A Belated Happy Birthday to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead

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(United Film Distribution)

Dawn of the Dead, writer/director George Romero’s massively influential horror classic, was originally released on April 20, 1978, so it seemed appropriate to revisit it on April 20, 2020. It remains a powerful piece of work—even discounting the fact that there’s a pandemic breathing down all of our necks as I write this.

I was lucky enough to be just the right age to have caught a lot of landmark horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s on a big screen during their initial releases. But I never saw the original Dawn of the Dead in a theater. No one was screening it first-run anywhere near my rural childhood stomping grounds, and worse yet, its unrated status effectively barred Grade-School Me from catching it first-run (home video and cable had yet to reach my household back then).

But the movie’s premise, and the coverage it received from the horror and mainstream press alike, mesmerized me. Shortly after the movie came out, my friends and I began staging pretend-Dawn of the Dead adventures with our toy guns, all without having seen it. 

It took another six years or so before I saw it for the first time, on a VHS dub loaned to me by (of all people) my high school debate coach. Even with all of my previous knowledge of the movie, it still packed a punch, and I was just old enough at that point to begin really appreciating the movie’s sharp-edged satire and (dare I say it?) ragged artistry. I watched it at least a half-dozen times over the course of the week I’d borrowed it.

Ken Foree as Peter; one bad MF (United Film Distribution)

Since then, Dawn of the Dead’s remained one of my favorite horror films ever. I’ve seen the movie some twenty times since, in various cuts thanks to my copy of the four-disc Anchor Bay DVD box set. And my passion for the movie led to a Homeric ten-year quest to festoon that box set with autographs from as many of the film’s cast and crew members as I could (it’s signed by Romero, the four lead actors, makeup wizard Tom Savini, and all of the original members of Goblin, the soundtrack’s composers).

The movie’s so precious to me that the very thought of a reimagining infuriated me, and it led to me going at Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake with knives out. Snyder’s take definitely gained considerable luster in my eyes after a second viewing last year (it’s undeniably a fast-paced, well-acted little thrill ride on its own terms), but with all due respect, it’s as skin-deep as it is high-velocity and tense.

The original is not as breathless, or as slick, as the remake. With hindsight, though, the 1978 Dawn‘s ostensible liabilities become assets. It cuts way deeper on a socio-political level, and its sustained level of dread (pardon the pun) bleeds thoroughly into the movie’s metaphoric topsoil.

If you haven’t seen it, Dawn of the Dead (even more than its also-classic 1968 predecessor, Night of the Living Dead) provided the template for the modern zombie film. It follows the odyssey of a quartet of survivors struggling to stay alive, amidst an apparently worldwide infestation of the flesh-eating undead. The four protagonists manage to barricade themselves in an abandoned shopping mall, but it isn’t enough to keep the undead (and for that matter, the basest elements of the living) at bay. 

Volumes have been written about Romero’s film, but a few things really registered with me rewatching it for what has to be the 26th time.

(United Film Distribution)

The opening sequence is straight-up masterful, and Michael Gornick’s verité 16mm photography lends a gritty sense of docudrama urgency to what could’ve been a technical limitation. Romero drops the viewer square into the epicenter of barely-controlled (and very soon, completely uncontrolled) chaos, as a Pennsylvania TV station unravels amidst the expanding threat. That chaos is only amplified when Romero slingshots from the collapsing broadcast, headlong into a standoff between police special forces and squatters in a zombie-infested inner-city tenement. 

Romero’s depositing of his four heroes into a shopping mall for the last three-quarters of the movie represents Dawn‘s most celebrated social commentary punch. But the initial metaphoric blow comes from the allegorical weight of that opening.  Once it kicks in, the carnage involving the living and dead tenants—all lower income, and almost exclusively people of color—is harrowing. Considering how disproportionately COVID-19 is hitting the poor and disenfranchised all over, this standoff feels less like gruesome fantasy, and more like a blood-smeared crystal ball hardwired into the present.

All four leads (with a few minor caveats) deliver effective performances. Gaylen Ross’s Fran is saddled with the thankless task of initially being an archetypical damsel in distress (and consequently doing a couple of Dumb Movie Character Things), but as the film goes on, she grows in emotional strength, taking the reins of her destiny into her own hands before the movie’s close. 

Stephen (David Emge), her boyfriend, may be irritating, but he’s a completely believable city mouse adapting very poorly to the survival scenario into which he’s been thrust. And in a time where we’re all holed up in our residences, cushioning ourselves in an isolated cocoon of streaming TV and online impulse buying, Stephen’s childish possessiveness over the consumer bounty of the Monroeville Mall makes total, if aggravating, sense. 

(United Film Distribution)

But it’s the relationship between Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) that provides a lot of Dawn’s emotional underpinning. The two special-forces cops in this surrogate family/adventure team establish a natural and affecting rapport that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of Howard Hawks’ classic westerns. 

I’m beyond happy that Foree’s become such an invaluable presence in so many genre films, but he’s so charismatic and nuanced here, it’s incomprehensible to me that he wasn’t given the chance at a more varied, less genre-heavy career after Dawn. And Reiniger puts a vulnerable and genuine face on Roger’s swaggering cowboy of a cop: His is a compelling arc, and Reiniger’s work towards the end of the movie has made me tear up, more than once.

The original’s action and horrific elements remain potent (viva Tom Savini!), but its contemplative passages exude a sense of dread and uncertainty that holds tight even when the screen’s not awash in mayhem. Romero spends time showing the perceptions and reactions of these four people between the horrific setpieces, a move that puts the audience in their places on an intellectual as well as visceral level. And the scenes where our heroes sit, numbly glued to their TV screens while the world descends further into chaos, couldn’t echo current reality more. It’s a portrait of the horrific, as it mutates into a new normal. 

Seeing class disparity etched in violent primary colors, as well as mundane consumerism’s utter uselessness against an unprecedented crisis, give the original Dawn of the Dead a sensibility and a soul that the 2004 reimagining lacks—despite its horde of sprinting track-star zombies, considerable technical merits, and a budget 26 times greater than Romero’s original.

The 1978 Dawn of the Dead is not currently streaming on any legitimate platforms, but a decent-quality version is (for the moment, at least) accessible somewhere on YouTube. Used copies of the currently out-of-print DVDs and blu-rays are still kicking around for relatively reasonable prices from various online sources.

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