Happy Birthday, George: Revisiting Romero’s Classic DAWN OF THE DEAD

Today, February 4th, is a very special day not only in horror history but for pop culture in general. Because exactly 78 years ago, a film icon was born. One who would shake the world time and time again with his gruesome yet timely films. Of course, I’m talking about George A. Romero. What better way to celebrate George’s birthday than to revisit one of his greatest and most influential films of all time: Dawn of the Dead.

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Ten years after Romero slayed drive-in audiences with Night of the Living Dead came it’s sequel Dawn of the Dead in 1978. The film focuses on four characters who, in the midst of mass-hysteria brought on by the events of the first film, seek refuge in a shopping mall.

Surely most people have fantasized about having full range of their city mall, right? Well, Dawn served as wish-fulfillment to audiences in a way, saying that this is what it would be like to have a mall all to yourself… followed by a resounding BUT. Is it really worth it? George gives his social commentary on material society in pure Romero fashion. Our characters have all these pretty new things at their fingertips but it’s not long before they begin to feel alienated. It’s true, kids, money can’t buy happiness. And neither can an abandoned shopping mall. Womp.

From the opening shot of the orange carpeted wall, Dawn of the Dead is by no means a pleasant looking film. The gaudy mustard yellows, browns, and oranges only add to the bleak world Romero has created. 70’s decor… the horror! Combine that with Tom Savini’s red (and I mean RED) blood and gore, and you get a rather grimy looking movie. But it shouldn’t be any other way. It suits the rather sad story-line perfectly.

It isn’t all depressing though. Dawn‘s four leads make great chemistry together, especially Peter (played by Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), which leads to comic relief that doesn’t actually feel like comic relief. When you see their inherent giddiness at having a shopping mall as their playhouse, you can’t help but grin. This childish excitement feels so natural in their performances that the humor never comes across as staged.

All good things must come to an end though. The humor serves to make the character’s more likable, which is why it stings even more when it is time for one to bite the bullet. It’s in these moments of despair that the actors showcase the message of consumer obsessed culture that Romero is trying to convey. It all comes to a head with a single line spoken by Fran (played by Gaylen Ross) late in the film:

“What have we done to ourselves?”

Of course, Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be the same if not for the synthesized score by Italian prog-rock band Goblin, also known for their work on some of Dario Argento’s films like Susperia and Tenebre. To get the most out of Dawn’s score, it is best to watch the international cut of the film, supervised by Argento, which uses Goblin’s score to the fullest. It’s eerie, a bit funky, and true to its time. There are even a few throwback notes to Night of the Living Dead‘s score.

 

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Above all, though, I think we can all say that the real star of Dawn of the Dead is Tom Savini, more specifically his special effects work. Sure, his brief acting performance in the film is fun, but his gore steals the show with its exploding heads, severed limbs, spilling guts, and RED blood. Did I mention that it’s really red? It truly pops off the screen and hits you over the head. The gore in The Walking Dead has nothing on Tom Savini.

Dawn of the Dead received mostly positive reviews when it hit theaters in 1978 and has since become a classic through and through. Upon revisiting this film I can say, while it does show its age, it still holds up. The acting is great, the music is iconic, and the gore is still enough to make our zombie obsessed culture cringe. It is pretty clear that The Walking Dead owes a lot of its story and themes to the late George Romero’s mind, as does every zombie story to come.

We miss you, George, and thank you for giving us Dawn of the Dead, among countless other great films. You alone opened the floodgates and let a hoard of hungry zombies through, taking over our world and setting new standards to creators for generations to come. It is easy to say that our culture wouldn’t be the same had you never been born. Happy Birthday.

 

Cameron Chaney

Cameron Chaney is the author of the horror novella There Are Monsters Here. When he's not writing, he enjoys sharing his love of horror, books, and other nerdy things on his YouTube channel. You can also find his ramblings on Twitter. Don't feed him after midnight.