As the zombie plague continues to engulf the planet, a quartet of survivors – TV girl Fran (Gaylen Ross), her helicopter pilot boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) and two SWAT soldiers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) – take refuge in a huge shopping mall, sealing the doors and creating a zombie-free hideout.
George A. Romero’s seminal follow-up to Night of the Living Dead is many things to many people – biting consumer satire, jet-black comedy, breathless actioner, gore-laden splatter epic. Such is Romero’s skill as a director and writer that it manages to be all of these without pretension or strain; 25 years on, the clothes and haircuts may have dated, but Dawn of the Dead’s thrilling energy remains undimmed.
It’s one of the few zombie films where the living dead aren’t in themselves particularly scary. They look silly, they fall over a lot, and Romero mostly shoots them in either broad daylight or the stark fluorescence of the mall; it’s rare for a horror director to be so uninterested in shadow or darkness. It’s their sheer number that frightens, a swarming, ravenous mass that make the set-pieces – the army storming of a Hispanic tenement building, the sealing of the mall’s gates, the climatic battle against a gang of marauding bikers – so gripping. The zombies are there from minute one; there’s no introduction, no explanation – what Romero is most interested in is the way society deals with a crisis like this (badly).
Dawn of the Dead is a long film, but Romero measures the pace perfectly, and the 30 minute stretch where our heroes find themselves safe but increasingly bored inside their consumerist sanctuary comes as welcome relief after the relentlessly action-packed first hour. It’s not that the acting is particularly great – although it’s certainly ok and Ken Foree is a powerful presence – but Romero’s ear for realistic, economic dialogue and his urgent editing keeps things ticking along nicely.
The mall is a brilliant location, not just for the satirical possibilities it offers Romero, but also for creating some clever, unsettling imagery. The director frequently cuts away to show zombies falling over on escalators, playing dead-eyed with now useless dollars, scrabbling hopelessly at the windows of shops. The piped muzak becomes horribly sinister, as does the disembodied ‘special offer’ voice that blares forth from the mall’s tannoys at random intervals. And as Stephen, Fran, Roger and Peter discover, the novelty of having as many of society’s desirable goods as they could ever want wears off pretty quick when there’s nothing on TV, nowhere to spend money and no one to appreciate expensive clothes and jewellery.
The film’s true star is, or course, Tom Savini, who provides a limitlessly inventive assault of day-glo splatter effects. They’re all here – screwdrivers through the ear, rotorblade scalpings, gunshot head explosions, machete decapitations and mass gut-munching, all executed with good-natured zest by director and make-up guru. Naturally, not all of our intrepid quartet make it out alive, but those that do are rewarded with a reasonably upbeat ending.
Dawn of the Dead exists in three distinct versions. The longest, 140-minute cut available on Anchor Bay UK’s Region 2 disc is labelled the ‘director’s cut’, but it’s not really – it’s the version Romero took to Cannes in 1978, and features only a little of Goblin’s excellent score (replaced with library music), plus extended dramatic scenes. The true director’s cut is the 126-minute US theatrical edit, which is tighter and uses more of Goblin’s music, while the version titled ‘Zombi’ is the Continental cut overseen by Dario Argento, which runs for 110 minutes, putting the emphasis on action. In any form however, Dawn of the Dead remains one of the finest horror films in modern cinema.
American writer/director and one of the most influential figures in modern horror cinema, whose ability to write strong scripts and characters match his penchant for gory chills. The Pittsburgh native began his career directing adverts before making Night of the Living Dead in 1968. This bleak, scary classic ushered in a new era of horror film-making, but Romero struggled initially to follow it up - There's Always Vanilla is a little-seen romantic drama, and Jack's Wife was butchered by its distributor. The Crazies was a flop but still an exciting slice of sci-fi horror, and while the dark vampire drama Martin again made little money but got Romero some of the best reviews of his career and remains the director's personal favourite.