Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

Director: George A Romero

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, Tom Savini

“You know Macumba? Voodoo. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” (Peter, Dawn Of The Dead)

While once-legendary horror director George A Romero has let his talents go a little wayward recently, the man will always be best known for his Dead trilogy. No film series has inspired more amateur horror filmmakers than Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead. They were the first contemporary zombie movies, the films that wrote the rulebook and laid the foundations on which countless zombie movies, comics and video games in the decades since have built upon. While Night Of The Living Dead was the film that started it all off and created the modern zombie as we know it, its sequel Dawn Of The Dead is the film that many argue is the best of the trilogy. I’m inclined to agree.

Davina McCall zombie and Richard Pryor zombie were first in line at the Next sale

Taking place a short while after the events of Night Of The Living Dead, the original spate of reports of the dead coming to life has now escalated into a full-blown epidemic in which zombies roam the streets and buildings of Philadelphia. Two workers at a TV station realise things are starting to get out of hand and, as they try to escape a building being overrun by zombies and SWAT team members, they meet two soldiers who also think it’s time to bail. They head to the roof, “borrow” the TV station’s helicopter and go in search of a place where the locals are decidedly less bitey. 

Spotting a large mall (malls were a fairly new concept at the time Dawn was filmed) our fearful four decide to land on its roof and hold up in there for a while, agreeing that if things get worse before they get better they could at least live off the mall’s supplies for a fairly long time. Things do get worse though and a massive horde of zombies manages to break into the mall, forcing the group to fight for survival.

All this brain-munching can be an exhausting process at times, which is why Duncan here is taking a quick nap

While much of the film’s social commentary is nothing new these days (commercialism turns us into zombies does it, George? Tell us something we haven’t heard before!), it’s somewhat telling that even 34 years after its original release Dawn Of The Dead still presents more questions of morality and asks more of the viewer than almost all of today’s zombie films, of which the limit of ethical quandary on offer is usually the basic “oh no, my friend’s been bitten by a zombie, I wonder if I should kill him if he changes into one”.

Instead, Romero’s film chucks countless predicaments of principle at the viewer and has them constantly questioning whether the “heroes” and other human characters are doing the right thing. Is it still alright to kill zombies if they’re young children? Is it right to effectively raid the mall and steal any goods from its shops as you see fit just because of the circumstances? Is it right to taunt the zombies and use them for shooting practice, considering they’re essentially the corpses of once-living people and they didn’t ask for this?

Talk about a gutsy performance! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh Christ, I think I've dislodged one of my kidneys

Should the pregnant female of the group be allowed to get in on the action, or is it right that they keep her in the upstairs storage room to keep her safe? And, when a motley crew of no-good bikers turns up later in the film to break into the mall, raid its shops and further humiliate the zombies by sticking custard pies in their faces, is it wrong to feel happy when the zombies get their own back and tear them limb from limb?

Even if you decide not to take all these questions into account, Dawn Of The Dead is still a great zombie movie in its own right. The gore effects (courtesy of master of the macabre Tom Savini, who also plays as the leader of the bikers) are incredible, and even all these years later you’ll still marvel as the zombies are offed in many weird and wonderful ways – expect to see a scalping courtesy of a helicopter’s blades, a screwdriver being stuck into a brain through the ear, and more exploding heads than… well, than some sort of horrible mass head-exploding incident that thankfully hasn’t happened yet.

You've got to give Tesco credit, really. Their new line of novelty head-shaped birthday cakes is startlingly realistic

Meanwhile, the fantastically quirky soundtrack mixes a dramatic Euro-synth score from Italian horror musicians Goblin with cheesy stock muzak for the mall scenes, including the hilarious tune The Gonk which was later used in Shaun Of The Dead and Robot Chicken.

Any time someone asks me to recommend them a classic horror film, Dawn Of The Dead is always one of the first I (and many others) mention. It’s a perfect example of how horror has the power to scare, to build tension, to disgust, to excite, to entertain and to make the viewer ask questions that a more conventional plot may not make them consider. It’s the ultimate zombie movie, and one that everyone with at least a passing interest in horror has to see at least once in their lifetime.

WHERE CAN I SEE IT?
Christ, where can’t you see it? As one of the greatest horror films ever made it’s no surprise that Dawn Of The Dead is available in any format known to man. By far the best version currently available is the incredible three-disc Blu-ray edition from Arrow Video, which is currently a steal for under a tenner over at Amazon UK. If it’s DVD you’re after, Amazon is currently doing the Arrow version of that for just over a fiver. In the US, you can get Anchor Bay’s half-decent Blu-ray here or their great four-disc DVD Ultimate Edition here. That UK Blu-ray’s really the best of the bunch, though.

If you enjoyed this review and would like to read more, here’s a complete list of reviews on That Was A Bit Mental.

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