“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
I imagine almost every review for DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) starts the same. It’s the iconic line from the film that works as the perfect tagline, spoken by Ken Foree’s character, Peter, philosophizing on why the zombies exist. Something his voodoo practicing grandfather used to say.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) is George A. Romero’s sequel to his 1968 film NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I say ‘George A. Romero’s’ because there is an alternate line of ‘sequels’ based on material written by co-creator John Russo (the RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD franchise), and DAWN OF THE DEAD spawned two sets of sequels as well, but we’ll talk about that later. Of course there’s the remake from 2004, which we’ll very briefly touch on, as well. For now, let’s just talk about Romero’s film DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). Even though the film was released ten years after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the timeline for Romero’s films are much more condensed and not so far apart. So think of DAWN OF THE DEAD happening almost immediately after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, or at the same time, if you’d like. The film opens in a TV studio where Francine works as (assumedly) a producer for the news, this is amidst all of the zombie panic. Miscommunication abounds on and off set as her boyfriend, Stephen, who operates the news station’s helicopter, tells her they’re taking the chopper and escaping somewhere safe later that night.
Cut to a police operation the same night. The reasons why aren’t all that clear so here’s a guesstimate. There’s a gang holed up in the projects, and something they’ve done means they need to go to prison, or get shot if they won’t go quietly, apparently. Met with resistance, there is gunfire everywhere around our third protagonist, Roger, who meets up with another policeman named Peter. As the project is being raided, the police stumble upon the rooms where people have been storing the living dead. Peter and Roger bond over having to kill the zombies, after which Roger tells Peter of a plan his friends have to get out of town for somewhere safer in a helicopter. Peter agrees to come.
They all meet at the docks, Peter quickly meets Stephen and Francine, and immediately we set up tension, a stranger coming on this trip with us? Roger vouches for him, but how trustworthy is Peter? I don’t see it making a difference in this film but Stephen, Roger, and Francine are all Caucasian, while Peter is an African-American. Although there’s not really any race relation stuff to deal with in the film.
They end up landing on the roof of a mall crawling with many zombies. But no zombies are in the upper rooms, where there are tons of emergency rations. They decide to stay the night, sleep, recharge, get anything they need from the stores below them (TV, radio, ammunition, and guns) and be gone the next day. But then they formulate a plan. What if they stayed? Blocked off the entrances so no new zombies can make it in, and pick off the manageable amount of zombies still in the mall. At which time they can claim the whole place as their own. The timeline of how long they’re in there is undetermined, but it can’t be too incredibly long as Francis is three-to-four months pregnant at the start (and she drinks and smokes a lot for being pregnant), and by the end she’s showing, but no baby yet.
But nothing good can last forever as a group of raiders break into the mall and destroy everything, stealing what isn’t chained down, letting in hundreds of zombies before they’re forced to flee. Now with zombies everywhere, the two survivors must make their escape, but there’s a quick ‘for what?’ conversation, which is soon followed by ‘for my terms!’ as both survivors make it to the chopper, and get out of the area. Where they go is a total mystery as that is where the film ends.
Back in the day, when I was in high school, we had a mall with a theatre in it. Right across from the theater was a Suncoast Video Store (anyone remember these? So helpful for my collecting needs back before DVD, and during the early days of DVD, as well. I remember one day going into Suncoast and buying the special edition VHS box of DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). It was the first VHS set I owned with special features on the second tape such as trailers, TV, and Radio spots, both in the states and internationally. Furthermore, this was the first film I bought on Blu-ray and when I popped it into my HDTV and pressed play, it was like looking through a windowpane almost as though you could reach through the screen and feel the shag treatment on the walls at the very beginning of the movie. I had purchased a special VHS copy of ZOMBiE weeks before I purchased the VHS of DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), but had no clue their connection at the time.
As far back as I can remember, this film has the first bro-mance I had ever seen. Peter and Roger, both police, became quick friends, and bonded over how to keep everyone safe, including themselves. Their joking around and using specific tactical maneuvers to get in and out of the mall without harm strengthened their friendship. SPOILER ALERT (GO TO NEXT PARAGRAPHY IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS) And that friendship is tested, becoming stronger, after Roger is bitten by the zombies. As he’s dying, Peter sits in the room with him, and Roger, who is quite out of it by now tells him shoot him if he becomes a zombie, but don’t do it until he’s absolutely sure, because Roger is going to try very hard to not come back. The scene where Roger dies and slowly sits up in the bed is painfully sad, and when you hear Peter’s gun fire a round into Roger’s head, your heart just sinks. They bury him in the earthy tree display of the inside of the mall. That night, Peter makes a wonderful dinner for both Stephen and Francis, but he goes out next to Roger’s grave and drinks champagne. There it is, the first bro-mance I ever did see.
But let’s talk honestly. This film is hailed as being the best zombie film of all time. It certainly set in motion some amazing things, the special FX are pretty awesome towards the end (gorily perfected in the next film, DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)), and when people talk about zombies and zombie films, they’re mostly citing this film for their purposes. However, we need to be a bit honest about this ‘classic’.
First off, the dialogue is pretty damn terrible. Especially the scene where the police are squaring off with the druglords (assumedly) in the projects buildings. Most of the dialogue from there is ridiculous as well, but once we get to the mall, the dialogue not only gets mostly better, it becomes a lot rarer (thankfully). George A. Romero knows how to write a story that’s damn good and shoves our materialism in our faces, but his dialogue is so-so (this will improve with each following DEAD film). Also, there’s some really bad out-of-focus shots too. It may be a landmark film, but it was not without its presentation flaws.
However, flaws and all, I’m a huge fan of this film, and because of what came next. Now it’s time to confuse you more. Dario Argento and George A. Romero really liked each other’s work. So Romero wrote a script for DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), and Argento consulted. The original print went out to theaters, but it got so popular, they wanted it oversees. Argento made a European Cut of the film which gets rid of most of the humor and it was released in Europe. Later there would be a release of an extended version, and later, a director’s cut. All of these are lovingly included on the ‘Ultimate Edition’ of DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) DVD, which I own. The sucksville thing is I can’t find its equal on Blu-ray. In fact the only edition I could find on blu-ray was the theatrical edition. Boo. So next weekend I’m probably going to get it out of my DVD collection and watch the alternate cuts of the film, because I just don’t feel right watching just one of them.
More chaos before we end. The European cut was called ZOMBI DAWN OF THE DEAD, it was a huge hit and Lucio Fulci did a sequel to it, calling it ZOMBI 2. Well that film became such a hit that we wanted it released in the states…but there was no ZOMBI in the states so nobody would understand why it was called ZOMBI 2. So they changed the name to ZOMBIE. ZOMBI 2 takes place on an island of zombies. Later, in the DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) remake, there would be a credits sequence that would link DAWN OF THE DEAD directly to ZOMBI 2. The survivors get in a boat, headed for an island that is hopefully unfettered by zombies. Once they get to the island they quickly learn that the zombies are everywhere, even on remote islands.
So if you want to do it proper, get yourself a weekend, a few friends, watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) followed by DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), followed by DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), followed by LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), followed by DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007), and finally SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009). I’ll be reviewing them all as they come up in my Blu-ray collection. So…out of sequence. But I highly recommend all except DIARY OF THE DEAD. You’ll read why soon.