My Favorite Scary Movie: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

For the month of October, staff will be gearing you up for the Halloween season with My Favorite Scary Movie, where we will share our favorite scary flicks, be it gory horror, supernatural thriller or bloody slasher flicks, lending the personal touch for each film and why it stands as one of our all-time favorite spooky flicks of the season.


What’s It About? Not long after the events of Night of the Living Dead, it has become clear the walking dead are not going away. In fact, our war against them is becoming more and more fruitless. As the city of Philadelphia falls apart (presumably the case with most major cities in the country), four people – two SWAT team members and an expecting couple – make off with a helicopter in hopes of finding safe haven. They find it in the form of a large shopping mall, where they proceed to make themselves quite comfortable. But it’s really hard to maintain normalcy, or security, in the middle of the apocalypse.

Who’s In It? No one famous, but a very reliable troupe nonetheless: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge and Scott Reiniger as our four protagonists, with make-up effects maestro Tom Savini lending support as a third act villain.

Who Made It? The late, great George Romero, with some assistance from Italian horror legend Dario Argento, who helped secure financing for the sequel as he was a major fan of Romero’s first dalliance with the undead, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

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Why It’s My Favorite Scary Movie: The night I first encountered George A. Romero’s terrific DAWN OF THE DEAD, one viewing was just not enough. I don’t remember the date, but I’m fairly certain it was the fall of 1993, perhaps September or October. This was around the time I was ingesting as much horror as I could; Joe Bob Briggs was on The Movie Channel, MonsterVision was on TNT, and the local video stores were packed with perversely appealing VHS goodies. My step-brother Chris was my partner in crime, as we stayed up late (well past 3am) almost every Saturday night devouring whatever schlock we could get our hands on. These were the formative years.

I don’t remember how DAWN came into the picture; I had undoubtedly already seen Romero’s brilliant NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (a movie that has been in my life so long I can’t even recall my first viewing), but I’m certain I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the set-up: as the zombie apocalypse heats up to a frightening degree, a band of people find shelter in the most obvious place, a shopping mall. So it would probably be a lot like NIGHT, just larger in scope, right? Not exactly. What immediately struck me about DAWN was the power of its upsetting worldview. As would always be a theme with Romero’s zombie projects (and, indeed, most zombie projects, including The Walking Dead), it seems people simply can’t work together; chaos reigns as most everyone scrambles to look out for themselves. Humans are just as likely to shoot at one another as they are at the zombies. That grim message is delivered in DAWN with some frequently absurd touches of humor, even of the slapstick variety. This movie was surprisingly funny! It made the zombies look silly, shambling about in their bad 70s duds, going up down escalators, easily getting picked off – sometimes even doing it their own selves (won’t ever forget the helicopter zombie bit). The music – especially within the mall – transformed the events into something that could almost be described as festive, as our heroes gradually forget the troubles of the outside world and settle into their luxurious new home.

But a feeling of dread always hovers around the edges; even as the protagonists eat heartily and enjoy everything the mall has to offer, the atmosphere Romero builds is subtly nightmarish. The faux comfort of the mall – with its garish inauthenticity and intolerable muzak – becomes more and more stifling for the viewer. Soon, things aren’t quite so fun anymore. As it must, the real world eventually barges in, first as one of the group is bitten by a zombie and slowly dies, then as a nasty biker gang decides they want what’s inside. When it’s all over (its finale is both hopeful and hopeless), DAWN OF THE DEAD has given you a true emotional rollercoaster ride. I really can’t think of another movie that has the same vibe.

Anyway, we watched it twice in one night, back-to-back viewings; I had found one of the great movies, one that would stick with me forever.

Scariest Part: This may be met with some pushback, but for me the scariest part is the very beginning of the film. We are violently thrust into the disarray of the TV newsroom, as a frustrated host attempts to get an academic to explain just what the hell is going on out there. People shout over each other, crewmen storm out of the room, tensions get higher and higher with every passing minute. Meanwhile, two of our leads plot an escape; the writing is on the wall for them. The score pulsates in the background creepily, lending this erratic scene an aura of surreality. This is a very believable portrait of what it would look like if things started unraveling, and the expected comfort of a boring old newsroom is replaced by paranoia and confusion. This sequence starts the movie off on exactly the right foot.

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Best Lines:

Peter: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”

Dr. Foster: “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills, get up and kill!”

Dr. Rausch: “They won’t run out of food, that’s the problem, you see? They won’t run out of food as long as we’re alive.”

Roger: “Don’t do it until you’re sure I am coming back. I’m gonna try not to. I’m gonna try not to come back. I’m gonna try… not to.”

Gore and Nudity: While there are extended stretches in DAWN where no violence at all occurs, the first and last acts bring the red stuff. (It’s a very bright red stuff.) You want hideous practical FX, you got ’em, as Tom Savini and his crew are in top form here. Intestines are yanked out of bodies, heads are blown off, throats are torn out, arms ripped off. You get the idea. And, save for the somewhat stage-y looking blood, the effects are largely believable and totally disgusting. The best bit might be the aforementioned “helicopter zombie,” who stumbles atop a pile of boxes and has the top of his head sliced off by the blades. What a moment! And yes, there’s a brief bit of nudity, but it’s not at all gratuitous or alluring.

Sequels, Spin-offs and Follow-ups: Romero made a living on the dead. DAWN was followed in 1985 by DAY OF THE DEAD, an even more nihilistic and depressing look at society’s tortured last gasps, this one taking place in the bowels of a military bunker. Twenty years later, Romero would deliver LAND OF THE DEAD, an ambitious and overtly political entry that is as flawed as it is interesting. In 2007, Romero went the found footage route with DIARY OF THE DEAD, an unfortunately amateurish exercise that lacks any of the substance we expect from the writer-director. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, released in 2009, was Romero’s final DEAD movie; I’ll be honest, I’ve seen it once and barely remember it. Might be time for a revisit… At that point, it seemed obvious that Romero had said all he could say within the confines of this universe.

And, of course, Zack Snyder made his directorial debut with DAWN OF THE DEAD, a remake released in 2004 that expanded the cast, made the zombies faster and more agile, and did away with most of Romero’s incisive critique of consumerism. It’s not bad (it’s better than DAWN OF JUSTICE zing!), but it’s nowhere near as intelligent or unforgettable as the original.

“You can say the movie is an observation about materialism, and so forth, and what have you really said? The point is that people come out of the film having experienced some very extreme emotions, and it’s up to them to interpret what happened.” – George Romero, 1979

Scare-O-Meter Score: If we’re being honest, it’s not random scares or shocks that make DAWN OF THE DEAD so haunting, it’s the overall dire atmosphere. Compared to, say, THE EXORCIST, DAWN isn’t so scary in the most basic terms. But when taken as a whole, the entire scenario is the stuff of nightmares. Knowing that even the protection of a giant, fortified building cannot save you from inevitable doom is rather alarming, and DAWN has the power to put us in the characters’ shoes, hoping against hope that they can ignore the horror just outside the door but realizing the fantasy can’t last forever. That said, the movie does knock you out with some classic bits of gore that I suppose could be considered scary. (See above.) Simply put, though it may be dated compared to when it was released in 1978, DAWN OF THE DEAD is not for the faint of heart no matter when you watch it. (9/10)

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