We’ve all heard and/or read about how George A. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead is all about anti-consumerism.
And of course, who can argue? The man himself said as much. And, I mean – look at the film for an ultimate confirmation of this theory.
And as prominent as that theme is, it’s never been the big draw for me.
It’s been the dynamics between this semi-random grouping of four personalities – and how they do (and don’t) communicate in a crisis. The first time they’re all together – their differing personalities are on full display – and it’s magic.
Traffic helicopter pilot Steven (David Emge) and his broadcast producer girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross) plan to escape the sprawling (and failing) City of Brotherly Love – Philadelphia – when the zombie apocalypse comes knocking at their urban door. Following a violent shoot-out in one of the city’s low-income housing projects, SWAT members Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree) join the couple and escape via the aforementioned chopper – out of this overrun city… eventually finding an abandoned shopping mall. They’ll make this consumer paradise their temporary home, but will have to come to terms with their isolation and their own problems – not to mention the hungry (and ever-increasing) hordes of zombies pounding on the mall doors.
Of the four lead performances, there are some good moments and some not-so-good acting moments from all of them.
If I had to call out the best work, I’d say it’s a toss-up between “bruhs” Ken Foree (Peter) and Scott Reiniger (Roger). Reiniger certainly has a lot to play with, since Roger takes such a sudden downturn, following some unfortunate (and fool-hardy on his part) events. And Reiniger beautifully captures the character’s over-excitedness, obviously deep-seated fears (in spite of his bravado) and later – the very frightening realizations of what could be. (Did you enjoy how I just breezed past potential spoilers – for those who don’t know what happens?)
Foree truly gives Peter a no-nonsense and truly brave side. Other than a semi-strange misstep for a character choice during the film’s climax, Peter is gutsy. And with Foree’s 6’5” frame, he perfectly fits the character’s mental and physical power.
And with that, I don’t think Emge and Ross are quite as strong. They each have amazing moments: Emge’s physicality in the last portion of the film is crazy-good and Ross can deliver Fran’s sassy sarcasm like nobody’s business, but they don’t quite reach the deep emotions I feel characters in this situation might have. I’ve never hated these performances, I just don’t think they are at the same level as Reiniger and Foree.
While Savini will truly come into his own (zombie make-up-wise) in the third chapter of Romero’s original zombie trilogy – Day of the Dead – there are some pretty spectacular gore effects present in Dawn of the Dead – if you can get past the splotchy and mismatched blues and greens of the undead mall residents as a whole. Disembowelings, machetes to the head and plenty of effective (and devastating) bites – prove how good Savini is/was and would be.
The film has plenty of fun “boo” moments (a cat and mouse chase in the mall’s boiler room) and some good suspense (Roger’s overzealous truck hot-wiring fiasco) – but nothing will disturb you or remain in your memory longer than Peter’s haunting delivery of the line “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”. That is also the film’s advertising tag-line – and to this day, it sends shivers down my spine.
There is a 2004 remake of this film, but it takes the original film’s name, the story’s main location and a character’s pregnancy – but not much more. While quite enjoyable in its own right, I’ll have to give the original film a big leg up (obviously).
There are countless versions of this film available (new and used), but I will defer to the “Ultimate Edition” DVD from Anchor Bay. An embarrassment of riches – alternate versions of the film and special features to die for (ahem) can be found there.
On that note, I would recommend the film’s “Extended Version”. It runs a good 30 minutes longer than the better-paced “US Theatrical Version” (Romero’s personal choice), but includes some fascinating extra footage. Most notably, you’ll get an actual scene with one of the dock workers – who we now know is Day of the Dead’s Joe Pilato (he plays different characters).
And in this extended cut, there is a scene so telling and so wonderfully appropriate to make the character’s mindset extra clear – that I was almost speechless when I first encountered it. It’s late in the lease (so to speak) for the character’s mall-stay. And Stephen has discovered a camera. He jokingly takes a photograph of Fran – and her reaction/dialogue is absolutely priceless.
Honestly, you can take a lot of the extra and extended scenes in the “Extended Version” and do away with them – but this moment is one of my favorites out of the entire film – in any of its incarnations.
Romero's 1978 film is a true classic of the genre, and deserves your views, your screams and your respect (mall gift cards accepted).