DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) – The Dungeon Review!

In 3 years of blogging I have failed to include reviews for a good chunk of my favourite horror films! They have appeared in slideshows and top ten lists but for some insane reason have never been given the full review treatment. Well I think it is high time I rectified that! Since it is zombie month and all I thought I would start with the film I named as my number one favourite of the sub-genre; George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Some minor spoilers ahead!!

I really loved post-apocalyptic films when I was younger. Not specifically zombie apocalypse; I loved them all! Escape from New York, Mad Max, Dead-End Drive In, The Warriors, and 2019: After the Fall of New York to name a few. I used to categorize Dawn of the Dead with these films because as far as I knew there weren’t a whole lot of other zombie films. Also, I have always enjoyed saying the word apocalypse. Ah yes, back in the day when I was seeing these films for the first time there were a hell of a lot less zombie films. I know! But it is true! In any case, zombie films are definitely horror but they do also tuck nicely into the apocalypse sub-genre. As a grown up I realize an apocalyptic event would not be a good thing. When I was younger however I used to dream up personas for myself. I envisioned myself as a sort of female Harmonica; Charles Bronson’s character in Once Upon A Time in the West. The idea of that has always stayed with me. In fact, I recently took up the harmonica! All these films have plenty of violence but none are as graphic or as terrifying as Dawn of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead was one of my first apocalyptic films, first zombie films and my first experience with serious gore. I also got to see this at the drive-in when I was just a kid! No bloody wonder Dawn of the Dead rocked (and continues to rock) my world!

Dawn of the Dead begins with a chaotic scene inside a T.V. Station. This is where we meet two of our four central characters; station employees Francine and Steve. Romero does a nice job of creating a tense atmosphere right from the get go. An interview with a scientist lets us know the reason for the chaos. The scientist explains that we are dealing with the living dead. He advises the only way to put down one of the living dead is by severe trauma to the head (aim for the head!!). From one chaotic scene to another, we move to a SWAT team closing in on a building where they believe a bad ass by the name of Martinez is holed up. Inside the building we get our first glance at the zombies. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead vary in quality. Some of the undead are quite elaborate and gory and others are just slightly discolored. I guess this could be looked at as a flaw, but I prefer to look at it as different stages of death. I assure you, Romero certainly does not skimp on the blood and gore; but more on that later. This is where we meet our other two central characters; SWAT team dudes Peter and Roger. Roger tells Peter that he is meeting a friend who will be leaving the city by helicopter that night. This is how our epic apocalyptic tale begins.

Romero gives us an efficient and effective setup. Our quartet are on their way but not before a brief encounter with some local cops also looking to split town quick. They fly for hours over cities and towns infested with the undead. Eventually they have to stop for fuel and we get a nice zombie sampling including two children that Peter has to shoot in the head. The balance of the film takes place in Suburbia’s great hell mouth; the mall. Its roof provides a nice landing pad for the helicopter. This will be their home for the next several months. There are a significant number of zombies milling about so every task they attempt is an exercise in intensity. They do manage to get inside the stores and bulk up on supplies. Hallelujah! This mall has got a gun shop! We are taken along on this journey into hell with these four people. We sit back in the comfort of our living rooms and watch their struggle for survival. What makes it work so well for me is the fact that I could actually identify with these characters. They never do anything extraordinary or superhuman; they simply deal with what they are confronted with in the most reasonable manner possible. The four actors have great chemistry which helps make the interaction between them more natural and easier to relate to. I must say here that it couldn’t hurt to have two SWAT guys with good dispositions with you during a zombie apocalypse! Peter and Roger are obviously pretty handy with a gun; weatherman Steve, not so much. When Steve attempts a few shots early in the film, Roger steps in front of him and takes the shot for him. In fairness, Steve shoots carelessly, but Roger’s neccessary intrusion could not be good for Steve’s ego. Steve and Francine will need to learn how to shoot with confidence and accuracy, and they’ll have lots of opportunity to practice. Francine is the lone female of the group who proves to be every bit as useful and productive as the rest of the quartet. Good call on Romero’s part not making Francine a helpless, wishy-washy useless whiner! Francine acts as an indicator of time passed. She marks an “X” on the days of the calendar, but it is her pregnant belly that is really telling. That is a wee spoiler but Romero really doesn’t dwell much on Francines’s pregnancy. It is just another bit of reality that they will need to deal with sooner or later.

There are so many zombies! They keep coming and coming! They manage to eliminate  all of the zombies inside the mall but they continue to gather outside. Every day more of the undead appear outside the malls glass doors desperate to get in. I really do prefer these slow-moving zombies to the new super fast variety. I have come to terms with the fast zombies at this point, and they certainly are intimidating coming at you with speed and foaming at the mouth! That said, the slower type respond in a manner I would expect from a reanimated corpse; and in a solid film like Dawn of the Dead they are certainly no less effective! There is a ton of action in Dawn of the Dead! The action scenes are evenly distributed throughout the entire film. There is one particularly nasty blood bath towards the finale when a gang of bikers bust their way into the mall after spying the helicopter on the roof. Contending with zombies apparently wasn’t enough, now they get to deal with a bloody bike gang! This is the films goriest section and Romero also adds some humour to the mix. One of the gang members just can not resist putting his arm inside the “check your heart rate” machine and gets swarmed by zombies who drag him off leaving his arm behind! There is even a slapsticky bit with the gang throwing pies in the zombie’s faces. You know those bikers are going to have to pay for that stunt! Amoung the copious amounts of gore on display, there is a lingering scene of a group of zombies energetically pulling the entrails from a victim and greedily munching on them. Buckets of blood spilled, limbs torn off, flesh bitten, ripped, shredded and eaten and a coo-coo amount of zombie head trauma! It is not for the faint of heart! When I was a kid I would watch this section through the cracks of my fingers! Tom Savini who was responsible for the film’s makeup effects also makes an appearance as one of the bikers! The entire segment is a weird mix of humour and intensity that works beautifully!

I’ve probably spoiled enough of Dawn of the Dead for those who have not seen the film. Don’t worry, I’ve kept a few surprises for you to discover! I have cited Dawn of the Dead numerous times on this blog. On my fifty wishes: the horror film edition I wished there were more zombie films as good as Dawn of the Dead, I named it as one of the ten films that made me a horror fan for life, it received the #1 spot on my top ten favourite horror films from 1978, has long held a position in my top one hundred horror films of all time and George A. Romero was my #10 director in my dungeon director project: my fifty favourite directors. My love of Dawn of the Dead is probably teetering on the edge of obsessive. Dawn of the Dead is the perfect horror film in my opinion. Dawn of the Dead has a fascinating premise, likable characters you hope will survive, intensity, scares, gore and a few laughs and it is all wrapped up in this perfectly paced, perfectly staged package. Oh yeah, and it also has zombies, lots and lots and lots and lots of zombies!

Dungeon Rating: 5/5

Directed By: George A. Romero

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith, Tom Savini

17 Responses to “DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) – The Dungeon Review!”

  1. I too loved apocalypse films when I was younger! And I still love them now. Have you ever heard of the ‘cosy apocalypse’? The basic idea is that deep down people enjoy apocalypse narratives because they long to go back to the simple days before tv and McDonalds and day jobs and electricity. I definitely think that’s where my love of those kinds of stories comes from.

    Anyway, I love your review of this total classic! I have to be honest however, I found Romero’s other zombie movies (Aside from this and Night of the Living Dead, both of which are superb) to be pretty poor in comparison. Specifically Day of the Dead and the new Land of the Dead. What say you!?

    • I have never heard of cosy apocalypse. I think when I was younger I just liked the notion of living on the fringes, wearing outrageous outfits and not having school or parents to answer to. There was a real flood of these films when I was growing up in the 80s. I probably haven’t seen many apocalyptic themed films from recent years. I am awful about staying current with films. I go on runs where I’ll watch 3 or 4 new films in a row and than I need a break. I prefer to watch and review pre-90s stuff to be honest.

      Thanks! Dawn and Night are definitely my two favourite Romero films but I love Day also. What can I say, I’m a kid of the 80s. I think all 3 of these films are perfect representations of their decades. Day definitely has an 80s vibe and it has great zombie makeup and gore and I really dug the Bub character and the evil scientist plot. Romero’s new films don’t even remotely live up to the original trio for me but that said I did not dislike Land of the Dead. I take a beating for it often but it has tons of zombies and gore, Asia Argento and Dennis Hopper picking his nose. Didn’t care for Diary much and I thought Survival was okay. I openly admit I am probably cutting these some slack because it is George Romero, but there are moments…

  2. I am with you on being almost obsessive with this film. I absolutely love it. This is my second favorite film, just slightly behind The Dark Knight. I usually watch the movie four times a year, a must around Halloween. It is intelligently made and I still think it remains one of the scariest films ever made. And I STILL can’t believe how ahead of the times this film was. I will always be a huge fan of Flyboy and I can still remember seeing his final moments as a kid. My jaw was on the floor and it stayed there. Spectacular review, Goregirl, and I am so psyched that you love this film too. I’m with you 100% that this was one of the films that scarred my young mind and made me fall in love with horror movies. A classic that can’t be topped.

    I don’t know if you have seen it, but there was a four disc collectors set released here in the States that had three different versions of the film (including a two hour and twenty minute director’s cut), a disc LOADED with special features, a blueprint of the mall, and a comic book. I believe that it came out in 2003 or 2004. It is my prized DVD set and I refuse to let anyone borrow it. They can take my single disc copy.

    • There probably isn’t much more I can add on my love for Dawn of the Dead! I really just love every single last thing about it!! ***SPOILER*** Flyboy dies most spectacularly! And comes back as a pretty cool looking zombie and dies again a little less spectacularly! I too was slack-jawed!! It still packs a punch a hundred views later!

      I actually watched the director’s cut last week that a friend burned for me! Sadly I do not own the collectors set!

  3. Dawn of the Dead is as perfect as a zombie movie can get. It’s fun, it has thrills, it’s funny, it has the anti-consumerism message, it has gore…

  4. Who doesn’t love dystopian films? Though I’d add the Road Warrior to your list above. (And probably subtract the Warriors, as I’ve never read that film as particularly dystopian. It’s always seemed like a reasonable time-capsule of NYC circa ’78. The environment, as portrayed there, doesn’t seem that different than say, NYC as seen in C.H.U.D.)

    Great write-up! Dawn of the Dead is a traditional Christmas film in my family, all thanks to one holiday 15-16 years ago when I received my first copy. What’s beautiful about the film, and often overlooked, is its pacing. Even after they clear the mall of zombies, Romero manages to keep the tension building.

    • It has been some time since I last watched Warriors! I thought I recalled it being in some manner of “dystopian” future, but I’ll take your word for it if it is not. I should perhaps revisit Warriors soon…

      Your family’s Christmas movie is Dawn of the Dead? I love it!! Romero keeps things constantly moving, even when there is downtime he insures “the threat” is always present. Perfect pacing…and a perfect horror film.

      • “The Warriors” could be considered a dystopian film, I guess, when viewed from a cop’s point of view. Which is why its posters were (reportedly) pulled from some cinemas; they didn’t want the kids realizing that if the gangs joined together, they wouldn’t have so much to fear from the cops.

        Which is why, in my mind, “the Warriors” is more important as a hip-hop film. As it was that same uniting gangs idea that led Afrika Bambaataa to starting the Zulu Nation.

  5. I would definitely put this movie into the top ten horror flicks for me….Did you ever do a comparison to the remake in your blog? If not what did you think of the remake…(I actually saw the new one before I saw the old if you can believe that)

    • I don’t usually review remakes, mainly because I rarely watch remakes anymore. I seen the remake at the theatre but have not watched it since. I could rewatch it and review it. Since you asked Philip…I will have a Dawn of the Dead remake review for you before the month is over!

  6. “As a grown up I realize an apocalyptic event would not be a good thing. When I was younger however I used to dream up personas for myself.”
    This was me, only it was repeated readings of The Stand that had be dreaming of a less-populated world.

  7. Great review! You’re really passionate about this but then this film is a genuine classic. I watch it whenever it’s on television – I tend not to watch my own copy for some reason…

    Dawn of the Dead is one of those films where the world is build up by the director perfectly. By far my favourite moments are the first part of the film. I love those early scenes at the television station – they set up the film perfectly and give a lot of information and there’s a febrile atmosphere – the world is truly heading towards an apocalyse. The sense of chaos and dread just continues to build up from there and when we the survivors fly over the National Guard/Good Time Boys blasting zombies you get a real sense of the scale of the problem. Then we get that scene at the helipad where Peter has to kill the mini-zombies and Steve almost shoots him! It’s just gripping stuff.

    Francine was a respone to Barbra in Night of the Living Dead… Not that I had a problem with Barbra since I’d probably be freaking out as well… Okay, maybe not so much freaking out to the point of fainting and being comatose for long periods of time.

    Sounds like you were younger than I was when you watched this!

    I’ve also mentioned how I like the OST fo this film in one of your soundtrack posts!

    • I can’t believe I didn’t mention the bloody soundtrack at some point in this lengthy review! I’ve posted at least 2 pieces of music from the film and I love it! Yeesh! …I am going out to get a coffee now before I put my latex on for zombie walk!

  8. You did a great job explaining why Dawn of the Dead means so much to you. It is obvious you have a genuine love for the film, and that you’re not saying it’s your fave zombie movie just because so many other people do.

    And yes, I think you are right about different zombies in this movie being in different stages of death (although I would’ve expected more of them to have died a gory death, before heading to the mall). I do own the Dawn of the Dead Ultimate DVD set, but I never got around to listening to Romero’s commentary. I did see the American theatrical edition, and the Extended edition, but I didn’t watch the Zombi edition yet (one of my Flixster friends said that was his favourite edition of the film).

    You’ll hate me for saying this – but I enjoyed the Dawn of the Dead remake more than Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I wish I didn’t, but I prefer fast zombies. As far as zombies go, I consider fast zombies to appeal more to mainstream zombie fans. I do consider myself a bigger horror fan than most people on Earth. However, preferring fast zombies makes me feel less “pure” than the fans that prefer slow zombies.

  9. […] Music and images from George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead featuring Goblin – Ai margini della follia. To read my review for Dawn of the Dead click here. […]

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