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.