Francine Parker: They’re still here.
Stephen: They’re after us. They know we’re still in here.
Peter: They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.
Francine Parker: What the hell are they?
Peter: They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell.
Peter: Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Vodou. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
Dawn of the Dead is among many things a very quotable movie. The scene above is probably everyone’s favorite, and some other more selective scenes to nibble from. Scientists arguing on what remains of the news broadcast. The SWAT incursion of the Philadelphia apartment building. The refueling scene, the dock scene, the shopping montage. The raiders and ensuing firefight. There are plenty. And if you were to ask me, I can’t really say if I personally have an all-time favorite scene, I mean let’s be honest here, there are so many to choose from. From the very beginning, Dawn of the Dead lures you in and keeps your attention rooted into the story. The pacing couldn’t be more perfect.
But before we delve any further, let’s get one of those sweet sweet IMBd synopsis’:
“Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.”
Okay, well…not bad. Not bad except for one fundamental thing. This synopsis violates one of the Laws of Romeroism. Also, btw, Romeroism is basically as it sounds, the rules or laws set in pace by George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead) as the originator of the “zombie” sub-genre as we know it today, that is the undead consuming the flesh of the living. Please see the following link for a complete detailed list of all the Laws of Romeroism. So which “law” did the synopsis violate? In Romeroesque zombie movies, the zombies are never called zombies…except for that one time in Land of the Dead when Dennis Hopper’s character says, “Zombies…they freak me out, man.”
Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. The round-about point being that Dawn of the Dead was Romero’s second film, the one in which he began establishing the rules for his “zombies.” In Night of the Living Dead, he had (at the time) no idea that he was creating an entirely new sub-genre in horror, that his “ghouls” would eventually become more popular than that of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Gillman), and the Invisible Man, the pillars of horror themselves.
Dawn of the Dead was also the first “dead film” in which Romero wrote and directed without the help of his friend and partner from Night of the Living Dead, John Russo. I’m not entirely sure what caused the split, but in an interview with Lee Karr in 2009, this is what George had to say regarding Russo:
“I love John, I still love John. John is the most practical guy – you can have a conversation with John about anything, politics, movies, whatever. Anything he says you may not agree with it, but he’s got a practical approach to it…and there fore you can never defeat his arguments, even though you would like to! I just wish John would cut a couple of chords and loosen himself up a little bit. I think he is too strict on himself and he chooses a business approach. I think he could have been a superstar, but he took the safer route. He bet the red-black, instead of ever putting it on number 17.”
Looking back at Dawn of the Dead, one can see the amount of risk George A. Romero put in to make this film. Dawn remained independent yet upped the budget that Night of the Living Dead had from 114,000 to 650,000. And Dawnwould go on to gross over 5 million at the box office. Not only was Dawn a “home run” in terms of investment, but over the years it has remained in the hearts and minds of fans worldwide, earning itself a place within the lexicon of cult classics. Even infamous critic Roger Ebert said Dawn was, “one of the best horror films ever made — and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying. It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling.”
Watching Dawn of the Dead, one cannot escape the lure of the story. From the very get-go, we want to know what’s going on. The first scene opens with a shot of red carpet and leading lady Francine Parker (played by Gaylen Ross) waking from a nightmare into a more literal nightmare. She’s at a news-station, and the news ain’t good (is it ever?). People are frantic, running every which way, barely holding on to whatever discipline they have left. Most have fled, as Stephen (played by David Emge) quips, “someone must survive.” Francine seems determined to do her duty, and that is to broadcast as long as possible, but in the end let’s go on the career she undoubtedly worked hard to build.
From the news station, we cut to an apartment building in Philadelphia (really in Pittsburgh) as a SWAT team readies to raid and dispose of the collected “dead” the residents have refused to hand over to the “proper” authorities. Martial law has apparently been given and the order stands that all “dead” must be properly “disposed” of. But as it seems, some still honor the dead, as I think Peter (played by Ken Foree) says later on during the raid. The most startling moment here is not when the brown makeup faced “Puerto Ricoian” comes running out only to get gunned down, but the small cracks in the demeanor of some of the SWAT members, most notably when “Woolie’s gone ape shit, man.” There’s also a more foreboding scene with the one-legged priest, as he says:
“Many have died, last week, on these streets. In the basement of this building, you will find them. I have given them the last rites. Now, you do what you will. You are stronger than us. But soon, I think they be stronger than you. When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing… or lose the war…”
What is the priest talking about here? Just the undead in the apartment building, or something more? See, this is when horror really shines, when it forces audiences to ask the questions they typically avoid asking. This scene takes about less than a minute to play out, but the ramification of what was said are everlasting. And there are more questions that will be asked as Dawn of the Deadcontinues. From the apartment building, we’re taken near the docks where Stephen and Francine prepare the News Helicopter for their impromptu escape from the city. If your watching the Uncut edition, there are some added scenes here. As Stephen radios, the “post has been abandoned.” But not everyone had fled. The couple have a close shave with another party who have thoughts of running. A group of surviving police, as it would seem, with a notable actor who will make a return appearance in Day of the Dead, though not as the same character, are poised to take more than their share, giving Stephen a “hard time” for taking “company” fuel. Luckily, Roger and Peter arrive and chase the “bad men” away.
Our group escape the city unscathed and as they are flying around looking for refuge, they pass over another group of what we might imagine from the end of Night of the Living Dead, a hodgepodge collection of military, police, huntsmen, various first responders and country locals, all banded together. One might feel safe with them, as the saying goes, there is safety in numbers, right? Except for the odd sensation, the way they treat the dead or undead, playing around with them, wrestling with them, lynching them up in trees and using them as target practice. What does their actions say about the human condition? That we demonize our enemies and thus become demons ourselves, perhaps?
After another close shave fueling up, the group passes over an abandoned mall. They’ve been flying for hours now and are in need of rest. There’s an upstairs area that seems isolated from the rest of the mall and so they decided to make camp. But after spending some time there, thoughts of looting and pillaging consume them, all but Francine who wants nothing more than to continue north. The boys get a sort of consumerist fever, that everything in the mall could be theirs if only they had the gumption to take it. And they do, they plan how to cut off the flow of undead from coming into the complex and work at removing those already inside. Roger (played by Scott H. Reiniger) is bitten during an episode he has, cracking up just like Woolie had at the beginning. And it really forces the question, was it all worth it? Sure, they get the spoils, there’s even a fun little montage of them enjoying their hard fought gains. Eventually the fun wears thin and after Roger passes away, comes back, and is killed again, the sting is felt on the faces of the characters. As Francine says:
“Stephen, I’m afraid. You’re hypnotized by this place. All of you! You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary, it’s a prison! Let’s just take what we need and get out of here!”
Eventually raiders stumble upon the mall and more deaths follow. In the end, the mall is abandoned and we’re left wondering was it worth it? Stephen could have listened to Peter and just let the raiders take what they wanted and go, but no. He became possessive, hypnotized by the lore of stuff, of ownership, even though they never really owned any of it. And what good did any of that stuff do? What could they do with it? Trade? Barter? What hole did the mall fill for those characters? Looking at the mall from a survivors perspective, it certainly had a feeling of security, four walls and all and plenty of space to run and escape. But as proved by the raiders, the mall is a high target. Protecting a bunch of stuff they can’t even really use seems pointless, why not just take what they need and continue north as Francine wanted? What was the attraction of staying?
Personally speaking, I think it was the normalcy the mall offered. Stephen and Peter both quipped that the reason why the undead were coming to the mall was because it was a place of importance to them, something they “remembered.” Yet, there they were too. For shelter, at first, yes. But they stayed for another reason, to “play house,” as Stephen said to Francine when he was trying to convince her why they should stay at the mall. The mall had “everything they needed…” but did it really?
Dawn of the Dead was selected as the last film to be reviewed for this year’s zombie themed Fright Fest because it is the fundamental “be-all” for a zombie movie. Fighting words for some, I’m sure. But few can deny the impact Dawn has had on the sub-genre and the continuingly growing culture surrounding the film. Dawn of the Dead is my personal favorite horror film, second only to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Why? Well… Romero didn’t rush the progression of the story, clocking in over two hours of gory storytelling, which I favor. The length and pace to me feel natural and wonderfully nihilistic. Not only giving us horror fans all the blood and guts we could have want for, but also giving us something else to chew on, all the various questions raised concerning humanity and concerning ourselves.
My rating: 5/5
Originally publishing on MachineMean.org
Fright Fest 2017
“In a time where our culture is saturated with zombies, Flowers manages to keep this book fresh, with superb character development, unique concepts (for example, there is a chapter written completely from a dog’s perspective, and I am looking forward to finding out more about those on a space station – something I never thought about before), and surprising deaths” -Jason Berry, Amazon Reviewer.