Skip to content

John’s Horror Corner: Dawn of the Dead (1978), if Romero is an artist, the zombie is his brush

July 2, 2015


MY CALL:  Perhaps my favorite zombie movie of all time, this is gory, often funny, occasionally brutal film features credibly flawed characters that we can get behind and a believable story of a zombie apocalypse.  MOVIES LIKE Dawn of the Dead:  Try Romero’s other early zombie movies (Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead).  They’re amazing.  Want to see some other films that paved the way for horror as we know it today?  Try Poltergeist (1982; discussed at length in our podcast #16), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).


Back in 1978, gore like this wasn’t so common.

In the spirit of our recent podcast, The MFF Podcast #15: The George A. Romero Zombie Special, I must also credit my fellow podcasters John Lasavath and Mark Hofmeyer as co-writers of the content in this review since I am including some of their insights herein…

In 1968 George Romero revolutionized the “movie zombie” concept by delivering the contagious, flesh-eating zombie (in lieu of risen corpses of vengeance via Voodoo).  Zombies “eating people” was a notion that had not before been realized on film.  Needless to say, in the next 10 years flesh-eating zombies became a celebrated theme in horror.  After numerous copycats followed Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero finally made his highly anticipated sequel.  After various delays, eventually Dario Argento flew Romero to Italy, where Romero penned the script.  Romero had complete creative freedom and, in exchange, Argento got to make his own cut however he wished—and he did so with none of the humor.  I am quite curious to see this cut, but I doubt it would be as entertaining.


In Dawn of the Dead (1978), we find ourselves looking at the world now that the zombie apocalypse is well under way and a fact of life.  In equal doses of satire and realism, hunting and gun enthusiasts (i.e., proud rednecks) rally together and form base camps to “hunt” the zombies, draining beer coolers as they heckle each other’s marksmanship over lunch.  Very funny, yet very believably delivered with perhaps a somewhat straight face.


We focus on four survivors who find their way to a shopping mall (back when malls were a relatively new thing) in the spirit of consumerism.  Shortly after their arrival, they observe waves of zombies being drawn to the mall…as if it was their instinct to go there to find what they need—flesh, in this case.  National Guardsmen Peter (Ken Foree; The Lords of Salem, Death Spa) and Roger join Stephen and Francine in realizing that their residence in this mall may last longer than they anticipated.


Romero is more a prophet than filmmaker.  Just look at his Nostradamus-like foretelling of society’s degeneration on Black Friday.

This was definitely the most fun movie in Romero’s initial zombie trilogy.  There’s a playfulness to it.  And why not?  A lone zombie poses little threat to an able-bodied, wary person like a National Guardsman.  We see Roger and Peter running around the mall having fun, like two bros playfully running football drills, as they collect groceries and equipment.  Roger slides down the escalator rails, they taunt and herd zombies where they want them or knock off their zombie hats, they sprint through department stores—all the things we would get yelled at for doing when we were kids.


Stephen can’t shoot, so Roger teaches him the now common knowledge that zombies are killed with headshots; Peter and Roger being chummy.

We get some great zombie kills in this film, my favorite of which being when the helicopter chops off the zombie’s head—the top of it anyway.  Just watching the zombies wander the mall offers its own form of entertainment.  Romero never gave clear direction to the zombie actors.  He wanted them to do whatever they wanted and some of their facial expressions are priceless.  That gave us today’s zombies.  My favorite zombie had to be the Hare-Krishna.


We see a lot of this Krishna-zombie.


Of course, the tedium of their mall-inhabiting lifestyle wears on our protagonists.  There’s a strong sense of irony when we find Peter playing racquetball on the roof as the zombie apocalypse presses on.  Eventually they develop a desire to move elsewhere and find other survivors.  This is where some tension builds.


Despite being so gorily loaded with rubber guts and torn flesh, this film has a good sense of humor to it until the end, which closes on a dark note when a paramilitary biker gang overtake the mall and all chaos breaks out.  This long segment of the movie is a tolling dose of reality and human nature.

Some may criticize the “inconsistency” of Romero’s zombies, sometimes moving fast and sometimes slow.  But here’s something to consider:  Zombies, like any movie antagonist, are a dangerous as they need to be in any given scene.  They’re as fast or dangerous or scary as the scene merits.  That’s the difference between reality and filmmaking, life and drama.  Whenever a protagonist martial artist character faces a single bad guy, you get one fight that endures exchanging countless blows lasting 5-10 minutes of screen time.  However, when that same martial artist encounters 20 bad guys, each bad guy is dispatched with one or two quick, easily delivered techniques.


Now a staple in zombie movies, our protagonists face the fear and reality of seeing one of their own succumb and contract zombiism.  This is handled well, with early dashes of pragmatism and ultimate pessimistic reality, denial and inner conflict.

Another curiosity is why a bite (however minor it may be) will cause a victim to die within days and become a zombie, whereas getting zombie blood splattered in Roger’s face (e.g., the truck recon scene) is no worry at all for contracting zombiism—consider what happens to Brendan Gleeson in 28 Days Later.  To this end, I say chill out.  This was Romero’s second movie and he “invented” the zombie you have come to know and love.  The “zombie rules” were still being written right in front of us and, in Romero’s zombiverse, this was the first time it happened.  He was just making a movie, people.  Blood splatters are exciting and manifest urgency.  Don’t overthink it.  Romero hadn’t even identified the zombiism definitively as a curse, virus or anything…we just get hints.

Speaking of those hints, a news clip from Night of the Living Dead (1968) suggested the possible cause of zombiism was radioactive contamination from a space probe from Venus crash-landing on Earth.  Perhaps there were radioactive bacteria on the probe that were ingested by patient zero, and the reason only a bite will cause zombiism is because the affliction lies in the intestinal bacteriofauna (or gut flora) in the infected zombies.  Why might a scratch infect you?  Because the zombies sloppily eat with their hands, which are now covered with this alien bacteria.  There!  Blood splatter controversy solved.  LOL.


Another hypothesis of the zombie outbreak origin…

We embark on a rollercoaster of emotion as this gory film was loads of fun and managed to make us wince in the utterly brutal opening scenes, laugh in the middle, and grow tense at the end.  The characters expressed various credible human responses to pressure and danger, bravery and cowardice, control and chaos.  The story was solid and the dilemmas faced made sense.  Night of the Living Dead will remain Romero’s most important film and the most significant zombie film perhaps ever to be made.  But I find Dawn of the Dead to be his best film.


Want a second opinion on the film?  Try this review from Rivers of Grue.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2015 7:38 am

    I do love this movie too. I really liked the characters more then the 2004 remake. They are the kind of people I would hang out with. Great job at pointing out how Romero predicted the future of black Friday.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      July 2, 2015 8:38 am

      Thanks. I need to rewatch the remake. While the remake was a bit less character-driven, I liked some of Ving Rhames’ character nuggets. Didn’t he play chess via cue cards with a guy on another roof?

  2. Victor De Leon permalink
    July 2, 2015 10:24 am

    For a long while, when I was a kid, a theater in the Bronx, would only screen this film at midnight and I was there for just about every one. So glad you pointed out the humor in Dawn and the significance of NOTLD. Night certainly was the game changer but Dawn, like you pointed out, is indeed the best film. It’s solid, full of humor (some of it bordering on slapstick) and unique metaphorical messages (the black friday observation is so astute) but it’s just as equally disturbing and thought provoking as Romero’s Night is.

    Great essay, John. Romero is indeed a film prophet. Very good read, bro!

    • John Leavengood permalink
      July 2, 2015 10:28 am

      A film prophet, indeed. Much as Jules Verne’s novels foretold deep sea exploration or voyages to the moon, Romero divined Black Friday in his crystal ball. Thanks for your continued support. If you have a review of this film please add it to the comments!


  1. John’s Horror Corner INDEX: a list of all my horror reviews by movie release date | Movies, Films & Flix
  2. John’s Horror Corner: Creepshow (1982), a classic, campy, nostalgic horror anthology from Stephen King and George Romero! | Movies, Films & Flix
  3. John’s Horror Corner: Cooties (2015), an excellently flesh-eating horror comedy that is as fresh as the flesh it infects. | Movies, Films & Flix
  4. Horror Podcast Spotlight: The Best Horror Podcasts and some of my Favorite Episodes | Movies, Films & Flix
  5. John’s Horror Corner: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), appallingly brutal yet stylistic and controversial yet admonishing. | Movies, Films & Flix
  6. The Best Horror Workouts, Part 1: Killer Workout (1987), Death Spa (1989) and Happy Birthday to Me (1981) | Movies, Films & Flix
  7. John’s Horror Corner: Lifeforce (1985), Tobe Hooper’s big budget naked space vampire epic. | Movies, Films & Flix
  8. Cool Posters Thursday (9/21/2017): Dawn of the Dead (1978) – One Writer Ranting
  9. John’s Horror Corner: The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), a great modern zombie movie deeply exploring the Devil’s advocacy morality. | Movies, Films & Flix
  10. John’s Horror Corner: Zombie (1979; aka Zombi 2), Lucio Fulci’s gory Italian zombie movie honoring Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). | Movies, Films & Flix
  11. John’s Horror Corner: City of the Living Dead (1980; aka Paura nella città dei morti viventi, The Gates of Hell), Lucio Fulci’s second gory Italian zombie movie and the opening film of his Gate of Hell trilogy. | Movies, Films & Flix
  12. John’s Horror Corner: City of the Living Dead (1980; aka Paura nella città dei morti viventi, Twilight of the Dead, The Gates of Hell), Lucio Fulci’s second gory Italian zombie movie and the opening film of his Gate of Hell trilogy. | Movies, Fil
  13. John’s Horror Corner: Days of Darkness (2007), a zombie movie about alien reproduction and mutant fetuses. | Movies, Films & Flix
  14. John’s Horror Corner: Maniac (1980), a sick, brutal, ultra-violent (for its time) slasher movie with an in-depth look into its killer. | Movies, Films & Flix
  15. Bad Movie Tuesday: Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), squandering the strong final girl and slapstick bonkers violent legacy of part 2 (1986). | Movies, Films & Flix

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: