Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Despite the fact that I’ve seen dozens of zombie films over the years, somehow I missed this one — the one that turned Night of the Living Dead into a series. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead is the second film in the “Living Dead” series of films by George Romero.

In Dawn of the Dead, the zombie apocalypse that originally began in Night of the Living Dead has continued to grow. Now, major cities have begun to fall under swarms of zombies — the recently dead who have become reanimated and have only one thing on their mind: eating human flesh.

This film follows the story of four people: Roger and Peter, members of the Philadelphia SWAT team dealing with the hoards of zombies, and Francine and Stephen, two Philadelphia news reporters. Stephen, pilot of the station’s news helicopter, plans to escape the city before it completely implodes; Francine (Stephen’s co-worker and girlfriend) and the two SWAT team members join him.

Just outside of town the film’s four protagonists discover an abandoned mall. The mall turns out to be a great source of material goods like food and water and guns, but first it has to be secured. This is done by first sealing off the entrances and blocking them with large trucks, and then ridding the mall of all remaining zombies one bullet at a time.

Just when our four heroes have settled into their new reality, the mall is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang. Initially the gang seems more interested in simply looting than anything, but after Stephen begins firing shots at them, Roger realizes that they have just declared war. In addition to the battle between the two groups of survivors, the biker gang also manages to let hundreds of zombies re-enter the mall.

More than simply a zombie flick, Dawn on the Dead pokes at society by having the undead return to what they knew in life — shopping. Even in a world left with no economy, the biker gangs steal money and televisions from within the mall. Even a few of the zombies are seen wearing stolen jewelry from the mall.

The film’s make up and effects, done by Tom Savini, are simply over the top. Severed arms, legs, and corpses litter the mall everywhere you look. The only way to stop a zombie is by putting a bullet in their brain and our four heroes dispense hundreds of them on screen. If forehead-mounted bullet squibs and brain-splattered walls aren’t your thing, this film is not for you. The film’s effects were shocking enough in 1978 that the film, unable to avoid an NC-17 (“X”) rating, was released without any rating at all.

Also shocking is that not all the protagonists survive. In the original script none of them did; on set, Romero had a change of heart and let half of them walk (fly) away.

Dawn of the Dead is a worthy successor to Night of the Living Dead. It deserves respect not just for what it did for the genre, but also because it’s a good survival horror film. You’ll never walk through a dark mall without looking over your shoulder again.

(This review is a part of my month-long October 2014 A-Z Horror Reviews.)


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