'Dawn of the Dead' (1978) Movie Review

Updated on March 13, 2019
John Plocar profile image

What's so difficult to understand? They're dead. They rise. Shoot 'em in the head. They're dead again. I got this review, no problem.

Every Time is Like the Very First Time… Only This Time Kind of is the First Time.

To elaborate on that title a little more, this was the first time I have ever seen this particular version of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Prior to last night, I have only viewed the theatrical cut, but was aware of other editions that exist out there. Out of the blue, I felt the urge to finally seek out the 139 minute extended cut, the version that some consider to be the definitive edition of the 1978 classic. In terms of the theatrical cut, I want to establish here and say that I absolutely love the original Dawn of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead is easily one of my favorite horror movies of all time, it is most certainly my favorite zombie flick at that. After watching this longer iteration of one of my most beloved films, I am surprised to say that I love and appreciate it even more than ever. Somehow the little, yet several, changes and extensions in the extended cut make what I consider to be a masterpiece even more of a polished piece of art. This inspired me to want to discuss my thoughts and feelings on the iconic horror classic today. So without further ado, here is my review for one of George A. Romero’s greatest cinematic achievements.

Be afraid, be VERY afraid! ...yes, I know that's the tagline for a different horror film. But I'm sticking with it.
Be afraid, be VERY afraid! ...yes, I know that's the tagline for a different horror film. But I'm sticking with it.

The Story

The world is being overrun by hordes of the dead coming back from beyond the grave, attacking the living and eating their flesh. Spreading their unruly disease among mass populations, also becoming one of the undead that roam in search of their next human meal. In the initial uprising of this epidemic, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members and a young couple that works in television, come together so they may flee from this deadly nightmare. Only to soon find refuge inside of a secluded shopping mall. After that it is a constant fight for survival against not only the deceased, but some of the living as well since the whole world has seemingly fallen into chaos; making rules and laws a thing of the past.

BRAINS!!!
BRAINS!!!

When There’s No More Room in Heaven, This Movie Made Its Way to Earth.

With a film like this, it’s difficult to assess where to start. There are almost too many amazing qualities about Dawn of the Dead to even begin. I suppose I should start in the writing of its narrative, which from the very opening throws the viewer into a world of stylish suspense. We, as the audience, are thrown straight into some real ‘end of the world’ tension here and it only gives the briefest of breaks for us and the characters to breathe. Then it is right back into the chills and thrills again. Every scene, even the lighter ones, always contain an overwhelming sense of dread. The tone of doom and gloom is present every step of the way, never letting us forget that one wrong move for these characters we’re following, could be their last. Yet, the film also remembers the importance of bringing dimensionality to its characters. It would be easy to remove any bit of humor and lighthearted humanity from these four leads to solely focus on the more serious emotions from them, but Dawn of the Dead is smarter than that. We see these people at their best and at their worst. We see when they become stressed out, when they become irritated with one another and we even see moments when they lose all hope entirely. But we also see their jovial side, we see them laugh together and get along. We see friendships bloom and relationships struggle, even when they may lash out at one another we still understand as to why and they still maintain a believable sense of care and respect for the other person. The writing of these characters are interjected with such immense amounts of humanity and three-dimensionality that I’m pretty sure I watched a documentary rather than a movie. That is how meticulously crafted the writing here for the characters are. This is the level of character writing that is truly needed to make me care about the people on screen and I really do here, I care about every single person and every time I watch the movie I still route for them all to make it out of every scenario alive. Which is insane since I’ve seen this film probably over a couple dozen times, yet I still to this day want to see them all make it to the very end.

Ready to spend the next two hours getting our asses kicked?
Ready to spend the next two hours getting our asses kicked?

The story itself is just as thoughtfully crafted as the characters. Every moment of suspense feels like a shot of adrenaline directly into my heart. I am constantly left in fear for what the future holds next for our heroes. Every near bite that almost tears at their flesh fills me with terror. It seems like there is nowhere that is truly safe for anyone left alive in this world that is being overridden by the walking dead. Around every corner lies danger, even the rare occasions that they may sleep relatively soundly, there could always be that one undead creature that lurks for them and may just find them. May just kill them. Or worse. That dreadful feeling ramps up more and more in a very natural way within the story as we see these four people gain control of the shopping mall, yet have to take more and more risks in order keep it. So that means if they want supplies, they have to actually explore an entire building that is filled to the brim with flesh hungry zombies and then attempt to make it back to their secure location within the top floor of the mall with everything they collect. If they want to clear out the undead infestation then they have to do it themselves without getting killed and then figure out how to keep the undead out as well. Then when a biker gang breaks in and endangers everything they’ve worked all this time for, it is completely up to them alone to deal with the situation at hand. Not to mention the mass number of zombies that make their way in as well. It is one thing after another and it is brilliantly structured as I am simultaneously afraid for these people, I also grow to care and be charmed by them too. By the end, I don’t know if anyone will make it out of this nightmarish hell with their lives… well, I mean I know the outcome of the film obviously, but I’m so wrapped up in the story that I feel as though I forget I’ve even seen this countless times before. It really is quite like I am seeing the movie all over again for the very first time.

The Social Commentary

Something that aided my admiration for Dawn of the Dead even more from the extended cut was the additional/extended scenes that helped strengthen the themes about commercialism and greed. While Dawn of the Dead has certainly garnered the title for being one of the scariest films ever made, I believe it to also be one of the smartest films ever made. The subtle, yet impactful hints within the dialog and the actions of certain characters delves into a fascinating commentary on our society. What we as people strive for in our lives, how material items tempt us into addictive behaviors that eat away at our lives and we become nothing more than mindless empty husks that walk from store to store in the search for something more. The themes presented here are thought provoking and terrifically well executed as they are seamlessly interwoven into the scenes, rather than wedged in with a mallet like some filmmakers could have mistakenly done instead. Not Romero though, no. It is extremely apparent in every line uttered and every plot point encountered, he thought about it time and time again until he found the formula that was just right. He balances his horror tale and fleshed out characters with this commentary to the best of his abilities, in my opinion, he does it flawlessly. A lesser writer would have made the zombies nothing more than walking metaphors with ‘in your face’ symbolism, however with Romero, he knows when it works and when to simply let a story unfold. That is what made him such a genius in the genre.

Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.
Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.

The Cast

My mind wonders how I am continuously amazed at the amount of depth and charisma these four lead actors are able breathe into these characters, they make what is already interesting on the page into fully realized and relatable human beings. Not only are they relatable, but sometimes they’re just cool. They are cool and fun to watch.

Peter

Peter (Ken Foree)
Peter (Ken Foree)

My favorite character might be Peter, who is played perfectly by Ken Foree. He manages to squeeze a lot of material out of this character; we see him when he’s a hard ass that becomes agitated with certain actions of other characters, we see him have fun and joke around with the group, we experience his calm and collected behavior in a high stress situation, we feel his anguish as he mourns for those he has lost, we watch in nail biting anticipation as he appears he has lost all signs of hope, we cheer when he kicks some zombie ass, and on top of it all we see him rockin’ a cowboy getup briefly. Bad. Ass. Seriously though, I love his performance and I think he does an incredible job in his role being entirely believable and awesome.

We came to shop for bubble gum and kick ass... there's actually plenty of bubble gum to shop for.
We came to shop for bubble gum and kick ass... there's actually plenty of bubble gum to shop for.

Among the others, they are all impressive in their own right. What is actually somewhat funny about the other three lead actors is that they have only acted a handful of times their whole lives. For the two other male leads, David Emge and Scott H. Reigniger, Dawn of the Dead was only their second feature while with actress Gaylen Ross it was her first. Honestly, before researching these individuals, I hadn’t a clue they didn’t really have all that much acting experience since they perform so professionally in their roles here. I’m rather quite stunned at how well and capable they were in front of the camera, seeing how they really didn’t act all that long as a career. At least not consistently. Color me impressed! And they really all do magnificently in their performances.

Roger

Roger (Scott H. Reiniger)
Roger (Scott H. Reiniger)

Reigniger playing a bit of a loose cannon as Roger, there are times where he is a bit unhinged but never in a way that seems overly arrogant to the point of annoyance. When he does something slightly foolish, I understand as to why and am still invested in his character. Plus, it never reaches a level to where all he does is seemingly stupid or anything like that. He just loses his head and gets a little too cocky from time to time, but usually isn’t too far off the brink to be reeled back in when need be. This is a character that could have gone so wrong so fast if he was only used to supply an artificial injection of suspense from any mistakes he might make through stubbornness, but the writing handles him well and Reigniger grounds him in reality with an immense amount of charm at that.

Stephen

Stephen (David Emge)
Stephen (David Emge)

Stephen (David Emge) is another character that could have gone horribly wrong, because there are moments that happen in the film that could have come across as Stephen being an incompetent moron. It really never quite goes that route, thankfully. They do acknowledge a number of his weaknesses though with how this guy is no soldier, he’s underqualified in handling any sort of firearm, and he’s a bit quick to react on his emotions; however it feels genuine when he makes a mistake instead of being obnoxiously dumb in any way. Also he does always attempt to make up for his short comings in other ways to help the group. Emge’s understated approach to the character also provides Stephen with an extraordinary amount of depth, particularly with moments involving his love interest, Francine (Gaylen Ross). Whenever they may be in a disagreement with one another or are fresh out of a fight, Emge has this look of internalizing as much of his frustration as he can. You can tell from the look in his eye what is kind of going on in this guy’s mind. He doesn’t want to make matters worse or he’s hurt by something Francine says, but he tries his best to bottle all of that up so he doesn’t hurt her back. I’ve felt that look many times, my friend. *SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS FORTY-ONE YEAR OLD MOVIE* I’d also like to add that he probably gives one of my favorite physical performances as a zombie, I found his body movements to be pretty convincing and I enjoyed what he brought to the table. Even his inhuman facial features, I find myself being entranced by.

Sorry... wrong floor.
Sorry... wrong floor.

Francine

Francine (Gaylen Ross)
Francine (Gaylen Ross)

Francine, by the way, can be one cold hearted b*tch. Believe it or not, I mean that as a compliment to the actress’s performance. Ross does a pretty damn good job at portraying this television executive that has worked her way through the ranks of an industry almost entirely filled by men, while now having to hold her own against three other men attempting to take charge. She makes her opinions heard, loud and clear to the group. She refuses to be sidelined and insists on being trained to defend herself so that when the time may come, she knows what to do. All of this while being pregnant. Bad. Ass. She is one hell of a strong female lead in this four ‘man’ show. She doesn’t allow anyone to overshadow her and I appreciate that, especially with the actress being 100% believable in the part. Again, with a lesser writer or actress, this could have been a whiny and self-entitled brat that I wouldn’t give a single crap about. Not even remotely the case here though and I love it.

The Effects

No one can talk about George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead without explicitly discussing the topic of the superb makeup and gore effects that were masterfully achieved by the legendary Tom Savini. I feel like if I left this segment out of my review, he’d somehow know and probably cut my head off to use as a prop in his next project. Hmm… maybe that’s how he’s able to craft such convincing effects… they’re real. Oh crap!

I'm convinced he killed that kid now...
I'm convinced he killed that kid now...

Unfortunately, I don’t know what else to say that everyone hasn’t already said for the last four decades of this film’s existence. The special effects are gorgeous. When someone gets bitten, that sh*t hurts as the teeth rip the human flesh to shreds. When a body part is amputated, I check to make sure that all of mine are still attached. They are truly intense and visceral effects work that I love to watch as Savini finds creative ways to mutilate and dismember the human body. You can tell in every film, including this one, that he absolutely loves what he does for a living and I can’t help but love it too. There is a reason why this man is so highly respected among the film and horror realms, he doesn’t sleepwalk through a single effect he makes. Every one of his prop and makeup effects that he makes are made with the ambition to only be his attempt in one-upping his last. He is talented as hell and determined to make people flinch or downright queasy. I dig it and I respect this man so much.

OW!!!
OW!!!
My head hurts.
My head hurts.

Not only is Savini one amazing special effects artist, but he’s actually a pretty intimidating yet cool character actor as well. He plays a small part as a villainous gang leader that forces their way inside of the mall our protagonists reside in, to steal their goods and he’s fantastic in the short time he is given on screen. This too was one of Savini’s earliest roles, but doesn’t show it one bit. He does a great job at being a wicked badass that poses a real threat, outside of the flesh eating monsters. I only wish he was in the movie more, alas, he only has about ten minutes before he exits. At least we have about two and a half hours’ worth of his astonishing effects work to behold, that’s alright by me! Especially with the low budget that this movie was made with, which was approximately $650,000. What he and Romero were able to do with this film on that number is beyond impressive. There's actually quite a few special effects that I don't even know how they pulled off, that's how well done they are.

Holy crap, he was so young back then! Baby Savini... don't tell him I said that.
Holy crap, he was so young back then! Baby Savini... don't tell him I said that.
He blows my mind...
He blows my mind...

The Zombies

This may seem like a silly topic to bring up, but I just want to talk about it. This is my favorite type of zombie in horror. The slow moving zombie, when they get in close they become pure animalistic instinct that attacks with full force. I find this wildly more terrifying than when a zombie runs, a trend that became extremely popular in the 2000s and stuck around for many years. There are some cases where that works just fine, but if I had to choose which I found to be scarier then I would say the walkers hold a more imposing menace than the runners. I understand anyone’s reasoning that simply says, “but I can run away and breeze by the slow ones just fine without any problem, but when they run it’s a more immediate threat”. I do get that point of view, I do. But cinematically speaking, when I see this not quite human presence slowly closing in on us or when a crowd starts to form with these creatures, I find that to be creepier. I love the tone that presents in a scene. Yes, they’re slow, but they are also determined on one thing and one thing only. Which is to eat you. Nothing on Earth is going to stop them. They will keep coming, no matter how much you run or hide or fight back, they are coming for you. If you manage to escape them, they only wait for another opportunity to strike again. Then when there’s more than one and they all gather on you at once, there’s no fighting it. When they have you, that’s it. You’re done. And that, to me, is terrifying. I prefer that interpretation of a zombie any day over the ones that run and screech.

I'm coming to get you, Barbara... let me have one reference!
I'm coming to get you, Barbara... let me have one reference!
Hello? Housekeeping... totally not a zombie. No zombie here. No need to worry or run away. Stay right where you are, I'll be right there!
Hello? Housekeeping... totally not a zombie. No zombie here. No need to worry or run away. Stay right where you are, I'll be right there!

The makeup effects for the zombies I also like. I will admit, this may be a sin to say, but I do wish that they were a bit more mangled up and rotted away. That is a look of zombie that I do prefer slightly over what is presented in Dawn, but I still really do like the look of these zombies as it is reminiscent of the visual aesthetic for Romero’s first feature, Night of the Living Dead. I have a feeling that if the budget were a little higher, I think Savini probably would have done more with the zombie makeup. As it is, it still is a look that I appreciate and remain in suspense every time they pop up. That’s the polite way of saying that I crap my pants.

Is there something under my nose?
Is there something under my nose?
I do love that one zombie that is utterly fascinated with that rifle the whole movie.
I do love that one zombie that is utterly fascinated with that rifle the whole movie.

Dawn of the Greatness

Dawn of the Dead holds up in every sense. The scares are heart pounding, the action is impressive, the themes are relevant, the acting is solid, the effects are top-notch, and it is regarded as being one of the greats for all those reasons and more in all honesty. I didn’t even touch on the look of the film, which is gorgeously shot by the way. Not to mention the editing is also stylish with a real fast pace that doesn’t become too exhausting. But there are probably a million great things that could be said about Romero’s masterpiece, let’s stop talking about it and just watch it again, shall we? If you haven’t seen the film before now then I believe you are doing yourself a major disserve by not experiencing this epic thrill ride. There isn’t a flaw that comes to my mind about it. I loved revisiting the film again, technically in a brand new way than ever before. The 139 minute extended cut is the version I plan on revisiting from now on, every Halloween. Fingers crossed that you do too. Sink your teeth into this one at your earliest convenience.

PS

Stay tuned… this isn’t the only Dawn of the Dead I watched last night with intent to review. That’ll be coming real soon.

This should have just stayed in hell...
This should have just stayed in hell...

That’s All Folks…

Did you enjoy my nearly 3,500 word essay on a 1970s zombie movie? Did you agree? Do you disagree? Are you hungry? Comment down below and let me know! Also, if you did so happen to like my review then do me a little favor and share this article around the social media world. I would appreciate that very much. Thank you so much for reading and have yourselves a spooky day!

George A. Romero

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    © 2019 John Plocar

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