Director and zombie aficionado George A. Romero is credited with bringing zombies into the mainstream of horror films. Sure there were some films released previous to his seminal work, such as the original zombie film White Zombie in 1932, but it was Night of the Living Dead that catapulted the shuffling re-animated corpses of loved ones right into the mainstream. Since then Romero’s work has been copied, reimagined and generally referenced in every zombie film, and the film of his that gets the most attention is the sequel, Dawn of the Dead.
Following the events of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead sees that the whole world has been affected by the sudden appearance of corpses rising from the grave to terrorise the living. In a television studio in Philidelphia, a group of survivors band together and fly a helicopter to a shopping mall where they hole up and attempt to survive the ongoing zombie apocalypse.
To say that Dawn of the Dead is the zombie film of modern cinema would be doing a disservice. The tale of a group of disparate survivors, holed up in a shopping mall while the whole world gets overrun with the reanimated dead is as synonymous with horror as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. It’s a testament to Romero’s direction and cleverly social commentary that Dawn of the Dead remains as watchable today as it would have been on release. The inteplay between the characters, the hints at the causes of the zombie outbreak as well as the comments on 1970s Americana are all spot-on and provide a modern audience with an insight into life during the decade, under the guise of dead people trying to chew on the brain matter of the living.
Since its release, Dawn of the Dead has been parodied, homaged, referenced and even, to a lot of people’s surprise, successfully remade by Zack Snyder in 2004. However the original retains a more complex social commentary that helps keep it in the upper echelons of horror film-making. Romero casts his net of comment far and wide and succintly, subtly and in some cases brutally exposes the truth and hypocrasies in American society in the late 1970s. Consummerism, Vietnam War, immigration and abortion are all looked at and parodied within the context of the ongoing zombie apocalypse. If Night of the Living Dead focused its energies on Civil Rights and racism, then Dawn of the Dead has a more scattergun approach, which encompasses so many issues of the era and under the acute directorial eye of Romero, these topics are ruthlessly torn apart and exposed for what they are.
Computer games such as Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead often make reference to the shopping mall setting, and modern zombie classics like Shaun of the Dead not only parody the name, but also pinch a few bits from the iconic score, written by Italian prog-rock band Goblin. This will prove part of the problem for newcomers to Dawn of the Dead, as they’ll feel that they’ve seen everything before, but with modern special effects. The important thing to remember is Dawn of the Dead did it first, and in most cases better. The combination of creeping threat, slightly comedic zombies and Romero’s often cutting social commentary help make Dawn of the Dead one of, if not the greatest zombie films of all time.