Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Trilogy of Terror: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I spoke last week about how I didn’t want to watch Night of the Living Dead because I knew it would scare the hell out of me. Much later, when I learned about Dawn of the Dead, I didn’t want to watch that, either. This time, it was because I knew it couldn’t possibly live up to its potential.

Across the entire series, this is the film I most often heard spoken about as “the best one,” but that in itself meant little to me. What made it seem to have so much potential in my mind was its setting; Dawn of the Dead is a zombie movie set in a shopping mall.

From the moment I learned that fact, I braced myself for disappointment. It was such a perfect concept that any execution would have to be flawed. One hears “zombies in a shopping mall” and the mind races. The imagination goes wild. The movie that existed in my head, even if it were just a series of disconnected moments, would have to be better than anything one person with some cameras could actually achieve.

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I was wrong; I think we can all agree on that, but before we discuss the many ways in which I was wrong, let’s take a moment to discuss why the concept felt so perfect to begin with.

I grew up — as I’m sure many people reading this did — with shopping malls. They weren’t a novelty to me; they were born well before I was. They were a natural and organic concept. People liked buying things. At a mall, they could buy everything.

Some of my earliest memories were formed at malls. I remember shopping for new clothes there before the start of the new school year. I remember being told I could pick a toy as long as it was under $5, which of course limited me but there were so many toys I didn’t even realize it. I remember dogs in the pet store pressing their wet noses against the glass in the hopes that somebody would take them home along with the crock pot, stereo, and sneakers they were already carrying.

I remember the music. The bright lights. The smell of neutrality.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

For me, “the mall” referred to the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing, New Jersey. I was also within driving distance of the Ocean County Mall in Toms River, but that one wasn’t as good. I understood already that malls weren’t created equal.

I got older. Not willingly, but it happened. My friends and I got driver’s licenses. All of us, I know, drove to the Hamilton Mall as one of our big first trips. It was a drive of around half an hour, for context, but when you first get your driver’s license, that’s a pilgrimage.

Of course we went to the mall. Why would we not have? Everything was there. If we wanted a CD, it was there. If we wanted a video game, it was there. If we wanted a new shirt or an action figure or a book, it was there. And you might as well go on an empty stomach, because the food court had anything you could want. You didn’t even have to agree on where to eat; everybody could load up on whatever they were in the mood for and you’d all sit down together at a table in the middle of it all, the sounds of shopping echoing all around you.

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It was, counterintuitively, soothing. I’d struggle to explain why, especially as an introvert who almost uniformly dislikes crowds. What was it that kept me coming back? Or, no, that’s not the right question. Let’s ask instead, what made me want to be there?

I can’t answer that. I don’t know if Romero can, either, at least not with an easy, digestible sentence or two. Instead, he illustrates and explores the concept simply by having the zombies flock there. Sure, there are survivors inside, but that’s not what draws them to the building.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“They’re after the place,” one character observes. “They don’t know why. They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”

Later, when the mall is swarmed by living people, that same character echoes his earlier sentiment, and not accidentally.

“They’re after the place,” he says again. “They don’t care about us.”

The mall is, or at least was, soothing to the consumerist soul. To children raised on TV, to those who were born listening to sales pitches, to those who watched cartoons that were actually commercials and commercials that were actually cartoons, to those who were convinced that having more stuff better stuff lots of stuff was evidence that you’d done well.

Be the first one on your block to have X. Make your friends jealous with Y. Supplies are limited.

We fucking love stuff.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Malls are full of stuff. I used to dream — literally dream — about being locked in one after everybody went home. About having full run of the arcade. About filling up on candy. About having everything to my young self, even though something like 90% of it would have had no meaning to me and genuinely wouldn’t have interested me on its own merits, I’d have it, at least for a while, and that would be great.

So let’s stick some survivors in there. Let’s stick some zombies in there as well. Let’s see what happens.

Miraculously, what happens is one those rare films that’s every bit as good as its excellent premise. But let me disappoint you: of Romero’s first three Dead films, Dawn of the Dead is my least favorite.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

This speaks to no particular shortcoming in the film; it’s just that I think Night of the Living Dead is the better movie, and Day of the Dead is the one that I enjoy the most. Dawn of the Dead would be the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen if it weren’t sandwiched by the only two better zombie movies I’ve ever seen.

If I have a real complaint, it’s the length of the film. The theatrical cut tops two hours, and there’s an extended cut that tops two and a half. Part of me wants to say that it would be a shame to lose any of the material, and, well, that part of me is correct. But another part of me realizes that sitting down to watch Dawn of the Dead is an commitment. I’ll need to set aside my evening for it. I can pop the other two movies in whenever I’m in the mood. Dawn of the Dead, though, demands attention and it demands it for a longer stretch. Does that make it worse? Of course not. But it does mean that I’m reaching for it less often.

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If I’d cut anything, it would have to be before the survivors get to the mall. That leaves, basically, the newsroom sequence and the SWAT sequence. Which, of course, means it’s the SWAT sequence I’d cut.

The newsroom sequence is masterful and efficient. It says everything it needs to say quickly, introduces two characters we’ll get to know later, and feeds us directly into the main story. The SWAT sequence is the opposite. It’s messy. It’s less interesting. It spends more time saying far less.

First, let’s focus on the newsroom, which is our thematic branching-off point from Night of the Living Dead.

This film was made and takes place 10 years later, but not quite in the same continuity. The zombie outbreak happened in that one, and the zombie outbreak happened a decade later in this one. We can assume that a version of this story happened then, and a version of that story is happening now, with Ben and Barbra and the Coopers and Tom and Judy huddled around a TV, watching this broadcast, trying to figure out which of the rescue stations scrolling across the screen is nearest.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

On this side of the screen, however, we learn that as many as half of the rescue stations are inoperative. We can use our imaginations as to why, and that works, I believe, far better than seeing them possibly could.

Fran, one of the producers on the broadcast, orders that the entire list be taken down. Better that than send people to their deaths. The director demands they stay up, reasoning that people will stop watching if they stop running the info. It’s quick, simple, and efficient satire. Fran leaves with her boyfriend Stephen, who may be able to fly them to Canada in the station’s helicopter. (We won’t actually get to see how the outbreak is affecting, but the book The Living Dead explores it for those interested.)

The entire newsroom sequence lasts just a few minutes, but its recognizable chaos hits hard. It’s the collapse of structure, broadcast live to people whose entire world is falling apart. The people watching have turned to the news for explanation, for authority, for the reassurance that somebody knows what’s happening. We see that the people they turn to do not know what’s happening, and their lies are breaking down in real time.

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If you think there’s more to explore in this newsroom, you aren’t wrong; it’s explored for long stretches in The Living Dead, which dedicates long sections to that novel’s version of this scene. It’s a good read, and those sections of the book are probably my favorite. But I’m glad they’re in the book and not the film, because the film is not about this. The film is about what happens after this.

Then we have the SWAT section, which feels a bit more obviously manufactured to me. One of the men on the SWAT team is a racist. We know he’s a racist because every other word is a slur. He gloats openly about how excited he is to shoot people who don’t look like him. Then he starts shooting people who don’t look like him.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

There’s more going on than that, but not much. He gets shot by another member of the SWAT team, who we soon learn is Peter, played by Ken Foree. Peter is joined by Roger, who does not mind that Peter shot the racist.

Peter and Roger are not racist and don’t like racists.

Racism sucks, I agree whole-fucking-heartedly, but we already had an entire film that told us that. Doing it again — far more clumsily and far less interestingly — isn’t really necessary.

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I suspect the SWAT section was filmed for one of two reasons. The first, and probably more likely, is that it gave us a chance to get to know Roger and Peter. I don’t think that’s necessary, as we’ll be getting to know each of the characters, these two included, once they all meet up. What’s more, I don’t think we learn anything here that we don’t more or less immediately learn again there.

The other possibility is that it was filmed to give us a view of the “larger world” dealing with the outbreak. I’m really not a fan of that. I like each of these stories being as isolated as possible, with only glimpses of what’s happening elsewhere, ideally through a radio or television broadcast. As with the inoperable rescue stations, it’s better to imagine the horror.

In fact, the film will prove this not much later, when a scene takes place in an abandoned building, notes scrawled on the walls, never to be found by the people meant to see them. Nobody comments on them. They don’t need to. Our imaginations are already working wonders.

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Roger invites Peter to join him and Stephen in the helicopter, and that’s necessary to see only if you decide it’s necessary. In Night of the Living Dead, we followed one character to the film’s main setting. There were many others, all of whom had their own stories that led them there, but we only followed one.

Here, we follow four, and I don’t know if we need to do that. We could instead follow Fran to the roof where her boyfriend steals the helicopter. A mall would (and does) draw more than a couple of people’s attention, so have Peter and Roger show up there later, or already be there.

Or cut the SWAT section and have Roger pull up in the police car with Peter, just as we see here. He still needs to introduce Peter to the other characters as it is, so I don’t think we need to see either of them introduced in the apartment raid.

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But that’s me complaining about one of the only sequences that doesn’t entirely work for me. Once they take off, the film only gets better. We even get to see the ending of Night of the Living Dead from above, with the good ol’ boys carelessly shooting anything that moves.

In case you thought I read too much into the selection of extras in the previous film, they’re specifically referred to as rednecks here. Oh, and we see them drinking and laughing and one of them accidentally shoots another in the head. So, y’know, sorry for jumping to conclusions. There are very fine people on both sides.

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But who cares about that? It’s all preamble. We’re here for the shopping mall, especially this one, with a helipad on top of it.

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The four land here because they know the mall will contain supplies they’ll need, but they soon realize there might not be a reason for them to keep moving at all. Like I said, malls have everything.

It’s here that they decide to stay. Pilot Stephen, newswoman Fran, soldier Peter, and hotshot Roger. It’s here, as we know, that tensions will build. And it’s here, inevitably, that these mismatched survivors will turn out to be bigger threats to each other than the zombies are.

We know all of this.

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Which is why it’s so surprising, impressive, and memorable that it’s wrong.

In the very film after he established that people under duress will fail to work together toward the common good, focusing on their own survival and concerns ahead of anyone else’s, Romero establishes that this does not actually have to be the case. It will be the case if you aren’t vigilant, and no other group of survivors in the other five films manages to do it, but in Dawn of the Dead, that’s what we see. We see survivors who understand that they are stronger as a group, and whatever preconceptions or prejudices they may have about each other need to be put aside.

And that’s that. It really is that easy. Tensions will be high, and you’ll need to defuse them. Insults will be tossed around, and you’ll need to ignore them. Mistakes will be made, and you’ll need to forgive them.

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Those are the rules. There’s no room for exceptions. You grow up and you stay grown up or every last one of you is fucked.

On some level, each of them understands this innately. Thank Christ for that.

The film even tests and then reinforces their willingness to let go of perceived or actual slights many times. It’s not an accident on Romero’s part; it’s a statement.

Soon after they take flight, they land the helicopter to gas it up. Each of the four pokes around the hangar area to see what they can find. They find zombies, of course. That’s okay.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Stephen proves himself to be a poor shot. He shoots zombies multiple times, but they don’t go down. Roger, evidently an accomplished marksman, knocks Stephen’s gun out of the way. He takes a shot instead and the zombie goes down with a single bullet to the head.

It happens several times. Roger is showing off. It might be a bit much to say he’s treating it like a game, but it’s clear he knows he’s the winner.

Stephen, as a lesser man or in a lesser film, would get upset. He’d push back. He’d squabble. As they argued, some zombies would draw nearer. Too near. It’s too early in the film for a major character to get bitten but they’d at least have a scare. Roger would punch him in the eye for putting them in danger. Stephen would seethe and later try to even the score…

But that doesn’t happen.

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Stephen makes a face to express that he isn’t exactly thrilled about being outperformed, but that’s it. Roger is a better shot. Stephen is lousy with a gun. In this respect, one man is more skilled than the other man. Both being adults, they leave it at that. And far from seething, we see Stephen later in the film practicing his marksmanship on mall mannequins. This experience isn’t an excuse to feel threatened; it’s a reason to grow.

Okay, yes, Stephen and Roger are already friends. I admit, that would cause them to cut each other some slack and trust each other more than they usually would.

Which is why it’s great that Stephen almost immediately afterward finds himself in conflict with Peter, the stranger in the group.

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Stephen’s intentions are good. He sees a zombie closing in on Peter, who was investigating a small building. From his perspective, he shot a monster who could potentially have killed one of the group.

Something very different happened from Peter’s perspective: Stephen, who has little to no idea of how to handle a gun, pointed it in Peter’s direction. Whatever the man’s intentions, he could have killed him.
Peter storms toward Stephen. He aims his gun directly at him.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“You never aim a gun at anyone, mister,” he says firmly. “It’s scary. Isn’t it?”

And that’s it. Message delivered, message received. (Message emphasized a bit later in the helicopter, sure, but you get the idea.)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

It doesn’t matter who started it. It doesn’t matter who’s right. It doesn’t matter if they’re even. The conflict is behind them and if they’re going to get through this at all, the conflict needs to stay behind them.

They both know it. They all know it. And it stays behind them.

It feels miraculous, and it’s just human beings behaving like actual, decent people. Maybe that is a miracle.

Additional conflicts within the group are raised as they get to know each other.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Fran is upset that the rest of them essentially decided that they wouldn’t go to Canada after all without consulting her. She’s upset again later when they learn she’s pregnant and have a conversation about abortion. She gets angry with Stephen for taking her gun, leaving her defenseless when a zombie gets into their safe room.

Fran is at the center of each of these conflicts, and any of them could have turned into shouting matches, thrown punches, threats to be fulfilled later.

None of them do.

They talk. Like people. Like adults. Like a team. At one point she mentions she’d like to learn to fly the helicopter, in case anything happens to Stephen. He doesn’t take this as a threat. He doesn’t see this as a way of losing the only actual power he wields within the group. He teaches her to fly the helicopter, because that was a very good point and the group is glad she made it.

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And then, much later, when Roger is bitten, he keeps helping. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t plead for sympathy. He doesn’t want or allow special treatment.

He is going to die. There is no other way this ends. Anything he accomplishes from this point forward is for the good of the others; he will not benefit from any of it.

“There’s a lot to get done before you can afford to lose me,” he says. And that’s it. He keeps going.

He has to. The group needs to survive, even if he’ll no longer be part of it. He’ll die an adult.

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Stephen, Fran, Peter, and Roger build a small pocket of humanity that actually functions. Whereas the group from Night of the Living Dead would have been lucky just to see sunrise, this group prospers. They are not reduced to huddling fearfully and eating rations until help comes.

Instead, they scout the mall for supplies. They learn the layout of the ductwork that allows them to move around safely. They wall up the entrance to their safe room in case looters come through. They hotwire trucks and use them to barricade the entrances. They kill every last zombie that is already inside. They bring them to a refrigerated room so that they won’t rot and cause further problems.

They actively make their situation better, and they do so carefully and with forethought.

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Their safe room becomes a home. Not just metaphorically, but in a physical sense. They furnish it. They lay down carpet. They hang art and a dartboard. They create kitchen areas and sleeping areas and recreation areas. They treat themselves to an expensive Bang & Olufsen sound system.

They find a TV, of course, and they later upgrade it to a nicer, color one. They watch emergency broadcasts. Desperate hosts and hopeless scientists. Technicians barely keeping the broadcast alive jeering and interjecting from off camera as the nearest thing anyone has to a specialist shouts over them that mankind’s run is as good as over.

The reality has flipped. On that side of the screen, chaos reigns. On the viewer’s side — at least here, at least now — there’s safety.

Civilization collapses as this group successfully builds a new one of its own.

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This gives Dawn of the Dead a completely different tone. They aren’t at each other’s throats. They laugh. They listen to each other. They help each other, without exception.

And because they treat each other like people, because they consistently do the right thing for the good of the group, they get to have something no survivors in the series get to have: fun.

They do everything — literally every last thing — I used to dream about doing in that mall after hours. They fill up massive bags of candy. They gather up any clothes and toys and food that looks good. They drive one of the cars around. They play arcade games.

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The latter actually has a bit of weight, as Roger plays a racing game that ends when, in a moment of carelessness, he lets his vehicle crash. It blows up. You see his face reflected in the screen as he watches the explosion animate again and again. He fucked up, and now it’s over…

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It’s a game, though; he inserts another quarter and he gets another chance. He’s happy for that opportunity.

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In real life, of course, he gets no second chance. Prior to the end of the film, Roger being bitten is the only time they don’t have the upper hand, and it hits hard. Of course it does. Until this point, and for a long time afterward, this is working. The previous film suggested universal fucked-ness but this one has taken great pains to show us that it doesn’t need to be that way, not everywhere.

Gravity reasserts itself here. Not permanently and not unilaterally, but enough that it’s sobering.

It happens while he and Peter are barricading the mall with trucks. Hotshot Roger is flooded with adrenaline. He’s showboating and goofing around. Maybe the fact that long-term security is so easily within their grasp makes him careless. I don’t know, but he lets his reckless side come out. He stops closing doors behind him. He stops paying attention to his surroundings. He takes needless risks to fuck around with the zombies that outnumber them massively.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

At one point, riding in the same vehicle, Peter tells him to get his shit together. He already had to save Roger’s ass once; the next time he might not be able to. Peter tells him to get his head on straight. Roger agrees.

But Roger forgot his bag of tools.

Without them he can’t hotwire the next truck. They have to turn around. He has to cross from one truck to another one more time. One more time than was planned. He gets his tools, and gets a bite taken out of him as well. Just like that, it’s as good as over for him.

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He doesn’t want to dwell. Why would he? He did this to himself. He was warned, explicitly, that his behavior was putting them at risk. He’s bitten. Fuck it. He won’t hide it or sugarcoat it but he’s sure as shit not going to stop helping. Not going to change the plan. Not going to ask to be taken to safety.

This is it. He sees that he’s already died for the sake of the mission; he might as well finish it.

It’s rough. Roger’s a good guy. He had the biggest smile. He had the most fun. He’s the one who brought Peter into the mix. He’s the common thread that allowed everyone else to give each other a chance.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

He hangs on as long as he can. They bandage him up. They give him morphine. When he can no longer walk, they wheel him around. He’s still part of the group, he’s still part of the team, he’s still a friend, even if he isn’t going to see where they end up.

In Night of the Living Dead, both Johnny and Karen reanimate, but we don’t see the process. The Coopers also “wake up” after death, but we see essentially nothing of what actually happens to a person as they shift from living to dead to living dead.

With Roger, we see all of it. From the pain in his eyes to the sweat to the nightmares to his pallor, we watch, over the course of several days, as a character we got to know becomes a zombie. As a man becomes a monster, despite his best attempts not to.

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As he’s close to death, he tells Peter that he’s going to fight it. He may not live, but maybe he can die.

“I’m going to try not to come back,” he says. It probably won’t work, but it’s not like there are other options.

His force of will is not enough. He comes back. Peter grants him rest.

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Roger is buried the only way they can do so decently: in an indoor planter next to a J.C. Penney, surrounded by plastic trees.

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The absurdity of the situation only makes it sadder.

And yet — and yet! — even then, even after one of them is dead, even after their already tiny group shrinks by 25%, even when reality has made its way to them through the barricades and the locked doors, they’re okay.

They still function as a group. They still care about each other and work together.

The situation has said clearly to them, “Any one of you could die next.” They each respond, in turn, “So fucking what?” And they do their best to keep living, as distinct from surviving.

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There’s a scene in which Peter prepares a romantic dinner for Stephen and Fran. He doesn’t even wish to join them. He does it because it’s a nice thing to do for other people and he leaves them to their privacy.

He takes his own bottle of champagne to the planter in which Roger is buried, and that’s where he spends his night.

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He’s giving them what they need. They’re giving him what he needs. As the world outside passes the point of no return, these three have earned a quiet night. They’ve earned a quiet night because they’ve allowed their nights to be quiet, free of conflict, fortified with the understanding that they are in this together.

They have been tested in every way, and they have passed.

Which means the danger must come from outside. It does.

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The biker gang, if I’m to be honest, is a bit too evil for evil’s sake. They serve a necessary purpose, and I understand and acknowledge that. But in a film with such strong characterization almost everywhere else, a bunch of hooting idiots on motorcycles feels like a big step in the wrong direction.

In a sense, I get it. The world is Hell. If these clowns survive out there, it’s because they aren’t taking any shit, they’re shooting first, and they’re sufficiently armed to make up for any lack of training.

But they feel a bit too shallow to me, as though they don’t exist beyond their purpose in the plot. Sheriff McClelland in the first film didn’t technically get much characterization either, but we learned everything we needed to know about who he was, what he was doing, and why it mattered.

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Here…well, maybe that’s still the case. Maybe the answer is that these are a bunch of bozos on motorcycles and that’s that. Maybe the answer is that life in this catastrophe has either stripped them entirely down to their base instincts or that they never had much personality beyond their base instincts to begin with, which is how they managed to survive.

But even that doesn’t feel quite right. They take too much pleasure in what they’re doing for that to be the case. They smash pies into zombies’ faces. They play with the blood pressure tester. They laugh and have fun. Our heroes laughed and had fun, too. Maybe that’s the point, but it isn’t much of one.

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The siege on the mall is far from bad. I like that after Peter calls Stephen off on the grounds that the gang is after their goods, not them, Stephen ignores him.

“It’s ours,” Stephen says to himself, justifying his intention to fight. “We took it. It’s ours.”

However much they learned to coexist as people, they still fucking love stuff.

But moments like that don’t need this particular biker gang to work. They don’t need to be this broadly sketched. They don’t need to be cartoon henchmen of a villain who never shows up. The ending could work with anything, from hardened killers to desperate groups who resort to violence because it’s the only way to get inside, resulting in a battle that kills otherwise good people on both sides of the conflict.

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In the previous film, I understand the root of Mr. Cooper’s concerns. In the next film, I understand the root of Captain Rhodes’ concerns. In both cases that’s due at least in part to the fact that we spend time with them, watch them react to the story as it unfolds, so that when it comes time for each of them to do something unforgivable, we understand where it’s coming from. We see the flawed person behind the decision. We recognize the psychological machinery that makes them, in a word, ruin it for everybody.

Not so with the bikers. They are who they are. They’ve got Nazi helmets and insignia. They’ve got leather and firearms. The ride noisy motorcycles and hoot and holler.

Can Romero write better villains? He has. Which makes the shallowness of the bikers all the more puzzling.

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Or maybe Romero just wants to give us some fun, too. Night of the Living Dead offered precious little in the way of zombie killing. Dawn of the Dead in this one sequence alone gives us loads of it.

We’ve got hordes of the undead all around us and improvised weapons as far as they eye can see. Let’s go nuts. Let’s get some gore in here. Let’s beat them and chop them and shred them. Let’s give the audience a thrill that we weren’t able to give them before.

The biker gang doesn’t win, of course. They don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and even though Peter and Stephen are the only two people defending the place, they know the environment and are able to consider their actions more carefully. The bikers are defeated.

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Stephen, sadly, takes a bullet in his arm, and it results in him getting swarmed by the zombies. Peter and Fran are left alone, minutes away from being overwhelmed for good.

Fortunately, she’s learned how to fly the helicopter. Peter sends her on her way, planning to kill himself rather than let himself be killed, but he decides to join her on the roof at last. They take off together, leaving the mall overrun.

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“How much fuel do we have?” Peter asks her.

“Not much,” she says.

He pauses. “Alright.”

And that’s it. They fly away, almost certainly to their off-camera deaths, though we’ll never know their final moments. In a film like this, that’s about as good as survival.

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Originally, Romero planned a very different ending: Peter would indeed shoot himself and Fran would lift her head into the path of the spinning copter blades. My understanding is that she would do this intentionally, but that’s a decision that could easily have been reversed in the editing booth, making it look accidental.

Either way, as in Night of the Living Dead, we’d be left with no survivors.

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For whatever reason, Romero changed his mind. I think this was the right decision, especially since we don’t follow the helicopter. We don’t see it touch down in a field somewhere, where other survivors approach and lead them to a new community where everything is fine. We don’t see the two embrace upon hearing that a cure has been found.

We get told they don’t have much fuel.


We know they didn’t survive. We know they can’t have survived. And yet we don’t have to see them die, so we can cling to whatever comforting fiction we choose. Maybe they’re still out there. The more we think about it the less likely that seems but, well, nobody’s making us think about it.

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We’re left on a more uplifting — pun intended — scene than we are at the end of Night of the Living Dead, and yet Fran and Peter are only marginally more likely to be alive than Ben is, and we saw him get shot and tossed into a bonfire.

It isn’t much, but after a film that showed us that things didn’t always have to be as bad as possible — even in the midst of a situation that really was as bad as possible — Romero lets us believe. More accurately, he lets us delude ourselves, but even that’s a sort of kindness. The door is left open just enough for us to ignore reality.

As everything collapses for good, as there is nothing for anybody to turn to, as a scientist on television proposes the bombing of population centers as our only and unlikely hope, isn’t one last glance skyward, the only direction left that we can reasonably describe as “away,” all we can truly ask for?

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

3 thoughts on “Trilogy of Terror: Dawn of the Dead (1978)”

  1. Just watched this one – my first time watching this film, too – and the SWAT part of the opening didn’t bother me. (Not until the movie slowed down after our heroes established their little sitcom set upstairs and I had time to think about how long this movie was, anyway.) And it’s for the reason you point out: we’re picking up thematically from where the first left off. The rednecks were a terribly flawed hero of the first film; even if they saved a majority of the living, there were still going to be thousands of additional needless tragedies along the way.

    And thank whatever might still pass for a god in that world that Peter shoots the racist in their midst. But the group of rednecks we see… I don’t know, is it possible that they and SWAT teams were the last types of organizing the living tried to get going? And if conscientious objects like Peter and Roger defected in hundreds of cities and towns, how different would those two types of groups be? There’s about five months of downtime after the mall is cleared out. We’ve all learned how endless five months can feel during a pandemic, and how active racists become when tensions are stoked and a few supporting beams of civilization are knocked down.

    But what if *all* the supports were knocked away at once? It would be an overstatement to call the bikers organized; I suspect it’s their enthusiasm that has made them so effective. (I wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that this wasn’t their first mall; they certainly didn’t seem to be grabbing food.) If the SWAT teams had been the more effective of the two types of groups, they would have found the mall with their own helicopters some time ago. It’s cartoony as hell–would Peter Jackson have even come up with a pie-in-the-zombie-face gag if Romero hadn’t?–but there’s plenty of ridiculous genetic quirks in a survival-of-the-fittest evolutionary model.

    (And speaking of other horror creators, can you imagine how jealous Stephen King must have been that someone else thought of zombies vs. racist bikers before he did?)

    Tell me if you think I’m making too much of this, but to me part of the tragedy of the film (and, to the extent I want to believe Peter and Fran make it, the hope) is that our group stumbled onto one good solution to the zombie problem. Forget the insane extremes of morality (feeding them the parts of the humans they don’t eat on the first pass) or of logic (nuke the cities): just let them all find their way to the nearest mall and lock the doors behind them.

  2. Alright so I *finally* sat down to watching this movie… I came to it a little late, I know, but I really appreciate you having made this write-up. In no particular order, I guess here’s some immediate initial thoughts:

    I liked how you framed the importance of the setting in this movie. I guess it is kind of telling, the thought came to me in reading your review (I think from how you referred to the separate quotes on how both the zombies and the bikers were after the mall, and your re-focus on how both are obsessed with stuff, inescapable materialism–the place even being referred to as a prison by one character), that we as the audience stay with the mall too when the film ends. In effect the film seems to expect we were also here for the mall (even though we began the experience following four lives), or perhaps, that we would find that more interesting once we got here.

    Also–not overly important, and I’ve only seen the film once/didn’t take any notes so I don’t want to put too large of an emphasis on this, but it felt like the display at the refueling station created enough tension between Stephen and Peter and also Stephen and Roger (with Roger emphasizing how he knows he’s the better shot–if that’s putting it accurately) that it lasted into the beginning of entering the shopping mall. Which was largely what led to Peter and Roger leaving Stephen to sleep while they scout the mall–maybe he was more of a liability to them or simply an unknown factor. But I felt like all that tension melted as soon as Stephen did go down into the mall and met up with the others a little later, and they all sort of got to bond over each other’s teamwork. It felt very human, and leaps and bounds more mature than what I remember from Night of the Living Dead.

    Amazing observations with the arcade game’s foreshadowing and with the upgraded color television (and amazing write-up in general.) I missed the context of the tools being needed to hotwire trucks, and honestly I missed the part in the SWAT scene where it was established that Roger and Stephen were already friends. Somehow. Admittedly I did watch this film in two close sittings, but I ended up watching that scene twice… so your theory on that scene being cut potentially benefitting the overall movie may have another point going towards it.

    The part in your review about danger needing to come from the outside was logical; in my viewing of this movie, I was half-predicting a timeskip. And speaking of timeskips, I apparently watched the regular cut as opposed to the extended version, but I kind of appreciated the film’s overall flashforward of the “zombie-hunting” after the gates were all locked (as opposed to some hokey montage.) Maybe this was decided with full knowledge that the film would include plenty of better zombie-action when the bikers arrived.

    I think these were all the comments I had in my head about this movie. The movie felt incredibly imaginative, which I sort of wasn’t expecting (not because Night of the Living Dead was underwhelming, because it wasn’t, if I had to place a reason I think the wording on your Facebook post announcing this article initially led to me setting low expectations for the film… although that didn’t cause me to postpone watching it or anything.) I will say that I agree completely about this movie feeling like quite a time-commitment; personally I watched most of it on 1.25 speed. With that being said, I hope this comment wasn’t too long either.

    Thanks again! I’ll have to watch Day of the Dead soon, hope you’re doing well!

  3. One thing is apparent in Dawn of the Dead, a message echoed by the mad scientist in Day of the Dead ;
    “They ARE us !”
    Dawn of the Dead is a polarising metaphor for consumerist greed, which as you so rightly pointed out leads to Stephen’s death.
    And when they settle in to the reality, that they have all that stuff. All the money that they can’t spend. All the clothes that they have nowhere to go to wear. All of the jewels that despite their lustre have no value.
    Because at the end of the day it’s just so much stuff. Without outside interaction, wealth and status symbols are worthless.
    This is my fave of the trilogy which I regularly lose an afternoon to.

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