Zombie godfather George A. Romero waited more than a decade to create Dawn of the Dead, the first sequel in his zombie cycle that would eventually number five (soon to be six) installments. Night of the Living Dead was marketed under the tagline “They won’t stay dead,” which beautifully told audiences all they needed to know. Still, the marketing teams behind Dawn of the Dead were able to find room for improvement and crafted the even more memorable “When there’s no room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Gone is the classic oxymoron “Living Dead.” Now and for the rest of Romero’s zombie movies, the foes are known simply as “The Dead.”
Dawn of the Dead doesn’t feature any characters from the original film (unsurprising, as none of them made it through alive), but there’s no reason why it can’t be seen as taking place about three weeks after the onset of the same plague witnessed by an isolated bunch of people in the Pennsylvania countryside in the original film. This time around, we open in Center City Philadelphia, as a different batch of survivors nobly keep a television station operational as society slowly collapses about them. Conditions eventually break down in the studio as well, and two of them selfishly escape to seek safe ground via helicopter. As they lift off, note the best image of all Romero’s zombie films: in the background, lights eerily switch off floor-by-floor in a skyscraper. In a rare case of artful restraint on Romero’s part, his camera lingers on the scene just long enough for it to register.
The team of survivors includes two contrasting pairs. Pilot Steve (David Emge) is the weak link in the group, while station manager Gaylen (Francine Parker) is the heart and brains. Two very different SWAT commandos throw their lot in with these civilians: the diminutive but athletic and enthusiastic Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), and the tall, quiet, and serious Peter (Ken Foree). But together, the two soldiers are more than the sum of their parts and manifest leadership qualities. Echoing the social subtext of the original film, race becomes irrelevant (Peter is black and Roger is white) and the two become fast friends.
The four set down upon the roof of a suburban shopping mall, a relatively new American invention in 1979. They purge it of lingering zombies and turn it into what is equal parts fortress and paradise. It is here where one realizes that Dawn of the Dead is probably the most openly satirical of all Romero’s zombie movies. It’s impossible to miss the critique of our materialist consumer society, as these survivors gleefully take whatever they want off the racks, for free. Even the stoic commandos are thrilled by the opportunity to go on an unlimited shopping spree. They live off fine wine and canned caviar as the barbarians are literally at the gate. You know it’s the end of the world when shopping mall muzak is the soundtrack for our heroes’ systematic mass zombie slaughter and corpse collection. Infamous Italian horror director Dario Argento composed the soundtrack as well as served as script consultant.
Unfortunately, Dawn of the Dead fizzles with a weak ending, especially compared to the pitiless conclusion of Night of the Living Dead. Internal strife and the zombie hordes assembling outside are not their only problems. A ragtag caravan of roadwarrior survivors arrive and disrupt the stalemate. But the central consumerist satire still resonates enough for the movie to have been effectively remade in 2004 by director Zack Snyder, without Romero’s involvement.
You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:
- Part I: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Part II: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Part III: Day of the Dead (1985)
- Part IV: Land of the Dead (2005)
- Part V: Diary of the Dead (2007)
Must read: Internal Bleeding Zombie Week ’08