Title: Dawn of the Dead
Release Date: September 1, 1978
Director: George A. Romero
Production Company: Laurel Group
Dawn of the Dead was the first sequel to Night of the Living Dead, made ten years after the original. I’ve lived long enough for ten years to not feel like a long time, but the decade between 1968 and 1978 seems like it was full of change. American society changed dramatically, Hollywood movie-making was revolutionized, and horror movies became a lot more horrifying. Night of the Living Dead kicked off a new style of horror that became gorier with movies like Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. More mainstream Hollywood filmmakers showed that spending money on better special effects could make horror movies like The Exorcist and Jaws into blockbusters. And because Dawn of the Dead got funding from Italy, it was released there first, meaning American audiences saw Halloween first.
This is a long way of saying that George Romero really had to up his game, and for the most part he did. This is still a very low-budget film but it deals with a larger perspective on the zombie apocalypse than the original. It begins in Philadelphia where the city is in chaos as police and National Guard enforce martial law on low-income Black and Latin American communities. A definite social statement there that picks up from the posse carelessly murdering Duane at the end of the original film.
At a local TV station, an executive Francine (Gaylen Ross), who is pregnant, and her helicopter pilot boyfriend Stephen a.k.a Flyboy (David Emge) plan to escape in the station’s weather chopper. They are joined by two SWAT team policemen, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger). They end up flying to a shopping mall in the suburbs of Pittsburgh which they are able to fortify and actually live a pretty good life. They are even able to watch TV which seems to just be panels of experts shouting at one another (very dark satire). All is well until a motorcycle gang arrives.
The movie is full of action and gore (with the worst of it occurring after the 2 hr mark), but it also is hilariously funny. I mean, how can you not laugh at zombies shuffling through the mall to the tune of piped-in Muzak? And if the zombies represent mindless consumerism, than our four survivors have other human foibles. I thought Roger was the dumbest person in this movie until the final act where Flyboy out-stupids everyone with grave consequences.
It’s hard to say whether Night or Dawn is the better movie as they both have their strengths. I think Dawn could be judiciously trimmed to be about 30 minutes shorter. But a lot of the “scenes of people doing ordinary things during a zombie apocalypse” is what makes this movie fun.