Deadicated To George A. Romero: DAWN OF THE DEAD

After George Romero began his trilogy in 1968 with the critically acclaimed Night of The Living Dead, 10 years later he brought us not only one of the best Zombie films of all time, but also a slick social commentary disguised as gory Horror/Adventure film. That’s right. I’m talking about 1978’s Dawn of The Dead. It became the most profitable film of the franchise since it had a solid script and unusual marketing tactics. First, George wisely decided to release it unrated. It was a risky decision to begin with, since every major studio tried to avoid this in order to secure the highest number of theaters. But on the other hand, the gory effects and violence attracted movie-goers to go see it. With bold taglines such as “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times” and “There is no explicit sex in this picture, however there are scenes of violence which may be considered shocking. No one under 17 will be admitted.”, it brought in $900,000 on the first weekend alone which was instantly profitable. According to the producer Richard P. Rubinstein, he claimed that the actual budget was about $500,000, but they had to inflate the number as a method to attract foreign buyers. And speaking of foreigners, Director Dario Argento secured the rights to release it in Europe. So he changed the title to “Zombie: Dawn of the Dead” and re-edited many scenes. It was extremely successful to the point that Italian studios tried to make Zombie films to cash-in on the popularity. There’s even a “fake” sequel to Zombie franchise as well (like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2), but that’s another story.

I’m totally surprised by its budget since DOTD looks more like an expensive movie. Anyway, since there are many versions of the film out there, the one I’m going to review is the original US cut. There aren’t many differences between the US, European, and Extended Cut, but this is the one that I watch the most. The pacing is okay and the score fits the scenes perfectly. Meanwhile, the Italian cut (which I already reviewed on GCDB) has more of an Action movie aesthetic and the pacing is a little bit quicker, but sometimes there’s redundancy in the soundtrack. Overall, I enjoy it a lot as well. How about the Extended Cut, you may ask? That’s the one I watch the least. For whatever reason, I think it’s too long and the alternate soundtrack doesn’t fit the scenes quite as well. For instance, when our heroes first arrive at the mall, this is the song that plays in Extended Cut. While the US Theatrical cut has a creepier score, which fits the scene better.

Anyway, let’s get on with the plot. Three weeks in after the zombie apocalypse starts (possibly as depicted in Night of The Living Dead), the global population has almost crumbled. Lots of people are infected, while US officials have no idea how to deal with the situation. Four people, consisting of a helicopter pilot (Stephen), a worker at a TV station (Francine), and two SWAT members (Roger and Peter) decide to escape the epidemic and stay in the most comfortable place during the crisis: a shopping mall. Thanks to the nuclear power station nearby that’s still producing electricity for the mall, their only task is to clear the zombies out of the place and everything will go just fine for them….or will it?

As you can see, the plot is simple, but what makes DOTD still relevant today is the characterizations and symbolism. Let’s talk about characters first….

– Stephen: We are supposed to believe that he’s a hero, since he’s Francine’s boyfriend. Unfortunately, his behavior is…to say the least, not that good. Sure, he flies the helicopter and is clever enough to get the mall blueprint for planning, but he almost kills Peter at the gas station and in the end, he’s the one who starts the fight between his pals and some bikers who invade the mall. Say what you want, I think he deserves his fate at the end.

(NOTE: In the European cut, Stephen even brags that they are smarter than other people since they are hiding out in the mall and he totally underestimates the zombies.)

– Francine: A kind of feminist heroine that was pretty rare in Action or Horror movies at the time. She knows she’s been pregnant for a while, but she volunteers to help our heroes instead of doing nothing. At one point she says this…

“Sorry you found out I’m pregnant because I don’t wanna be treated any differently than you treat each other. And I’m not gonna be den mother for you guys. I wanna know what’s going on. And I wanna have something to say about the plans. There’s four of us, okay?”

I’m not surprised if Francine became a prototype for Sarah Connor (The Terminator) since both characters prove that women can do things just like men. Her character seems to be underrated for whatever reason.

– Peter: He’s a straight up anti-hero from 70s Blaxploitation films. Sometimes, he might say outrageous things (like when he offers Francine an abortion), but he’s the smartest person in the gang. He’s calm enough to plan things and knows how to survive the zombies and bikers.

– Roger: Peter’s sidekick. He could have survived the chaos if he had learned how to control his emotions. This is Roger’s biggest problem. Whenever he’s angry, his patience becomes significantly low and he’s easily distracted. In fact, this is why he gets bitten by a zombie. While Peter and Roger use trucks to block the creatures from invading the mall, Roger almost gets bitten by a zombie, but Peter saves him. This makes Roger frustrated and he stupidly spends more time shooting zombies instead of getting the job done. Thus, one zombie bites him and he becomes infected because of his anger.

As the story progress, we see each character develop and have a clear motivation for their actions. This makes characters in DOTD realistic enough to the point that we start feeling sorry for some of them. Regardless, there are two other characters that I’d like to talk about…

1) A priest: He appears in only one scene, but his speech mesmerizes me a lot:

“Now, you do what you will. You are stronger than us. But soon, I think they’ll be stronger than you. When the dead walk, senores,we must stop the killing…or we lose the war.”

Now, remember what he says carefully. We will look back at this quote again soon.

2) Rednecks: They don’t even have dialogue, but what makes these guys interesting is the fact that they might be the only group of people who survive this mess. Now, I know that these characters might be depicted negatively as a way to show us that “killing” has become a sport for entertainment, instead of something that should be terrifying. But think about it…this is the only group of people in the film that don’t run away to somewhere else or get scared of the creatures. They happily embrace the zombies and seem to have a good time, while the rest of the country still has no idea how to deal with it.

So that’s my analysis of characters. How about subtextual messages in this film? Well, here are the highlights of what George tries to say to us…

– Consumerism: Here it is. The most popular aspect of the film. Back when we were kids, living in the mall seemed to be our highest goal. Who didn’t want to live with toys, foods, and gadgets for the rest of our lives? Well, DOTD points out that materialism can’t fix anything in real life. There are other issues out there that are far more dangerous and we can’t spend our time having pleasure with these tools. Here’s what Francine says after she gets tired of living in the mall, while the situation out there becomes more and more hopeless…

“What have we done to ourselves?”

Yes. What have we done? To answer this question, we might take a look at what Stephen says when our gang arrive at the mall for the first time…

“[The zombies go to the mall due to] some kind of instinct. A memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

And if that dialogue isn’t obvious enough, throughout the film we hear the dreadful mall announcer tell us the special promotions as well as get a montage of zombies walking mindlessly around the mall. It makes fun of the emptiness of consumerism. People like to go to the mall because that’s the first thing that comes to their mind, yet they don’t know what they want to buy there. To makes things worse, when they know what to buy…these people are stupidly try to be the first one to get it. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen the photo of Boxing Day shoppers that is compared with photo of DOTD zombies that are standing by the glass doors…and there’s reason why those photos look exactly the same.

– The media: The theme of unreliable media makes a big impact here. In the very first scene, we see the chaotic TV station that tries to air a live debate between the host who thinks we shouldn’t kill the zombies and another guy who says “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill!”.

While the heated debate is still on the air, the crews become crazy since most of them disagree with the guest’s solution (kill all zombies). Francine also becomes disillusioned, but for other reasons. She notices that the station is still announcing rescue stations are open when they’re already closed down, so she tries to warn people. Here’s what he replies…

“I want those on the air all the time. Without those rescue situations on-screen every minute, people won’t watch us.”

Good lord. He doesn’t care about people’s lives at all! DOTD somehow predicts the ratings at any cost attitude of the media nowadays.

Later on in the timeline, TV stations are off the air and they are replaced by the emergency broadcast network. One day, they bring on a scientist named Dr. Millard Rausch to give commentary. I think he looks more like a pirate than someone we should believe. This is what he tells people about the epidemic…

“The normal question, the first question is always, “Are these cannibals?” No, they are not cannibals. Cannibalism in the true sense of the word implies an intraspecies activity. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other; that’s the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh. Intelligence? Seemingly little or no reasoning ability, but basic skills remain a more… remembered behaviours of ah, normal life. There are reports of these creatures using tools. But even these actions are the most primitive; the use of tools as bludgeons and so forth. I might point out that even animals will adopt the use of tools in this manner. These creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct. We must not be lulled by the concept that these are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions. […] They MUST be destroyed ON SIGHT!”

Remember what I said in my Night of The Living Dead review? Well, here’s the short summary of the differences between DOTD zombies and NOTLD ones. Dr. Rausch’s advice makes a lot of sense…until later on when he changes his mind, either because the situation gets worse and worse or he’s just unreliable.

“They use 5 percent of the food available in the human body.With that small amount…the body is usually intact enough to be mobile when it revives. […]Dummies, dummies, dummies! One wonders whether it’s worth saving. It’s worth saving. For all I know the brains are already dead, and it’s the idiots that are still alive. And I figured out how to stay alive too. And I’m trying to help you, dummies. In my calm logic way- To the illogical way….Illogical hell! Illogical hell. I’m showing you a way…that we can up the food supply 20 times for a whole specimen that is walking around there…in increasing numbers. What else you gonna do with them? Give me an alternative. […] I can think of one other alternative. I can think of another alternative, yes. Since they seem to congregate in heavily populated areas…and since we haven’t touched upon our nuclear resources. Why don’t we drop bombs on all the big cities? […] This is not political rhetoric.This is not the Republicans versus the Democrats.They’ve got us in the hole.Economically, only we’re in another war.It’s more crucial than that, we are down to the line, folks. We are down to the line. We’ve got to remain rational. Logical.”

If there’s anyone who should be rational, it must be Dr. Millard himself! He clearly represents the side effects of depression and paranoia at the height of epidemic, yet the TV station still thinks that his advice should be on the air.

3) Vietnam War: This might be a subtle one, but as the priest says “We must stop the killing…or we’ll lose the war.”. This quote somehow captures the attitude during the Vietnam War quite well. As also depicted in the film, there are parts of the mall that look like a jungle. This could be a symbolic reference that what our heroes do in the mall is nothing different from what the army did in Vietnam. They get more and more tired as time goes on since they have no idea how to win this war and when the chaos will stop completely.

4) Only reason always wins: This is the key rule in order to survive from DOTD. There are characters in this movie that don’t make it to the end since they let their emotions or false knowledge to conquer them. From a racist SWAT leader to a guy who can’t control his emotions to another guy who shoots the biker that invades the mall instead of fleeing, these are examples that we should avoid in real life. Think calmly and act carefully like Francine and Peter, and you may have a chance to live longer than other people.

With these intense elements combined with a stellar soundtrack from Goblin (as well as the DeWolfe music library, if you watch the US Theatrical Cut) and gory effects from none other than the master Tom Savini (who plays one of the bikers as well), Dawn of The Dead still thrills us film fans in 2017. Highly recommended since it’s one of my all-time favorite movies as well.

Next time, we’ll take a look at final entry of original Trilogy of the Dead: Day of the Dead.

Nuttawut Permphithak

Nuttawut is a Thai student who's spending his final year in university studying marketing. In his free time he watches exploitation films... or any films from the past, writing articles, taking photos, and reviewing films for the GCDB. These activities sometimes make him "mad as hell", but he really likes that feeling!

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