Dawn of the Dead (1979) – A Retrospective

[EDITOR’S NOTE: DAWN OF THE DEAD makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with writer-director George Romero.]
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) billed itself as “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience for all times,” and this was a rare instance of a film that lived up to its advertising hyperbole. This sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) abandoned the shadowy black-and-white creepiness of its progenitor in favor of a brightly lit color canvas that was bigger, broader, and bloodier. The film established a new record for explicit on-screen carnage, but it also extended the scope of the original film, taking the living dead phenomenon out of the farmhouse and unleashing it upon the world at large. This time out, the production values are superior; the acting performances are uniformly strong; and the script develops its themes more explicitly, with obvious satirical jabs at modern consumer society, as epitomized by the indoor shopping mall where a small band of human survivors take shelter from the zombie plague sweeping the country.
DAWN is a deliberate inversion of its predecessor. The original film killed off all its major characters but showed mankind triumphant over the living dead; the sequel plays like a traditional happy ending, with two of the leads surviving past the closing credits, but this time the outlook for humanity as a whole is dim.1 Unlike the slow building tension of NIGHT, DAWN jumps right into the story with the marvelous newsroom sequence, which sets a tone of impending, inevitable doom, showing people unable to handle the growing crisis because they cannot bring themselves to accept unpleasant facts that run contrary to what their emotions tell them. This is followed by the shocking Nation Guard shoot-out, filled with enough gore and violence to pace a dozen ordinary horror films.


After the characters find their way to the mall, writer-director George Romero allows the pace to slow, and he indulges the obvious opportunities for humor, with mindless zombies mindlessly shuffling past mindless store window displays while mindless muzak plays on loudspeakers, leaving us in the audience to ask, “How is this any different from what these people did when they were alive?” Then he revs things back up again for the climax, which features an almost unbelievably gruesome feeding frenzy that goes one step beyond NIGHT: this time, we see the zombies literally devouring their victim’s entrails alive. For some, the combination of outrageous gore and slapstick humor (which includes silent-movie-style pie-in-the-face and seltzer water gags) is less satirical than silly, and there are many who prefer the more straightforward approach of NIGHT. But in almost every way, this is a sequel that outshines the original, and even Roger Ebert, who famously trashed NIGHT, called DAWN “one of the best horror films ever made.”

RETROSPECTIVE

The film was a collaboration of sorts between George Romero and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento (whose deliriously over-the-top horror opus SUSPIRIA had been successfully released in the U.S. in 1977). Argento help arranged financing for the film in exchange for foreign distribution rights; as part of the deal, he consulted with Romero on the script and provided an original score performed and composed by Goblin, the Italian progressive rock group whose music had been so effective in both SUSPIRIA and Argento’s previous effort, the giallo thriller DEEP RED (1975
“Dario’s really the guy responsible for that film happening; he was responsible for raising the initial money,” explains Romero. “I wanted to do a satire about consumerism; a friend of ours owned that shopping mall, and he was fool enough to let us come in and bust it up. That is where the idea came from. I told Dario Argento about it. He’s a great friend; we’ve worked together a few times. I had the story laid out, but he invited me to come over to Rome, so—hey!—I wrote the script there, eating good pasta. I guess that’s where those eating scenes came from!”
Working with producer Richard Rubinstein, his partner at Laurel Entertainment, Romero ultimately shot the film for $1.5-million—at that time, a reasonable budget for a low-budget, independent film shot outside Hollywood, without a union crew. Tom Savini (who had previous worked on MARTIN) performed stunts, played a small roll as a biker, and created the astounding makeup effects, which includes the cinema’s first on-screen exploding head—a shocking moment that often drives squeamish viewers from the theatre.
Romero completed a rough cut for festival screenings, then finished his own original director’s cut, which came in at two hours and seven minutes. In exchange for arranging part of the financing, Argento had distribution rights for European territories that allowed him to recut the picture: his version comes in at 118 minutes; although shorter, this cut includes bits of dialogue and gore that were trimmed from the American release.
DAWN was released in United States during the spring of 1979, the same year as ALIEN. Both were unapologetic attempts to take horror as far as it could go, and DAWN, in particular, wanted to overwhelm you with its on-screen onslaught. For a small production, the film received a relatively high-profile release, thanks to its predecessor’s reputation as a horror classic. There were newspaper ads and late-night television spots, emphasizing the connection to NIGHT but making it clear that this film went much further.
DAWN was released unrated, in order to avoid an MPAA rating of X (which tended to imply pornogrpahy). Although this may have hampered the film’s box office potential, the refusal to compromise on the visceral impact only added to DAWN’s reputation for gut-wrenching horror, helping it to achieve its own level of cult notoriety, comparable to and even exceeding that of NIGHT. Not that this was to everyone’s taste, of course. Many critics dismissed the film as nothing but senseless violence, and even some longtime fans of Romero’s previous zombie film (including HALLOWEEN-director John Carpenter), expressed disappointment at the shift from stark black-and-white atmospherics to full-color carnage. On the other hand, Stephen King (writing in Rolling Stone magazine) place DAWN at the top of his list of the ten best horror films of the year.

VIDEO & DVD DETAILS

Unfortunately, it was for many years difficult if not impossible for viewers to enjoy DAWN in its original form on home video. The theatrical version was available on videotape and laserdisc, but the prints used were not in the best shape—with grainy images, washed out color, and even visible scratches and splices. Subsequent DVD releases improved on the picture quality, but there were unfortunate drawbacks that resulted in the accidental suppression of the original cut.
Anchor Bay’s 1997 DVD billed itself as the “Original Director’s Cut,” even though it was actually the 137-minute pre-release cut that Romero had prepared for a film festival screening, without the final ADR and finished soundtrack mix.
Anchor Bay sought to rectify the situation in 1999, when they released a second DVD, labeled the “U.S. Theatrical Cut.” However, through some kind of accident, the first reel of the pre-release cut was put on the DVD, so that fans were surprised to see that this so-called “theatrical cut” contained snippets of footage that they had not seen in theatres! Finally, in 2004 (which saw the release of the DAWN remake), a correct version of the 1979 theatrical cut became available on DVD, loaded with extras like audio commentary..
Even better, an “Ultimate Edition” DVD box set came out, that contained all three different cuts of the film: the longer pre-release cut (still called the director’s cut); the theatrical cut; and Dario Argento’s cut for Italian markets (which had previously been available only as an import Region 3 DVD). This box set, with its extensive bonus materials, is the definitive version for fans.

CONCLUSIONS

Time has not blunted the film’s sharp satirical edge. That jabs at consumer culture are obvious but entertaining, though many critics, especially in America, where the horror genre is held in lwo regard, seem to miss the message. “I think generally the European audiences get more of the stuff that underlies the action—but it doesn’t underlie the action,” observes Romero. “People say, ‘There’s a hidden message about consumerism in DAWN OF THE DEAD.’ I always say, ‘It ain’t exactly hidden!’ It’s pretty much right up in your face.”
Romero explains, “At their core, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the two sequels I made are about revolution, but only in the broadest sense. A new society replacing the old and devouring it—in this case, literally. Sociopolitical criticism and satire is neither hidden nor masquerading as allegory. It’s right out front. We took big, obvious swipes at the media, at religion, at the misuse of family as an institution, and principally at tribalism, at man’s inability to consider perspectives other than his own. That theme is central to all three of my zombie films: mankind bringing about its own defeat.”
For some fans, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is still the superior movie. They mistake DAWN for a soulless sequel that abandons the tone and style of the original. But in truth the film, like its predecessor, is a perfect reflection of its time, and the “soulless” quality is an element under attack, part of the satirical depiction of the shopping mall, which Romero has dubbed “a temple of mindless consumerism.”
In short, Romero took the lowest, most critically derided form of horror filmmaking—explicit gore—and turned it into a form of art. Mixing this outrageous bloodshed with outrageous humor, he also mounted a savage (if tongue-in-cheek) attack on the foibles of modern society. Despite containing elements that many would consider low-brow (not to mention offensive), the film truly earned the accolade bestowed by the Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, which said, “Certainly one of the bloodiest films ever made, it is also memorable for its unusual sensitivity and intelligence.”
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979). Written and directed by George A. Romero. Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross

2 Replies to “Dawn of the Dead (1979) – A Retrospective”

  1. Just a bit of trivia: Roger Ebert didn’t actually trash Night. In fact, he never properly reviewed it. The article he published about it was a commentary on its violence and the fact that a lot of children were exposed to it because it got in under the wire as one of the last films to see wide release before the MPAA rating system was put in place. He said he admired the film itself, and added that were he to actually review the film, he’d give it 3.5 out of 4 stars.

  2. The claim that Roger Ebert didn’t trash NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a bit of revisionism on Ebert’s part. His condemnation rings loud and clear in his original review – which never says anything to suggest it’s a good film, just inappropriate for children.

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