As of writing, George A. Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead is just three years shy of its 40th birthday, and its influence on the zombie sub-genre of horror movies is still as keenly felt now as it was back in 1978. A seminal entry into the horror canon and a hugely important release in terms of independent film distribution, Dawn of the Dead has been pored over, analysed and celebrated so often down the years that any new attempt at a re-evaluation could be considered a fruitless exercise. The middle part of Romero’s original Dead trilogy, preceded by the equally influential Night of the Living Dead (1968) and completed by the sorely under-appreciated Day of the Dead in 1985, Dawn is the trilogy’s Boys Own adventure when compared to Night‘s claustrophobic terror and Day‘s unflinching nihilism. A satirical romp about contemporary life in the era of conspicuous consumption, Dawn uses sledgehammer visual metaphors, a perfect location and countless exploding blood squibs to take potshots at a justly perceived political and spiritual malaise in 70s American society.
Despite being a little creaky in places and boasting some make-up work that hasn’t aged all that well, Dawn is still one of the great film visions of societal breakdown. The media is presented as being beholden to ratings even as the ship is visibly sinking, the general populace fractures off into an every-man-for-himself mentality, and authority figures abandon their posts and head for the hills or, in the case of the film’s quartet of lead characters, the sky in a helicopter. On a relatively small budget and with a star-free cast, Romero’s movie has a palpable sense of the everyday being torn apart by the most fantastical of events. The familiar clashes with the bizarre as tenement blocks, rural gas stations and shopping malls are overrun by the shuffling, flesh-hungry walking dead. The simultaneously creepy and comically absurd nature of the situation is never more apparent than in the hordes of zombies mindlessly stumbling their way around the gigantic Monroeville Mall, a sight as eerie as it is imbued with the potential for slapstick. Romero eventually exploits the latter quality to the hilt, as custard pies are splattered into undead faces along with bullets and machetes.
Putting metaphors and socio-political commentary to one side, Dawn of the Dead is enjoyable simply as a visual spectacle, thanks to the memorably gory and inventive FX work of Tom Savini. The highlight of Savini’s work for Romero may have come seven years later in Day of the Dead, but Dawn is still a gruesome delight for those enamoured with such things as heads explode, flesh is chomped and blood spurts with gleeful, anarchic abandon. Although Romero’s later zombie films – Land, Diary and Survival – have unfortunately been severely lacking in quality, his original trilogy changed the face of the horror genre forever, with Dawn its most accessible centrepiece.