Dawn of the Dead (1978): Remembering
George A. Romero’s Greatest Film
Guest Blog by Thomas S. Flowers
Parker: They’re still here.
They’re after us. They know we’re still in here.
They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that
they want to be in here.
Parker: What the hell are they?
They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell.
Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Vodou. 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.”
Dawn of the Dead is among many
things a very quotable movie. The scene above is probably everyone’s favorite,
and for some there are more selective scenes to nibble on. Scientists arguing
on what remains of the news broadcast. The SWAT incursion of the Philadelphia
apartment building. The refueling scene, the dock scene, the shopping montage.
The raiders and ensuing firefight. There are plenty. And if you were to ask me,
I can’t really say if I personally have an all-time favorite scene, I mean
let’s be honest here, there are so many to choose from. From the very
beginning, Dawn of the Dead lures you in and keeps your attention rooted into
the story. The pacing couldn’t be more perfect.
But before we delve any further,
let’s get one of those sweet sweet IMDb synopses’:
“Following an ever-growing
epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T.
team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek
refuge in a secluded shopping mall.”
Okay, well…not bad. Not bad
except for one fundamental thing. This synopsis violates one of the Laws of
Romeroism. Also, btw, Romeroism is basically as it sounds, the rules or laws
set in pace by George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead,
Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead)
as the originator of the “zombie” sub-genre as we know it today, that
is the undead consuming the flesh of the living. Please see the following link
for a complete detailed list of all the Laws of Romeroism. So which
“law” did the synopsis violate? In Romeroesque zombie movies, the
zombies are never called zombies…except for that one time in Land of the Dead
when Dennis Hopper’s character says, “Zombies…they freak me out,
Anyway, that’s neither here nor
there. The round-about point being that Dawn of the Dead was Romero’s second
film, the one in which he began establishing the rules for his
“zombies.” In Night of the Living Dead, he had (at the time) no idea
that he was creating an entirely new sub-genre in horror, that his
“ghouls” would eventually become more popular than that of Dracula,
Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Gillman), and the
Invisible Man, the pillars of horror themselves.
Dawn of the Dead was also the
first “dead film” in which Romero wrote and directed without the help
of his friend and partner from Night of the Living Dead, John Russo. I’m not
entirely sure what caused the split, but in an interview with Lee Karr in 2009,
this is what George had to say regarding Russo:
“I love John, I still love
John. John is the most practical guy – you can have a conversation with John
about anything, politics, movies, whatever. Anything he says you may not agree
with it, but he’s got a practical approach to it…and therefore you can never
defeat his arguments, even though you would like to! I just wish John would cut
a couple of chords and loosen himself up a little bit. I think he is too strict
on himself and he chooses a business approach. I think he could have been a
superstar, but he took the safer route. He bet the red-black, instead of ever
putting it on number 17.”
Looking back at Dawn of the Dead,
one can see the amount of risk George A. Romero put in to make this film. Dawn
remained independent yet upped the budget that Night of the Living Dead had
from 114,000 to 650,000. And Dawn would go on to gross over 5 million at the
box office. Not only was Dawn a “home run” in terms of investment,
but over the years it has remained in the hearts and minds of fans worldwide,
earning itself a place within the lexicon of cult classics. Even infamous critic
Roger Ebert said Dawn was, “one of the best horror films ever made — and,
as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying. It is gruesome,
sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling.”
Watching Dawn of the Dead, one
cannot escape the lure of the story. From the very get-go, we want to know
what’s going on. The first scene opens with a shot of red carpet and leading
lady Francine Parker (played by Gaylen Ross) waking from a nightmare into a
more literal nightmare. She’s at a news-station, and the news ain’t good (is it
ever?). People are frantic, running every which way, barely holding on to
whatever discipline they have left. Most have fled, as Stephen (played by David
Emge) quips, “someone must survive.” Francine seems determined to do
her duty, and that is to broadcast as long as possible, but in the end let’s go
on the career she undoubtedly worked hard to build.
From the news station, we cut to
an apartment building in Philadelphia (really in Pittsburgh) as a SWAT team
readies to raid and dispose of the collected “dead” the residents
have refused to hand over to the “proper” authorities. Martial law
has apparently been given and the order stands that all “dead” must
be properly “disposed” of. But as it seems, some still honor the
dead, as I think Peter (played by Ken Foree) says later on during the raid. The
most startling moment here is not when the brown makeup faced “Puerto
Ricoian” comes running out only to get gunned down, but the small cracks
in the demeanor of some of the SWAT members, most notably when “Woolie’s
gone ape shit, man.” There’s also a more foreboding scene with the
one-legged priest, as he says:
“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…”
What is the priest talking about
here? Just the undead in the apartment building, or something more? See, this
is when horror really shines, when it forces audiences to ask the questions
they typically avoid asking. This scene takes about less than a minute to play
out, but the ramification of what was said are everlasting. And there are more
questions that will be asked as Dawn of the Dead continues. From the apartment
building, we’re taken near the docks where Stephen and Francine prepare the
News Helicopter for their impromptu escape from the city. If your watching the
Uncut edition, there are some added scenes here. As Stephen radios, the
“post has been abandoned.” But not everyone had fled. The couple have
a close shave with another party who have thoughts of running. A group of
surviving police, as it would seem, with a notable actor who will make a return
appearance in Day of the Dead, though not as the same character, are poised to
take more than their share, giving Stephen a “hard time” for taking
“company” fuel. Luckily, Roger and Peter arrive and chase the
“bad men” away.
Our group escape the city
unscathed and as they are flying around looking for refuge, they pass over
another group of what we might imagine from the end of Night of the Living
Dead, a hodgepodge collection of military, police, huntsmen, various first
responders and country locals, all banded together. One might feel safe with
them, as the saying goes, there is safety in numbers, right? Except for the odd
sensation, the way they treat the dead or undead, playing around with them,
wrestling with them, lynching them up in trees and using them as target
practice. What does their actions say about the human condition? That we
demonize our enemies and thus become demons ourselves, perhaps?
After another close shave fueling
up, the group passes over an abandoned mall. They’ve been flying for hours now
and are in need of rest. There’s an upstairs area that seems isolated from the
rest of the mall and so they decided to make camp. But after spending some time
there, thoughts of looting and pillaging consume them, all but Francine who
wants nothing more than to continue north. The boys get a sort of consumerist
fever, that everything in the mall could be theirs if only they had the
gumption to take it. And they do, they plan how to cut off the flow of undead
from coming into the complex and work at removing those already inside. Roger
(played by  Scott H. Reiniger) is bitten
during an episode he has, cracking up just like Woolie had at the beginning.
And it really forces the question, was it all worth it? Sure, they get the
spoils, there’s even a fun little montage of them enjoying their hard fought
gains. Eventually the fun wears thin and after Roger passes away, comes back,
and is killed again, the sting is felt on the faces of the characters. As
Francine says:
“Stephen, I’m afraid. You’re
hypnotized by this place. All of you! You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary,
it’s a prison! Let’s just take what we need and get out of here!”
Eventually raiders stumble upon
the mall and more deaths follow. In the end, the mall is abandoned and we’re
left wondering was it worth it? Stephen could have listened to Peter and just
let the raiders take what they wanted and go, but no. He became possessive,
hypnotized by the lore of stuff, of ownership, even though they never really
owned any of it. And what good did any of that stuff do? What could they do
with it? Trade? Barter? What hole did the mall fill for those characters?
Looking at the mall from a survivors perspective, it certainly had a feeling of
security, four walls and all and plenty of space to run and escape. But as
proved by the raiders, the mall is a high target. Protecting a bunch of stuff
they can’t even really use seems pointless, why not just take what they need
and continue north as Francine wanted? What was the attraction of staying?
Personally speaking, I think it
was the normalcy the mall offered. Stephen and Peter both quipped that the
reason why the undead were coming to the mall was because it was a place of
importance to them, something they “remembered.” Yet, there they were
too. For shelter, at first, yes. But they stayed for another reason, to
“play house,” as Stephen said to Francine when he was trying to
convince her why they should stay at the mall. The mall had “everything
they needed…” but did it really?
Dawn of the Dead was selected as
the last film to be reviewed for this year’s zombie themed Fright Fest because
it is the fundamental “be-all” for a zombie movie. Fighting words for
some, I’m sure. But few can deny the impact Dawn has had on the sub-genre and
the continuingly growing culture surrounding the film. Dawn of the Dead is my
personal favorite horror film, second only to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Why?
Well… Romero didn’t rush the progression of the story, clocking in over two
hours of gory storytelling, which I favor. The length and pace to me feel
natural and wonderfully nihilistic. Not only giving us horror fans all the
blood and guts we could have want for, but also giving us something else to
chew on, all the various questions raised concerning humanity and concerning
Planet of the Dead
Book One
Thomas S. Flowers
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Shadow Work Publishing
Date of Publication: Oct 13, 2017
ISBN: 1988819024
Number of pages: 268 (Kindle), 266 (paperback)
Word Count: 60K
Cover Artist: Travis Eck
Tagline: Live. Die. Or become one of the Undead.
Book Description:
News reports speak of mass panic and violence spreading across the globe. Negligent leaders hide behind misinformation. But in an age of paranoia and suspicion, who can say what is true anymore? Struggling to survive against a sweeping epidemic that has engulfed the planet, survivors will have to make hard choices in a world that no longer makes sense.
About the Author:


Who doesn’t love a good story? Thomas’s favorite books include All Quiet on the Western Front, Salem’s Lot, and Hell House.
In his own writings, he aspires to create fantastic worlds with memorable characters and haunted places. His stories range from Shakespearean gore, classic monster tales, and even stories that hurt him the most to write about, haunted soldiers and PTSD. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, Thomas’s debut novel, Reinheit, was eventually published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, FEAST, Beautiful Ugly, and Planet of the Dead.
His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, filled with werewolves, Frankenstein-inspired monsters, cults, alter-dimensional insects, witches, and the undead are published with Limitless Publishing.
In 2008, Thomas was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He is the senior editor at Machine Mean, a site that reviews horribly awesome and vintage horror movies and books from guest contributors who obsess over a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.
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