Movie Project #36: Dawn of the Dead [1978]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Dawn of the Dead [1978]
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: George A. Romero
Country: USA
Genre: Horror
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Running Time: 127 minutes

(The end of this review contains possible spoilers.)

One of my concerns going into Dawn of the Dead, the spiritual sequel to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, was that I wouldn’t get the full effect of the film. Put simply, I am burnt out on zombie flicks. However, I shouldn’t have worried — this is a horror classic for good reason.

Dawn of the Dead takes place in Pennsylvania, right in the middle of a massive nationwide zombie outbreak. There is chaos everywhere, especially in Philadelphia, where four people somehow manage to escape via a stolen news helicopter. Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) are two SWAT team members who fly out with traffic pilot, Stephen (David Emge), and his girlfriend, Frances (Gaylen Ross). Their destination? Anywhere but there.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Eventually, the four of them end up in a shopping mall just outside of Harrisburg. They plan the stop initially to gather supplies, but instead they decide to make it their sanctuary. And why not? The mall is huge and loaded with food, guns and other resources. There doesn’t appear to be any other signs of life in the general vicinity — it’s just a matter of avoiding those pesky zombies also found within.

What makes Dawn of the Dead stand out from other like-minded films is its scathing social commentary. The aimless wandering by the zombies in the mall is not far off from the mindless consumers who do the same in reality. One of the characters even remarks that the zombies have returned to the mall simply because this is what they remember enjoying in their normal lives. It’s a sad — and unfortunately still relevant — look at our society.

Dawn of the Dead [1978]

Naturally, there are plenty of confrontations with the undead as well. Some of the face-offs offer up some impressive gore special effects (designed by Tom Savini, who also has a small role in the film), though the blood looks a bit tacky today. Decapitations, disembowelments and the like are all performed with occasionally startling execution.

The characters are generally a likable bunch, with Peter being the standout. Played charismatically by Ken Foree, Peter essentially becomes the leader of the group, and he’s the one with the best head on his shoulders. On the flip side, Roger is incredibly reckless, and his behavior causes problems more than once.

As it goes in life, all good things must come to an end, and eventually the group’s time in the mall runs out once a psychotic biker gang shows up. It is here that we learn perhaps Dawn of the Dead‘s most important message:

Humans are their own worst enemy.


23 thoughts on “Movie Project #36: Dawn of the Dead [1978]

  1. CMrok93 says:

    I loved this movie. I thought that the ending was a bit of a cop-out (seeing as they already had a way better, darker ending filmed), but everything else leading up to it was pitch perfect Romero. And then some. Good review.

  2. ruth says:

    This one is not my cup of tea as you already know 🙂 But as far as your poll goes, boy that’s tough to pick as Hanks had sooo many great films. I ended up going w/ Castaway and Road to Perdition though.

  3. jackdeth72 says:

    Nicely done, Eric!

    A deft critique on the #2 film in George Romero’s body of work. And an excellent ode to the fine art of using what’s at hand, after hours; to achieve maximum “Bang for the Buck!”

    Really enjoy how Romero mixes dread and terror with social commentary (Zombies riding the mall’s escalators) to created a palpable emotional roller coaster ride. With slow, until feeding frenzy time Zombies, which have always been scarier and more ominous to me!

  4. Chris says:

    Happy you dug this one, Eric! The grey makeup the zombies are wearing is at times a little too obvious, but the special effects and action sequences were pretty good, considering the budget of only $650.000.
    As you say, the social commentary of mindless consumers in a shopping mall is interesting. You can read my review here:

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      I didn’t even realize the budget was so low. That makes their work even more impressive.

      Enjoyed your review, Chris. That’s a good point about the first 30 minutes or so being disorienting. It wasn’t until the four main characters reached the helicopter that I really knew what was going on. Then again, I think that only helps add to the chaos happening at the time.

      • roy says:

        thats exactly right ,1st time i saw DOTD the first 30 min. ,i was like whats going on,i felt like i was in the middle of a nightmare, it really says something of romero,s talent

  5. Dan Heaton says:

    I also just watched Dawn of the Dead earlier this year during my post-apocalyptic marathon. My response was very similar to yours. It’s a bit silly (though some of the gore is well-done), but what really stands out is the social commentary. Nice review, Eric!

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