Now this gets serious.
George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead, a sequel to the 1968 Night of the Living Dead and part two in his Living Dead trilogy is the seminal zombie survival masterpiece. There had been zombie films before but Dawn of the Dead was to leave a wound so deep it would not only shock and galvanise a generation but leave a scar so prominent no zombie film would or could ever be the same again.
Unlike the tense tight situation the survivors of Night of the Living dead found themselves in this time the world is facing true global apocalyptic collapse. With no more room in hell the dead are up and walking about en masse sweeping through the cities and countryside leaving no one alive, and swelling their numbers exponentially. It's in this cinder keg of despair and confusion that WGON television studio traffic reporter Stephen (David Emge) and his executive producer girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross) decide to escape the spiralling pandemonium of Philadelphia in Stephen's helicopter while they still can. They are joined by their SWAT friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and his companion disillusioned Peter (Ken Foree) who've also realised the futility and inevitability of trying to keep some semblance of order.
Without a plan the group head West and after a few tense encounters whilst looking for extra fuel find and take refuge in new large out of town mega-mall in Monroeville to take stock of their situation and ultimately wait for salvation. After securing and clearing the powered mall for themselves the survivors are now safe to enjoy what it has to offer
Dawn of the Dead perfectly captures the playful excitement of what it would be like to have a whole open shopping mall, with restaurants, ice rinks and free access to satiate any consumerist itching one might have perfectly. But taking a satirical swipe at American consumerism, an especially pertinent issue of the late 70's, as racial tension was in the 60's when Night of the Living Dead was released, the film fully understands how ultimately shallow this consumerist experience is and engages this theme throughout. When Francine asks 'What are they doing? Why do they come here?', Stephen's reply 'Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.' perfectly jibes the anti-consumerist sentiment, pulling together parallels between the mindless and the undead shopper.
Safe, secure and with everything they could wish for the film now turns from the survivors facing the direct threat of zombie attack to the more subtle risks of boredom and lethargy. With communism very much in the cultures consciousness the film challenges the consumerist capitalist notion that through acquisition fulfilment and happiness can be achieved; that ultimately living vicariously through things is unrewarding and dissatisfying. As Stephen and the other consumers try ever harder to affirm themselves by consuming more stuff, ultimately they're only becoming more alienated and living less authentic existences. Marx's theories of Entfremdung, alienation, are very much relevant here.
Ultimately this existential wrangle is halted by an attack from a surviving ruthless biker gang. Caught up again with the acquisition of money and objects of value the gang bring chaos back to the mall and whilst in the end and at great expense they are fought off, the idyllic peace and sanctuary of the place is destroyed for good. The film ends with the remaining survivors moving on, not only because the mall is now overrun by zombies again but understanding then need to do so for their own sanity.
Much like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, Romero's Dawn of the Dead zombies are slow, ambling and without the decaying flesh and horrific make-up and effects of modern zombie film could be seen as quite human like in comparison. With a grey or blue tinge to their skin they are obvious to pick out however, and whilst Romero does paint a picture in which one or two on their own could seem almost easy to avoid and a little harmless, as a pack they still appear terrifying, dangerous and overwhelming.
These two films certainly set the zombie themes and rule-set for all that came after. Zombie packs and herds, the hunger for eating flesh, following autonomous patterns and the idea that muscle memory partially survives reanimation, that biting transfers the disease and shooting them in the brain destroys them; Romero established or cemented the zombie gospel for all that followed.
Being shot with a modest budget in 1978 the scope and expansive feel of the film is easily comparable to more modern zombie films and Romero has captured the sense of apocalyptic dread and absurdity. Obviously when put up against modern zombie films Dawn of the Dead is showing it's age a bit when it comes to make-up and effects but the illusion is never shattered; the dead feel authentic and the action and effects are just as visceral and mesmerising. It has the pace to drive the story and it never loses its focus or narrative grip; Dawn of the Dead knows what it's doing and delivers.
Dawn of the Dead is a true horror film in that it not only successfully scares us with a believable vision of a future gone very wrong but also with the challenge that perhaps as consumers we're akin to mindless autonomous zombies already. A cinematic masterpiece, stylish, terrifying, absurd, and epic, deep and multifaceted in scope, this was when the genre got serious 9/10.