Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dawn of the Dead first published by Through The Trees Magazine

George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is a sequel of sorts (with no common characters) to his groundbreaking sociopolitical zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968) – and its two opening sequences offer a sketch in diptych of society in rapid, chaotic decline. The very first shot paints the screen bright red. Though in fact this is just the luridly-hued insulating carpet lining the walls of a TV studio’s sound-proofed recording booth, that vivid colour is also a promise: there will be blood. The camera pans to producer Francine (Gaylen Ross), fitfully sleeping and obviously having a nightmare. When she wakes, a little boy slumped next to her says, “I’m still dreaming” – and indeed, from this point on, everything will come with an oneiric quality. The TV studio is pure disorder, as some of Francine’s colleagues try desperately to stay live amid an all-engulfing crisis, while others abandon their posts, openly ridicule their on-air guest (whose exposition is constantly undermined) and plot their escape routes. Meanwhile, a tenement building downtown is violently raided by a SWAT team who are confronted not only with an armed gang and open racism among their own ranks, but by rooms full of the residents’ recently departed loved ones who have now turned into ravenous zombies. These two sequences, unfolding with incredible speed as multiple events, characters and motivations intersect in a chaos of action, represent one of the most arresting cold opens in the history of horror. As Francine, her weather reporter boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) and Swat officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) make off with the station’s helicopter, we see the lights on a city skyscraper switching off floor by floor – a sure signifier of the dimming of civilisation. 

After a bird’s-eye-view of rednecks rallying in the nation’s backwoods, and after one eventful fuel stop (involving that great taboo, the killing of children), the four end up landing on the roof of a big indoor mall, and decide, gradually, to secure it as their own palace of plenty. This is where Romero’s typically astute political commentary really comes to the fore. “What are they doing? Why do they come here?”, asks Fran, as she observes the zombies shuffling en masse through the hallways and forecourts below. “Some kind of instinct,” suggests Stephen. “Memory of what they used to do. This is an important place in their lives.” Yet even as we are invited to read the ever-hungry zombies as monstrous embodiments of a ‘consumer’ society that shuffles braindead through the capitalist marketplace of desire, the film repeatedly asks just how different the humans are. After all, the four central characters whom, warts and all, we get to know and like over the course of the film are driven by impulses and instincts not so very different: for they too are drawn to the mall, and all that it has to offer. 

“You should see all the great stuff we’ve got, Franny,” says Stephen. “All kinds of stuff. This place is terrific. It really is, it’s perfect. All kinds of things. We’ve really got it made here, Franny.” Stephen has just returned with Peter and Roger from a shopping-cum-killing spree downstairs, and is still wide-eyed both with the rich bounty that they have taken from there and with the adrenaline of dodging the mall’s other, less lively clientèle. So excited is Stephen, in fact, that he is oblivious to the obvious trauma which Francine is still suffering, having just narrowly escaped a bite from a one-time Hare Krishna who is now spreading infection rather than love. In their own lust for blood and belongings, and their desire to take over the building’s spaces for themselves, they are unnervingly like their undead adversaries, only smarter and faster on their feet. The film’s recurring spectacle of zombies looking in through glass (whether a department store’s interior doors or the mall’s exterior ones) offers a mirror image of the human characters looking out from the other side of the pane, even as we see ourselves reflected in the thin screen (cinema, television or now computer) that separates us from Romero’s nightmare world. For this shopping centre is a hall of mirrors, and we too are caught in its distorting refractions. If the undead are repeatedly confused with the mall’s showroom mannequins, then later an arrogant eye-patched scientist on TV will also refer to the surviving human populace as ‘dummies’. Peter, too, says of the zombies all around, running on empty: “They’re us.”

The four painstakingly clear the mall of zombies and close off the entrances so that they and they alone can occupy its interiors and live like kings (and a queen). They have all become beguiled by the abundance of food, drink, clothing and entertainments there – but Francine, pregnant and more focused on the future, is alone able to see through the mall’s seductive mirage. “You’re hypnotised by this place, all of you,” she says, “It’s so bright and neatly wrapped, you don’t see it’s a prison too.” When, near the end, the mall is invaded by a raid party of marauding bikers, these intruders are marked as another enemy, just like the zombies. For the bikers are all at once vicious vandals, pillaging pirates and enemies at the gates. Yet really they only want what the others want and have already grabbed for themselves from the zombies – and in having Stephen utter the absurd line, “It’s ours. We took it. It’s ours”, Romero reveals the dog-eat-dog nature of this new world (not unlike our old one) where all property is theft. It is a bleak picture, where there are no real heroes or villains, just the characters whom the story happens to be following, and the others who cross their path or get in the way of their survival or encroach upon whatever fiefdom they have mapped out for themselves in all the anarchy and emptiness. Everyone here belongs to the same food chain.

Also known as Zombies and Zombie, Romero’s film might just as well have been called Maul of the Dead  – not just for its principal setting in a shopping mall or for the many graphic acts of corporeal mauling that Tom Savini and his special effects team realise so spectacularly on screen, but also for the way that the film itself has been subjected to endless mutilation. Second Sight Films’ seven-disc release includes three versions of the film: the extended ‘Cannes’ cut (137 minutes), assembled quickly by Romero for the film’s première at the 1978 festival; the shorter US theatrical version (127 minutes) which Romero considered definitive; and Dario Argento’s even shorter European recut (120 minutes), featuring more of the Goblin soundtrack. There have of course been many other cuts available over the years. Unlike Argento’s trim edit, which was designed to accentuate the gore over the human drama, British, Canadian and Japanese censors have passed various similarly shorter versions with much of the bloody violence hacked out. Going in the opposite direction, longer bootlegs have emerged, like the Extended Mall Hours cut (155min) and the GMT Video Productions cut (147min), which compile together footage from all three official versions in the interests of completism. No matter which version you watch, though, the core remains the same: a nightmarish, highly influential vision of humans as dummies, shopping as survival, and the world as a fugitive, beleaguered hell. And although Dawn of the Dead was made over forty years ago (and has since been repeatedly remade and ripped off), its themes still resonate closely with our own age of infection and apocalypse.

Strap: George A. Romero’s satirical Seventies sequel exposes mindless consumerism as a drive not unique to zombies

© Anton Bitel