then you might be a zombie.
While the film is filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of extras, having the story revolve around four characters puts a lot of weight on those actor’s shoulders. Gaylan Ross’ Francine has always really felt like a powerful character to me. Unlike Night of the Living Dead’s Barbara, Francine is not a cowering, sobbing, frightened mess. She is played with great strength, and much of that should be credited to Ross’ performance. One interesting facet of the character is that you never hear her scream. By Ross’ own account, Romero asked her to scream once early in the shooting, and she explained to him that her idea of Francine was not a woman rapt in fear. After that, he never asked again.
Dawn of the Dead is also bolstered by the performance of the indomitable Ken Foree. His performance as Peter is the rock that the film builds on and his climatic scene with his friend Roger and final speech are my favorite moments in the film. That’s not to take away from Scott Reiniger’s Roger or David Emge’s Steven. Roger is clearly the more brash and gung ho of the S.W.A.T defectors, and in the end, that carelessness becomes his undoing. Steven the helicopter pilot is the lesser of the three male leads, and he has few scenes that really draw me into his character. The romantic dinner he shares with Francine does spring to mind, and he does participate in the gents’ first romp though the department store. However, when I think back on this film after not seeing it for a while, I find the details of his character much harder to recall.
Since I was re-watching this one, and it had been a while, I chose to go back to Romero’s original theatrical cut. I’m sure many of you have seen the Directors cut or the International Cut known as Zombimaking it the supposed predecessor to Zombi 2. The theatrical cut made me really long for the Zombi cut a bit. I was glad to see some of the expository scenes that are missing in that cut, but the theatrical version does lose a little something due to the sound tracking. The International cut features a score by the incomparable Goblin while Romero’s original release is set primarily to music taken from the De Wolfe music library, a source for pre-cleared tunes available for film licensing. There are a few good cues that come from this, but the music that follows Ken Foree’s final actions sounds more like something rejected from an episode of The A-Team.
Dwelling on Dawn of the Dead’s interpretation, production, and acting, I hope I haven’t shortchanged how much fun this movie is. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and rarely do I even bother pondering the deep social issues involved. I’m usually just having fun watching people shoot zombies in a mall, go shopping for whatever they’d like, and bikers attacking zombies with the weapon preferred by the recently departed Soupy Sales, the cream pie. That’s why this movie really works and tops the list. This is one of the best sequels out there because it extends the narrative of the first, provides some food for thought, and if you’re not interested in breaking down the meanings, then there’s still Hare Krishna zombies receiving headshots. When it comes to sequels, Dawn of the Dead tops my list because it delivers all fronts, and it gives the gentle reminder that now that Halloween has arrived, there’s less than eight weeks until Christmas. I got a lot of shopping to do.