The apocalypse is here...and it is ravenous.
Okay, I freely admit to having taken forever to finally get around to this one, simply because damned near everyone and their parakeet knows all about this landmark, and also because I m beyond over-saturated with zombie-oriented entertainment in all media over the past two decades. So, here we are with George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, the film that — even more so than its predecessor from a decade earlier, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD — basically defined the zombie apocalypse movie and set its tropes in stone. Both NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD rewrote the rules for what horror films could get away with in terms of gore and overall bleak intensity, and the impact of both works is still felt today.
The plot seems at first to be a study in simplicity, as it's pretty much the previous film's "base under siege" setting writ larger and more graphic — waaaaaaaaaay more graphic — but in between its set pieces of survival during an apocalypse of mindless, flesh-eating undead considerable time is given to getting to know the tales four survivor characters as they fight tooth and nail against the endless horde. As we follow helicopter pilot "Flyboy" (David Emgee), SWAT officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), and pregnant Francine (Gaylen Ross), we see them hole up in a zombie-infested shopping shopping mall that they expunge the undead from and fortify into a home/fortress. Surrounded by seemingly unlimited goods and supplies and living in secure luxury while the world outside descends into a hellish landscape, the four become bored in their comfortable consumer palace while their home is surrounded by wave after wave of dead former consumers, revenants drawn to the place by some buried memory of the mall having one been an important facet of their existence. As tensions escalate among the survivors, a marauding gang of looter bikers raid the mall for whatever they can take, thus letting in untold numbers of the walking, ravenous undead, so our heroes must fight to protect their home and themselves, but how can they possibly win against an enemy that just keeps on coming?
Though a sly piece of social commentary, the aspect that put DAWN OF THE DEAD on the map was its utter hopeless bleakness and a then-devastating level of ultra-graphic gory special effects. The zombies tear into the flesh of screaming humans with gusto, biting out chunks of meat while bright red blood pours like syrup and slimy viscera is haphazardly pulled out and devoured, complete with enthusiastic sounds of fevered mastication on the soundtrack. I was barely thirteen when I managed to see the film during first release, at a theater in White Plains, NY that did not care that the movie poster clearly stated that "No one under 17 will be admitted," even if accompanied by an adult, and what I witnessed shocked the hell out of me while thrilling me to the core. Here at last was a horror movie that gave me everything that I wanted — a solid script, believable performances, a bleak tone that did not cop out, a respect for the audience's intelligence, and savage gore on an unprecedented scale — and after this there no turning back, for either myself or the genre. And that fact certainly proved true, as Romero's unrated masterpiece broke down the barriers of what could be gotten away with in a respectable motion picture and ushered in a wave of gut-muncher cinema that has only escalated since 1978.
My one caveat for those who have not seen the original DAWN OF THE DEAD is that they approach it from the perspective that it was the film that caused the zombie sub-genre as we now know it to become a big deal, even more so than its landmark predecessor, so all of the ropes that invented and that were fresh when it hit have long become a part of the language of horror storytelling and, arguably, been improved upon or refined for the fare that came after. While delivering what it promises, the 1978 DAWN OF THE DEAD is rather slow-moving and slightly over-long to modern sensibilities, though its zombie set pieces remain powerful. The major-league love that those around my age or older who saw it back when possess for the film is due to it being something different at the time of its release and not being afraid to shower the screen with blood an offal. In its way DAWN OF THE DEAD was as groundbreaking and genre-defining as the Universal and Hammer horror films that were its forebears, and as such it is of unarguable historical and artistic importance and cultural value. That, and it's damned entertaining.
Poster from the original theatrical release.