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Apocalyptic Consumerism: George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) – A 40th Anniversary Retrospective

Almost a decade had gone by since George A. Romero revolutionized horror cinema with his reinvention of the zombie in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, when he started to develop its follow-up. By this time, Romero’s reanimated, rotting, shambling, and flesh-eating undead, and his rules of how they can be killed – damage to the brain, or set on fire – were the definitive interpretation, becoming so iconic and forever deeply embedded in popular culture. Over these past 50 years, this incarnation has influenced every creator that has contributed to zombie mythology in all its forms – film, TV, books, comics, and video games.

George A. Romero induced the transitional period between the Gothic and the modern. The 1970s was the Golden Age, as he inspired in great part, fellow American independent filmmakers working in other sub-genres, most notably Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter, who like himself were commentating on the world around them, and helped to shape the landscape of the genre as a whole. Humans were now the true monsters in horror, injected with metaphors of real life terrors. Romero was a radical writer and director, who was sharply observant and had profound insight and understanding. His faceless horde of once human creatures in Night of the Living Dead, were more than cyphers used simply as scary movie devices, as he articulated his knowledge and thoughts by filling their vessels with symbolic meanings to convey his social-political commentary of the 1960s. What is truly frightening is not the mysterious phenomenon of the undead epidemic itself, but rather the underlying nihilistic views against its bleak backdrop. These entail government and media failings, the fears caused by Cold War paranoia, domestic racism, and it works an allegory of the ongoing at the time Vietnam War.

While George A. Romero’s debut feature encompassed various subversive critiques, over the decade that followed he would focus his attention on society’s superficial obsession with consumer culture, and its distinct lack of concern with cultural, intellectual, and spiritual values. Romero’s visit to the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania, one of the largest of its time, would be the genesis of his return to the zombie sub-genre he reinvigorated. It would become the primary setting of Dawn of the Dead (1978), a biting (pun not intended), cynical, damming satire on the exploitation of consumerism.

Dawn of the Dead

Famed Italian horror and giallo filmmaker Dario Argento heard that George A. Romero wanted to make a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. They were admirers of each other’s work, therefore, Argento asked him to travel to his home city of Rome, so he could write his screenplay in peace, which he completed in just three weeks of his staying there. The two also discussed the plot developments. His new Roman friend helped to secure funds in return for the European distributing rights, and as well as securing the availability of the mall, Romero was able to get additional financing from its owners. He returned the favour by letting the Italian maestro compose the original soundtrack music in collaboration with Goblin. Filming commenced on 13th November 1977, and principal photography wrapped on 8th March 1978. Just a few months later, the film screened out of competition at the 31st Cannes Film Festival, with George A. Romero’s hastily put together 139 minutes rough cut, officially released later as an extended version. Dario Argento felt it was too long, so the two filmmakers made an agreement – Argento would make an uncredited edit for the European market in non-English speaking territories, and Romero would make another for the U.S. and for all other international releases.

The film opens a few weeks after the zombie plague has spread across America and the rest of the world, and we see the ensuing disarray as social order falls apart in its wake. With civilization on the brink of collapse, in a Philadelphia TV news studio, experts squabble about the best way to handle the crisis, which is all that dominates the airwaves now, and once again, no explanation is given for the exact cause of the infection. No help at all is offered to the public, as George A. Romero returns to his derisive view of media coverage. Two of the news station’s employees, traffic reporter Stephen Andrews (David Emge), and his pregnant girlfriend Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross), decide to escape the city by stealing the network helicopter that Stephen pilots. We then see how the outbreak has ravaged urban areas, as a SWAT team raid a housing project where its residents have defied martial law by not giving up their undead loved ones to the National Guardsman. After witnessing a member of another team take out one of his own, a racist who goes ballistic and kills minorities (Romero recalls the theme of domestic racism), Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) meets the shooter Peter (Ken Foree) alone downstairs near the building’s basement. Roger happens to be a friend of Stephen, and he tells Peter they are running. They then encounter an old Latin priest using a crutch under his right arm to walk, as he is missing his leg on that side. He tells them – “Many have died, last week, on these streets. In the basement of this building, you will find them. I have given them the last rites. Now, you do what you will. You are stronger than us. But soon, I think they be stronger than you. When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing… or lose the war.” They then take out the living dead kept in the basement, and when finishing the grisly task, Roger asks Peter why they kept them in here, to which he replies, “Because they still believe there’s respect in dying.”  George A. Romero is having a pop at the illogical blind faith of religion, and the suffering it causes. When all four of the group have met up, and are flying over the countryside in the helicopter, they witness the military teamed up with a posse of neighbouring southern yokels destroying the roaming zombies, to which Stephen remarks in Romero’s versions, “Those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing.” We then see them doing just that, accompanied by good time rhythm and blues music. Everything in these opening events illustrates how terrible humankind really is, and how low it will steep to in times of chaos. Discovering a huge complex in Pennsylvania, a shopping mall, Stephen lands the helicopter on its roof. Considering it a safe haven, they eventually make it their fortress, and unwittingly, their prison.

Dario Argento had very different ideas for his far shorter 118 minutes Euro cut entitled Zombi, which premiered in Torino, Italy, on 1st September 1978. He was more interested in the pure horror; his sole intention aiming his edit squarely at Europe was to hit his target with genre thrills. Much like his own directorial work, he favoured the violence and atmosphere over the character development and dialogue, and was not concerned with sub-text, removing George A. Romero’s social commentary on consumerism. He put a lot more emphasis on the gore, the suspense and tension, and the comic book action-adventure aspect, picked up the pace considerably as it hurtles along, and omitted the majority of the humour for a darker and more downbeat tone. He omitted the infamous helicopter zombie moment in the gas station sequence, when the group stop off to fill up the helicopter before discovering the mall, which I can only think was for pacing reasons to speed it up in order to intensify the situation, as in simultaneous isolated incidents they are attacked. Also of significance, Argento removed the closing sequence during the credits featuring the undead wandering the mall, replacing it with just a black backdrop, as his and Goblin’s score blasts out over it. This progressive rock soundtrack remains prominent throughout, generating a chilling atmosphere, and supplements the action set-pieces with a tremendous amount of energy. He does away with all the library stock music and cues that can be heard in Romero’s versions, and even the banjo music that can be heard in the montage of scenes depicting the group playing around and stocking up on goods in the now cleared mall, replacing it with his and Goblin’s more relaxed guitar sound. Despite the leaner runtime, there are extensions and recuts.

Dawn of the Dead

If we are looking for the bare bones of a zombie horror to just get our genre rocks off, then Dario Argento’s cut works exceedingly well in this respect. It flows better in terms of the story’s action, but his removal of George A. Romero’s satirical meat almost makes it feel like his own work, rather than Romero’s film. If it were not for Argento’s involvement in financing the production, then obviously, this version would not have seen the light of day. The true edit of Dawn of the Dead is the U.S. theatrical release. It was on 24th May 1979, when the world would finally start to see the definitive telling of the story clocking in at 127 minutes. It really is not too different to the original Cannes rough cut, other than the re-editing of scenes and the removal of several purely for pacing reasons, and it evenly combines Dario Argento and Goblin’s score with the stock music, rather than primarily opting for the latter as it did initially.

The mindless living dead horde’s attempts to get into the mall are never-ending, as their memories from their former living selves reminds them that this was once a place they needed to be at, they have a compulsion to be there, and the ones inside shuffle around aimlessly. They only act on their ravenous instinct to feed on the flesh of the living. As they were in life, these are the crowds window-shopping on weekdays, flocking to the shops on weekends, and on holidays to the big retail sale days, to make sure they get their bargains on bounties of goods they do not really need – an excessive feeding to satisfy their gluttony for materialism. George A. Romero makes a correlation between the zombies and the mindless living consumers – they do not why they want flesh/items; they just know they want it.

The group of survivors become victims of their own greed, having claimed the mall and do not want to share it. Even as the world is ending, their main concern is the spoil of all their riches in this massive resource-hoarding world they have shut themselves away in. They are attempting to escape the harsh reality, by filling the void of the non-stability in their lives with material items, the boredom of which leads to melancholia to set in. Sound familiar? Stephen consoling Fran, after they just rescued her from an attack she barely survived, “You should see all the great stuff we got, Frannie. All kinds of stuff. This place is terrific. It really is, it’s perfect. All kinds of things. We’ve really got it made here, Frannie.”  The metaphorical undead are a shallow reflection of the group, e.g. the scene in which Fran and one of them stare at each other through glass.

Dawn of the Dead

When faced with the realization of what they have done to themselves, the group decides to move on. Only it is too late, as an invading biker gang of marauders have come to punish their selfishness, as they want their share. Stephen does not want to give it to them, because he still cannot let go, as if his accumulated materialism is what is most important to him, and he is willing to die to defend it, rather than protect his pregnant partner by just letting them take what they want and leave. Before he raises his rifle, aims, and takes his shot at one of them, he says to himself – “It’s ours. We took it. It’s ours.” The consumer at their most superficial. The two human factions face off against each other for what they regard as theirs, and the living dead between them gorge their flesh. They all come together in the mall to symbolize consumerism at its ugliest, juxtaposing each other as if they are shoppers fighting over the limited stocks of quality items at rock bottom prices on a Black Friday.

The bikers’ mentality to take by force, and the group’s reluctance to co-operate and share, represents humanity’s apathy, which is detrimental to its existence; when faced with extinction, it will continue to destroy itself, rather than work together to survive. The zombies are overwhelming the living, as their undoing is their inability to communicate, going off in all different directions causing infighting. This allows the undead to rise and evolve, because they do work together, all wanting the same thing – to feed. We can see the beginnings of their evolution during the film’s final scene. On the roof of the mall, Peter makes his getaway through a crowd of them to the airborne helicopter Fran is piloting, when one of them grabs Peter’s rifle, takes it, raises it, and looks at it curiously. Romero explores this idea further in Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005). It is not a coincidence that the new rulers were once the old; what becomes old becomes new again. This rising society devours the former rulers, working their way up the food chain, punishing them for messing up the earth the first time around.

The performances of this talented ensemble cast are solid all around, and bolstered by the script’s layered characterization and smart humour, the eclectic personalities generate an electrifying chemistry. They may be flawed, but all of us are; it makes them no less likable, only more sympathetic and relatable. Following Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead, Ken Foree’s portrayal of Peter is another strong African-American protagonist who is cool, calm and collected, always keeping it together, and simply put, is a badass not to be messed with. His fellow sharpshooter, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), is probably the more skilful with a gun, and a veteran who has really been through it, but tries to maintain a laid-back demeanour. This is until a moment during the sequence in which they are blocking the mall’s entrances with lorries that causes him to lose it, and it seal his fate, which later makes for some of the film’s most poignant scenes set in the group’s top-level storeroom hideaway. Stephen is the most unconfident of the three males, who cannot take care of himself as well, often finding himself in trouble, and feels he has to keep up with the other two in front of Fran.

Dawn of the Dead

Fran is a true survivalist, and a glimmer of light at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel – a faint signal of hope for humankind. She is a strong feminist statement, George A. Romero’s direct response to the criticism of Barbra in Night of the Living Dead, which was that she was weak in reaction to her plight. Romero would correct this character herself with his screenplay for the 1990 Tom Savini directed remake. Unlike Barbra in the original 1968 film, Fran can handle herself, first evident when she is left alone in the upstairs storage room that the group will make their home, and comes face to face with a zombie she has to fend off. Rather than staying to protect her, Stephen has joined Peter and Roger to partake in their gun-ho raiding of the shops beneath them. He prioritises his wanting to be one of the guys, and the lure of a materialistic world of comfort, over protecting his pregnant partner. At first, this male dominated group treats Fran as weak, but it is her vulnerability carrying a child, which encourages her to fight for her unborn. She is determined not be a “den mother” for them, that she will know everything that is going on, that she will be taught how to fire a rifle, becoming a crack shot, and that she will have Stephen teach her how to fly the helicopter, as he is the only pilot. She is the beacon that warns the three men the dangers of their mistake – “I’m afraid. You’re hypnotized by this place. All of you. It’s so bright and neatly wrapped; you don’t see that it’s a prison too. Stephen, let’s just take what we need and keep going.” They dismiss her warning, as they are adamant this is the safest place to be. They do not take in to account that their helicopter sitting on top of the mall’s roof, and the entry points barricaded by the lorries will attract unwanted visitors, i.e. the biker gang, and while doing this, they put themselves in danger from the surrounding undead, the consequences of which cause Roger to be bitten. Man is destructive by nature, women fight for life, as they know what it feels like to create it, to feel it growing inside of them, and will do anything to protect it, and this is why Fran is the real survivalist of the group.

George A. Romero’s style and work ethic was the epitome of indie filmmaking. His vision is broader than Night of the Living Dead, it is on a grand scale, and despite the relatively low budget of $1.5 million, it is fully realized. This is now a full-on zombie apocalypse, from the TV news station, to the urban project, to the countryside, and to finally the massive structure of the mall. Testament to Romero’s innovation, he was always able to create concepts without worry of the budgetary obstacles, and then figured out how to execute effectively with the resources he had. The scope maybe sweeping, but he makes sure to isolate his cast from each other for a claustrophobic atmosphere, as they are attacked by the undead in the confines of the mall, and in wide-open spaces outside. He employs his usually inspired camera angles, and tight choreography that is reinforced by his acute editing in post-production, which strengthens the rhythm of the action and heightens the tension.  He used multiple angles, so when it came to editing, he could chop and change the many shots to make the same sequences in other ways, with additional deleting or extending of parts, which dictates the flow and tone of the scenes to get different reactions from us. This is evidenced by viewing each version of the film. George A. Romero’s fierce determination in unwilling to compromise with distributors for his final cut, which held up its release for close to eight months in all English speaking territories, is the very definition of what all filmmakers strive to be – completely independent; he embodied this, heart and soul. Dawn of the Dead would eventually be released unrated in the U.S.

As well as being bigger, Romero trades in the creepy shadowiness of his black-and-white debut for a vividly coloured palette that strongly compensates the “It’s so bright and neatly wrapped” prison of the mall, which symbolises the group’s descent into the shallow waters of materialism. Making his debut as a special make-up effects wizard, and is onscreen biker Blades, Tom Savini had a painstaking task of creating the blue-skinned mass of undead, which makes for a cartoonish effect that perfectly supplements the comic book element. Although, it was a fluke, he chose a grey colour due to the previous film being in B&W, as the creature’s skin-tone could not be seen, but here, the camera lenses made them look blue on film. Savini bettered himself several years later in Day of the Dead, which is arguably his SFX magnum opus outside the slasher sub-genre he so often worked in. However, in Dawn of the Dead, his blood and viscera effects are a potent display of gruesomeness, and on the fly, he produced some of the most iconic zombie imagery ever, with more than a few standouts making for memorable individual characters themselves.

The late comic, social critic and satirist Bill Hicks – “I do not believe making money in order to consume goods is mankind’s sole purpose on this planet. If you’re wondering what I believe our purpose on this planet is, I’ll give you a hint… it has to do with creating and sharing.” George A. Romero believed this too, and he voiced his concerns in a tale of apocalyptic consumerism. Humanity had its chance, and it is suffering the consequences, as it is too late for it to do what it was supposed to do, yet even more tragic than this, it still has learned nothing, and continues to look inwards and consume. Romero just made a damn fine zombie film too. It is a harrowing, yet darkly comic, flesh munching epic, chock full of devastating carnage depicting the genocide of the human race realized in expertly crafted set-pieces, and it features great characters and performances, and unforgettable moments of pathos. All this is brought to the screen by a virtuoso filmmaker with real guts and vision. Dawn of the Dead is one of the most mesmerizing experiences in cinematic horror history.

About Dave J. Wilson

From London, England, Dave is an expat living in Thailand. He is a lifelong film fan of various genres, with a particular fondness for horror, exploitation, and other shocking cinema. He loves to write critique on this dark side of cinema. As well as being a contributor for Diabolique, you can also find him over at Dread Central, and at his blog Cinematic Shocks.

One comment

  1. ‘George A. Romero is having a pop at the illogical blind faith of religion, and the suffering it causes.’

    Don’t read it that way at all. Peter’s sage, philosophical, empathetic answer to Roger indeed nails it: “Because they still believe there’s respect in dying.” These people are trying to maintain a simple dignity in death, something that has been taken away from them by the unceremonious seizing and burning of the corpses of their loved ones. They are still trying to cling to protection of the remains of their loved ones, but that’s not through ‘illogical blind faith,’ it’s through grief, and tradition, and simple human dignity. They are trying to cling to sanity in a world that has been upended and gone mad, in denial of the new reality right in front of them. Peter gets it, because of his grandfather being a Mucumba priest in Trinidad.

    ‘The mindless living dead horde’s attempts to get into the mall are never-ending, as their memories from their former living selves reminds them that this was once a place they needed to be at, they have a compulsion to be there, and the ones inside shuffle around aimlessly.’

    The zombies are like the living in the bit above, here. They are trying to do what they used to do, but their world has changed irrevocably. They are dead, as are the old ways, and the living people clinging to dead traditions are too, would that they but knew it.

    It’s a great fucking film.

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