A scene from DAWN OF THE DEAD.

Premise: “When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing or lose the war.” Panic engulfs the nation as the corpses of the dead rise, driven to consume to flesh of the living. A motley gang of survivors from Philadelphia takes refuge in a suburban mall. They’re safe and comfortable, at least for the time being, but how long can it last?

Dawn of the Dead just might be the greatest zombie movie ever made.

It’s certainly one of the strangest films ever made (and let’s be honest, any movie about animated corpses eating human flesh is going to be pretty goddamn strange, no matter what). I have never seen a comparable combination of horror, gore, laugh-out-loud humor, subtle satire, absurdity, and sheer balls-out audacity. It’s not Romero’s best film—that’s probably Martin—but it is perhaps his most honest film, the one that sums up his aesthetic the best. Everything ties together: the deceptively simple story, the social commentary, the acting, the effects, the score (a much-celebrated combination of ridiculous stock music and original songs by Italian prog-rock band Goblin). You rarely find cinematic experiences this immersive outside films set in outer-space or in fantasy universes.

Start with the story first. George Romero, social commentary, blah blah blah. As with Night of the Living Dead, I think the commentary gets misread here. The commentary is so subtle that it often gets read as a statement about consumerism—which isn’t wholly inaccurate, but it goes deeper than that. What Dawn is really about is insulation. Hole yourself in your bunker, give yourself all the modern conveniences (“all mod cons,” as the Jam put it—and it’s no accident that Dawn was released as punk was developing into post-punk), and you can ignore what’s going on in the outside world. And any problem will eventually go away if you just ignore it long enough.

(In other words, it’s about what Romero always says Land of the Dead is about. In fact, Land is about “haves” vs. “have-nots”…which means it’s really about class warfare. But you can’t say it’s about class warfare, because only socialists and communists talk about that.)

Dawn represents Romero’s most successful attempt to develop the social themes into a coherent storyline with compelling characters. As is typical of the first couple of phases of his career, he collaborates with a strong cast to bring these characters to life. The dominant performance of the lead quartet is Ken Foree as ex-SWAT member Peter. He could be the stock “hulking badass” or “token black guy” of the film, but Foree invests Peter with an understated charisma. We take Peter seriously, not because he can kick our asses, but because we like him and he expresses a strong streak of common sense, and he doesn’t do things that are out-of-character simply because the plot requires him to.

Peter is the stable badass of the group; Roger, played by Scott Reiniger, is the unstable badass and Reiniger’s is the other standout performance. As with Foree, he’s charismatic and likable even as his composure disintegrates by degrees. Peter is the guy we wish we could be during a zombie apocalypse; Roger is the person we’ll probably end up being. Gaylen Ross (as TV producer Fran) and David Emge (as Steven, the helicopter pilot) also put in solid performances. Ross’s is particularly notable as she’s put in a difficult position: Fran is the emotional core and arguable audience-identification character, but Ross was the most inexperienced actress of the four.

But let’s be honest. As watchable as Foree, Reiniger, Ross and Emge, are, they are not the stars of Dawn. The true stars are makeup artist Tom Savini and the Monroeville Mall, where the bulk of the film was shot.

Dawn wasn’t Savini’s first film work, but I believe it was his first work as makeup lead, and while Dawn certainly doesn’t feature his best work it does feature what is perhaps his most distinctive work, and it helped turned the zombies into distinct characters of their own. It seems that many fans of Dawn have their own favorite zombie, something that can’t really be said about the other Romero Dead films, and a lot of that is due to Savini. (Frequent Romero collaborator John Amplas—usually an actor—had a strong hand in this as well; he’s credited as “casting director” but his role really came down to “zombie recruiter.”)

And, of course, there’s the Mall. One of the things I love about Romero’s films is his use of locations, and how he can transform them into characters in their own right. (See also the farmhouse in Night and the vast Ontario Delaware countryside in Survival.) His use of the Monroeville Mall represents the apex of his talent in this regard.

I could go on and on, and often do if you let me. I could mention the flaws, but I’m not going to. They don’t matter. This is the big one. Every movie that’s come down the pike since has been a reflection of this one.

Moment of Zen: “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill!”

127 minutes. Directed by George Romero. Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reineger, Gaylen Ross.

DAWN OF THE DEAD poster.

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