Movie Discussion: George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)

  • Monthly Theme: Genre ClassicsDawn of the Dead 1978 movie poster
  • The Film: Dawn of the Dead
  • European title: Zombi
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: May 24, 1979
  • Studio: Laurel Group
  • Distributer: United Film Distribution Company [UFDC]
  • Domestic Gross: $5.1 million
  • Budget: $650,000 (estimated)
  • Director: George A. Romero
  • Producers: Claudio Argento, Alfredo Cuomo, Donna Siegel & Richard P. Rubenstein
  • Screenwriter: George A. Romero
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Michael Gornick
  • Make-Up/FX: Tom Savini
  • Music: Goblin & Dario Argento
  • Part of a series? Yes. This is the second film in Romero’s original Living Dead trilogy, preceded by 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and followed by 1985’s Day of the Dead. In the mid-2000s, Romero launched a second trilogy in the series: Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Various European countries also released various groups of “sequels” to the European cut of Dawn of the Dead (called Zombi), the most famous of which is the Italian Zombi series, starting with Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979). There is also a German series, a Thai series, a British series, and an American series of Zombi sequels, some of them taking Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as the first film, others taking Fulci’s Zombi 2 as the first.
  • Remakes? Yes. The film was remade by Zack Snyder in 2004 as a stand-alone movie.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre stalwart Ken Foree (From Beyond, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III). FX guru and sometimes-actor Tom Savini has a bit part.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: The 1980 Golden Screen Award.
  • Tagline: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
  • The Lowdown: Ten years after the success of the original Night of the Living DeadGeorge Romero was inspired to pen a sequel after a visit to the Pittsburgh-area Monroeville Mall (where Dawn was filmed). Unable to find financial backing domestically, Romero was mentored and supported by Italian horror legend Dario Argento (director of classics like Deep Red (Profondo rosso) and Suspiria) in developing and funding the sequel. Dawn of the Dead shares no characters or settings with the 1968 original film. Instead it follows Fran (Gaylen Ross), a television news producer, as she flees the city in a helicopter with her boyfriend Stephen (Barney Miller’s David Emge) and two S.W.A.T. officers, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), following the breakdown of civil infrastructures during the zombie apocalypse featured in the first film. The four of them discover the abandoned Monroeville Mall and decide to rest there, pillaging the stores for supplies and fighting off the zombie hordes that have encroached upon the mall to wander aimlessly. They begin to settle into some semblance of a normal life there, until the normality is shattered when one of them is bitten by a zombie and, later, as a gang of marauding bikers breaks into the mall to kill zombies and cause mayhem. Considered by fans to be the apex of Romero’s powers and also the best zombie film of all time, Dawn of the Dead is a splatter classic.

If you haven’t seen Dawn of the Dead our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Sean: So we both loved Night of the Living Dead when we watched it – and it led to a great discussion about the 1960s and the gender politics of the movie. Do you think Dawn of the Dead lived up to the standards set by its predecessor?

Kristine: Well, I really enjoyed it a lot. I thought it was a super fun movie, and it was smart, which is one of the things it has in common with Night of the Living Dead. It was just… good.

Albert Nobbs, Zombie Krishna

Sean: Was it what you expected? I don’t know what you might have expected of the movie, just as a sequel to Night of the Living Dead made ten years later…

Kristine: The energy was so different compared to the first film, even though there were some of the same themes and some character parallels. I found Dawn of the Dead to have a much more comic tone. Night of the Living Dead is excruciatingly tense, and also quite nihilistic. This movie feels lighter, even though it plays around with some of the same ideas. Perhaps it’s just that the scope of this movie is much broader – we go from the inner workings of a television station, to the police raids on the tenements, to the abandoned landscape of the mid-Atlantic, to the interior of the shopping mall – but it didn’t feel quite so suffocating and airtight as Night. Since 90% of Night of the Living Dead takes place in the farmhouse, it feels more intense.

Sean: Yeah, Dawn is more of an out-and-out satire, right?

Kristine: Yes, definitely, though it still had some interesting characters. I don’t think it sacrificed its own seriousness in pursuing some more blatant social commentary, if that makes sense. Stephen, Peter, Roger and Fran all felt psychologically-real and fully realized, and I feel like the movie gives them all their due. So even though the movie’s tone is more comedic, it still takes its own scenario seriously, and it takes its four main characters seriously. I approved of all that. Yet Dawn seems more willing to take advantage of some of the absurdity of the zombie premise, which Night of the Living Dead didn’t really do. That blend of psychological intensity, horror and satire is tough to pull off, but I think this movie does a really good job. I was never rolling my eyes at the jokes or the horror.

Sean: I agree that this movie takes a lot of what made Night of the Living Dead feel so bleak and approaches it with a more comic-book gonzo sensibility. For instance, the gangs of rednecks wandering the countryside shooting zombies. In Night of the Living Dead they were so menacing, but here they come off more like… a bunch of Lynyrd Skynyrd fans.

Kristine: Yes, that scene was so funny. But also chilling, because I was thinking that is what would happen in Texas two seconds after any sort of a crisis happened – war, zombies, disease, whatever. I thought it was hilarious that the song playing over that scene was The Pretty Things’ “‘Cause I’m a Man.” Of course, I love that band, and that is perfect satirical song choice for that scene. In Texas, a zombie apocalypse would be the perfect chance for all the rednecks here to shoot all the ethnic people and lock away all the women. Sigh.

Sean: So did you love Ken Foree’s character, Peter?

Kristine: I did love Peter.

Real men look butch in mink

Sean: He is loveable.

Kristine: And he is an obvious link to the original. I liked how in both films one of the most important characters is an African-American guy, but their race doesn’t really define their characters. Ben’s Blackness in the original and Peter’s Blackness here both feel important and of course add all kinds of social and political subtext to the films, but Ben and Peter both come across as three-dimensional men whose personalities are not distillations of racial stereotypes.

Sean: Though Peter has a bit more “Black flavor,” the way he says things like, “C’mon, suckah!” He’s got a bit of 1970s blaxploitation to him.

Kristine: Oh you mean like his story about his Black voodoo granddad in Trinidad.

Sean: Ha!

Kristine: I actually like that Peter’s not “whitewashed” of all signs of his ethnic/racial identity. He feels like an actual guy, who would come from an actual world where his racial makeup has shaped his identity and his personality somewhat, but he’s still a multifaceted person and the movie gives him all kind of layers – in some ways he’s dignified, but he’s also a bit cynical and jaded, and he is loyal and brave but also can be spiteful. He’s just a great character. And I love Ben from the original, but I think Ben was portrayed as more of a paladin-knight, with a bit less complexity than Peter. Ben felt appropriate for 1968, when it was vital for Black men to publicly claim dignity and intelligence. Peter, in contrast, feels totally appropriate for 1978 – less beholden to any “uplift the race” narrative, and more of his own man, a bit of a badass but also a bit morally gray.

Sean: Ken Foree, the actor who plays Peter, is a total horror movie superstar and does a lot of conventions and is beloved by the fans.

Kristine: Oh, cool.

Longtime Companion 2: Vietnam Zombie AIDS

Sean: Yeah. He’s been in quite a few other horror movies (From Beyond being the most notable). He shows up in all Rob Zombie’s movies, too. So did you think the character dynamics between the four leads was as interesting as the interpersonal drama in Night of the Living Dead drama? Or not as much?

Kristine: Oh I found the dynamics to be just as interesting and complicated. I was totally on board with the characters and really liked how the movie played them off of one another.

Sean: One think I like about this sequel is that Romero deals with his own premise very cleverly. I think he chooses to go to the most interesting locations within this concept of an emergent zombie apocalypse: the newsmedia breaking down behind the scenes and the experiences of the national guard tasked with clearing out the tenements… Those are the most interesting places to go, narratively. Romero has good storytelling instincts in this movie.

Kristine: I agree. It was a lot like 28 Days/28 Weeks Later with showing but not telling how the epidemic has spread throughout society. I also was entertained by the media personality who was all over the tvs preaching doom. I loved how he was just this giant Fidel Castro-esque man with an eyepatch, ranting and raving. The “madness” of the media contrasted nicely with the madness of social breakdown and zombie chaos.

Sean: I also thought it was really interesting that the racial tensions between the four leads were very minor, but all the “raiding the ghetto” stuff at the beginning still addressed the issues of race relations and the problems of white power and institutional racism.

Kristine: Absolutely. I did think that Peter’s relationship to Francine and Stephen was fraught with some racial tension. Enough so for it to seem significant.

Sean: In what ways?

Kristine: Like, when Peter served them dinner like he was “the help”? And also when he asked Francine at the beginning in the helicopter if Stephen was “her man.” It seemed like there was sexual tension there, especially when she answers, “Most of the time.” Also, just Peter’s physicality – how he is so much bigger then the other two men, and there is such an issue with white men being intimidated with the size of Black men.

Sean: Yeah I’m not quite sure what to make of that dinner scene…

Kristine: I know that on a plot level, Peter is trying to give the expectant couple some time alone to talk about the baby and their relationship… but it’s obviously meant to make us feel uncomfortable. It overtly puts Peter – this extremely competent and independent man – in the position of “servant.” The film also goes out of its way to have Peter make symbolic gestures of rebellion against the white status quo – like when he shoots the racist cop who is going haywire during the raid, or when he points his gun at Stephen after Stephen takes potshots at a zombie in Peter’s direction. I think Romero is very conscious of contrasting that almost militant, assertive side of Peter with this weirdly servile moment of pouring the wine. It’s like, even in this tiny microcosm of society that the four of them have constructed in the mall, certain kinds of racially-charged stories are perpetuated.

Sean: I mean, in some ways the world of the mall, when it’s just our four heroes inside reclaiming it from the zombies, is supposed to be sort of utopian, right? So the racial politics of that dinner scene shouldn’t matter as much if it’s just a friend being cool to his friends?

Kristine: Roger could have been the one who served them their dinner. But it’s Peter who does it.

Sean: Wasn’t Roger already bitten by then?

Kristine: I don’t think so… but maybe.

[Editor’s note: As commenter Steph points out below: “At the point of the awkward dinner scene, where Peter serves Fran and Stephen dinner, yes, Roger is dead, so he couldn’t have done it. If they had served Fran and Stephen together, that would have been way less weird (I could see Roger hamming it up), but otoh, him being dead helps justify Peter doing a thing like that. He is on the one hand, giving Stephen and Fran some alone time, but at the same time, he’s getting HIMSELF some time away from them. After he leaves them, he takes a bottle of champagne and goes out to the courtyard by himself and pops the bottle, spilling it over Roger’s grave. (How could you forget that? …Am I alone in shipping those guys? The “military bromance is better than romance” vibe you guys touched on is much more palatable if you interpret Roger and Peter as a gay romance).”]

Sean: Do you think the four of them in the mall constitute a utopian society? Before the bikers come? And before Roger gets bitten?

Kristine: Sure, yes. I actually was expecting, and would have enjoyed, more scenes of them gallivanting around the mall, enjoying all the goods, outfitting their digs. Even when they were still enjoying it, it seemed pretty shallow and bittersweet. I wanted the glee to last a while longer. But I did find it interesting how the movie presents these lapsarian scenarios inside of lapsarian scenarios. First the world falls to the zombie outbreak, then the life these four have constructed falls to the Hell’s Angels. The bikers as agents of chaos was ridiculous, but necessary.

Stephen’s barrel-grip is firmer than Roger’s

Sean: I thought the opposing dyads of Stephen/Fran and Peter/Roger were really interesting. There’s these moments when Peter and Roger are running and hooting through the mall and then it cuts back to the couple all angrily bickering. Brotherhood is portrayed as much more fun than coupledom.

Kristine: I agree totally. I loved the Peter/Roger friendship and it moved me when Peter had to kill him. But as far as the heterosexual “romance” goes, Francine’s remark about Stephen being her man “most of the time” also spoke to her ambivalence about the relationship. If the zombies and the pregnancy had not happened, I think the relationship would not have lasted. There are some scenes of Francine observing Stephen and seeing him being a more flawed and weaker man than Peter. Like when Stephen shoots his gun in Peter’s direction and then Peter points his rifle at Stephen and has to give him a lecture about gun safety. Stephen just isn’t very good at being masculine in a traditional sense, whereas both Peter and Roger really excel at it.

Sean: I was wondering if you’d be bothered that this movie seems to equate masculinity with soldiering, that knowing how to fight and handle a gun seem to be the markers of a man in this universe. Considering your issues with Alien, I thought perhaps you’d be turned off by this movie’s attitude towards “toughness” and a kind of “might makes right” attitude.

Kristine: Eh. I guess I see what you mean. But I feel like the context of each movie is so specific. For example, even if this movie has some rather traditional notions of masculinity, it’s all couched in this über-Lefty critique of capitalism and consumer culture, which makes it a bit easier to take. Whereas the context of Alien is this hyper-stylized colonial futurism, all shepherded by a Republican director. It might not be fair or rational, but knowing Romero is an avowed Lefty and Ridley Scott is a Cayman-Islands-offshore-account-having Republican does matter, at least for me. Plus in Dawn of the Dead the world’s infrastructures have collapsed and these people take up guns to defend themselves because there is literally no other choice. In Alien a bunch of muckety-mucks go traipsing off into space of their own volition and then go invading the alien egg-nest and get themselves into trouble because of their own sense of entitlement. Totes different.


Sean: I see that. It’s actually interesting to think of those films in contrast with each other. They were released less than a year apart, and both movies end on very ambiguous terms. Both Ripley in Alien and Fran/Peter in Dawn of the Dead may have survived the events of the film, but their long-term survival – in both cases – is left entirely up in the air. Ripley ends the movie drifting off into an existential void, with some vague notion that perhaps she will be rescued. Peter and Fran take off in a helicopter that is very low on fuel, with little to no supplies, limited ammunition and no sense of direction. That both of these “survival thrillers” end with an ellipsis rather than a period feels significant to me. Not to put to fine a point on it, but it sort of makes sense that at the end of the 1970s – a decade of great economic and political uncertainty in the U.S. – audiences would respond to these kinds of endings. Little did they know that the Reagan era was right around the corner, and that the boom economy of the 1980s (and the creation of the yuppie) was coming. Both of these movies have Reagan-era sequels: James Cameron made Aliens in 1986 and Romero released his third zombie film, Day of the Dead, in 1985. When the time is right, it’ll be very interesting to watch those movies and think about how differently they continue these stories from that mid-‘80s perspective. But back to Dawn, I did like how this movie had a “happy” ending as opposed to the nihilism of Night of the Living Dead. What did you make of the ending? Are Fran and Peter “together” at the end?

Kristine: Yes, they are. In life or death, they are together.

Sean: Did you hate Stephen as much as I did?

Kristine: I did. You know, since they are only “mostly” together and Fran is obviously a modern gal, we don’t actually know that the baby is Stephen’s. There’s the scene where Fran confronts the guys about discussing her fate and the fate of the group without her, and then later a scene where she stands up to Stephen by pointing out that it is her decision about how to handle the pregnancy… those scenes were brutal and awesome. I love how she is working so hard to stay calm and rational and lay out her terms when you know she must have wanted to scream and cuss. One of the things that I like about the Fran/Peter relationship is that whenever Fran stands up for herself or makes her desires known, Peter is respectful and accommodating, unlike Stephen who always acts as if her speaking up for herself is the most annoying thing in the universe. But while I did love Francine in those specific scenes, I must admit that I didn’t find the actress that compelling. How do you feel about Fran?

Sean: I like her. And I am cool with the actress for the most part. Just fyi, they cast Sarah Polley in the remake, I think, because of her resemblance to Fran.

Kristine: Interesting that they remade this movie and not Night of the Living Dead (or did they?). How is the remake of Dawn?

Gallagher must be responsible for this.

Sean: They totally remade Night of the Living Dead in the ‘90s and Tom Savini directed it. But it is very much a faithful adaptation – perhaps too faithful. Whereas the Dawn of the Dead remake is a complete re-imagining of the premise, and it is generally considered to be very good, perhaps the best of that spate of early 21st century remakes. I like it okay, despite it being a bit too slick overall. But I feel like even though the original Dawn of the Dead allows Fran to make those big speeches about being one of the team… she still does like, nothing the whole movie.

Kristine: Well, that was an issue I had with the writing.

Sean: The writing is, I think, really tight in the first 45 minutes and gets less so as the movie goes on.

Kristine: The uncomfortable truth is, there are some – very seldom, but some – occasions when women cannot do the same things men can and pregnancy is one of those times. I feel like, by making the only woman pregnant, the movie justifies keeping her locked up in the apartment for the most part.

Sean: I mean, she’s just pregnant. She’s not like, all swollen with child. She never even shoots a zombie does she? Pregnant or not, I think the movie gives her short shrift.

Kristine: I don’t think Fran ever shot a zombie.

[Editor’s note: As commenter Steph reminds up below: “…Fran DID shoot zombies. She shot down a handful while Roger and Peter were moving the trucks. She actually probably saved Roger’s life, before he decided to go back for his bag.”]

Kristine: Before we move on, I had to look something up: I remember reading a very dark, quasi-horror YA novel when I was a kid. It was about a brother and sister who run away and hide in a mall, and they discover they are not alone. The mannequins are actually other runaways. It was awesome and you should read it.

Sean: You are ridic.

Kristine: Dude, I loved that book. Look at the cover.

Sean: I loved… Bunnicula.

Kristine: Did the same guy write that???

Sean: No, I am teasing you.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Zombieland

Kristine: Oh. Shut up. I swear, this book is dark.

Sean: We need a good scary mannequin horror movie actually. Kim Cattrall don’t count.

Kristine: Who was your fave zombie? The Hare Krishna? There were lots of good ones in this movie. I liked the zombies as comic relief.

Sean: The Hare Krishna was totally the Dean on Community.

Kristine: Ha!

Sean: Well, I have heard other contemporary people who see this for the first time complain that the zombies “aren’t scary.” I think they are scary enough but, yes, they’re also satirical. They’re not the high budget zombies of The Walking Dead at all, and I think sometimes people who see this movie now can’t appreciate them for that reason. But this movie has some nicely weird moments that show an imagination that The Walking Dead almost entirely lacks. I really love that moment when Fran is the person who unlocks the department store door for the guys and after they are gone the nun zombie gets her habit stuck in the door and Fran has to open it up to let her loose.

Kristine: I see your point, but I don’t think it’s just about the budget or advances in makeup technology since 1978. These zombies aren’t scary even compared to Night of the Living Dead, but also I liked how their power was in numbers. I mean, I know that is the conceit in most zombie stories, but it seems especially important in this one. These zombies are very easy to defeat one-on-one, but once they swarm… forget it. I like that it’s the “crowd” that kills since that plays so well with the rest of the movie’s ideas about consumer and mall culture.

Sean: I agree with that. But I also want to stress that this movie has all these very small but creative touches that play with the dynamics of the zombie. Like, there is this male zombie dressed in a community baseball team uniform that just sits on the floor staring at Fran when she is waiting at the glass doors for the guys to be done with their mission, and it is wicked creepy…

Kristine: Yes. I remember that one. I loved “this is a place that meant something to them.”

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: “They come here out of instinct.” All those lines about the weird line between sentience and mindlessness in the zombies were really good. The zombies here are like lemmings or salmon, driven by instinct.

Sean: True, but what makes them even more uncanny is that these zombies retain a shred of humanity (as evidenced by the baseball zombie who stares at Fran). That makes them more compelling, I think.

Kristine: I agree. I actually think the character dynamics in this movie contained more pathos than in Night of the Living Dead. I was more moved by Roger’s transformation than by the little girl in Night. I was devastated when Peter had to kill Roger.

Sean: It was sad. They were brofriends. They had a bromance. Like I said earlier, this movie’s most romanticized kind of relationship is that between “brothers.” The bond between men is strong and meaningful in this movie – from the Peter/Roger relationship even down to the little bit when we very first meet Roger and he is giving a little pep talk to this other S.W.A.T. member, who seems green and uncertain. Then that guy is immediately shot in the head and it is sad. That motif of men being heartbroken by the deaths of their brothers-in-arms is consistent in the movie. It’s one of the more “military” ideas in the movie, but I find it moving and not annoying. I dig the romanticization of guy/guy relationships, even though the movie kind of throws Fran under that bus. But it strikes me as a bit queer – not homosexual, but queer – just in how it presents heteronormative male/female relationships as fraught and unhappy and it presents men’s relationships with each other (mostly Peter/Roger) as blissful in comparison. It’s unfortunate that there’s such a sexist dynamic in this, but I do like how it undercuts the procreative nuclear family in the process (less savagely than Night of the Living Dead did with the Coopers, but nonetheless).

Kristine: Can we discuss Roger? He was problematic but sympathetic and compelling. Do you agree?

Sean: I love Roger. He was the most complicated of the four leads, I thought, and the most interesting to watch.

Kristine: I so agree and I am so glad you think so. I was worried I would have to defend loving him the most.

Sean: I think a lot of the power of his character has to do with the police raid of the projects at the beginning of the movie, and how we go through all that with Roger, from his point-of-view.

Kristine: Yes, like his reaction to that horrible racist maniac.

Sean: Who Peter kills. And we encounter all the mayhem in the basement with Roger. I think that’s the most disturbing sequence in the movie.

Kristine: Oh, I know. Where people are keeping their zombified relatives… So sad and awful.

Sean: Those images of people tied into their death shrouds with just their heads showing, struggling to get free, were really, really gross and twisted. I had totally forgotten that surreal interlude with the one-legged Puerto Rican priest…

Kristine: See that priest is one of the things that keeps this movie from being “pro-military.” I think in the priest’s lines we see a real discomfort with martial force and a kind of critique of violence. Remember, after he tells Roger and Peter what is being kept in the basement, he says, “Now, you do what you will, You are stronger than us.” That “us” feels racially charged to me – Peter is placed on the wrong side of the power structure there, aligned with the white forces that keep people of color in the ghetto. So much of that opening sequence is charged with class and racial conflict…

Sean: True. The priest also places the emphasis on free will – Roger and Peter have the guns and thus, the power. But the priest reminds them that they still have a choice to make, to “do what [they] will.” It is up to men with guns, ultimately, to make the “right” choice in order to save humanity from damnation.

Kristine: Yes and then the priest says, “Soon, I think they will be stronger than you. When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing… or lose the war.” He’s making an impassioned, anti-violence argument there. The more violence perpetrated on the masses, the more corpses that are created that will walk and kill. I really feel like the priest’s lines re-contextualize the whole movie and the whole gestalt of the zombies. The walking dead are figured by the priest as physical evidence of man’s transgressions against man – as the byproducts of acts of violence. It’s this violent nature (that produces so many dead bodies to reanimate) that is humanity’s fatal flaw.

Sean: Interesting… Well they totally ignore that advice when the bikers arrive at the end of the movie.

This is NOT what civil rights leaders had in mind when they argued for the power of Black love.

Kristine: The priest is speaking up, also, for all the people who live in the projects and who are being routed by the military. I was thinking about how people still do that today – ignore martial law to stay with their homes, or their dead/their former lives. Think about Katrina, people refusing to leave their homes even though it is so irrational… and seeing how some of the guards treated them, maybe the folks in the ghetto were better off on their own, taking their chances. That clash of underclass with the armed forces of the law is so primal and so upsetting.

Sean: I think that raid on the projects is the most political sequence in the film, even with all the commentary on consumer culture that comes later.

Kristine: Yes…

Sean: That first bite we witness, where that Black woman embraces the zombie (whom she clearly recognizes from “before” and can only see a loved one and not a monster) and he bites into her neck and arm, really grossed me out. The low-budget bite effects here are almost more effective that contemporary big-budget makeup effects. Don’t even get me started on The Walking Dead and its use of digital blood. I hate digital blood. Any horror filmmaker who uses it is a sell-out. Can you believe how polemical I am being?

Kristine: I also like how the movie does not put any faith in infrastructure or government. I mean, right away we learn the media is no longer functional… We’re told that the aide centers are not a good option. You’re on your own.

Annie Oakley? More like Annie Potts.

Sean: Oh my god, like those cops who are trying to bum a cigarette before they abandon the city “to find an island”? When you put it like that, this movie seems like a libertarian fantasy. I mean, our heroes are all people who performed jobs in which they had “a duty” to the public, but they’ve all abandoned their posts. I can’t tell if the movie totally lets them off the hook for that, or if there’s some deeper critique of their choice in the plot that follows.

Kristine: YES. And they quickly make decisions to not help anyone outside of their foursome.

Sean: That idea of the infrastructure totally evaporating the minute tragedy strikes is the most terrifying aspect of the movie, for me. When Katrina happened, how did Romero not go on national TV and just scream “Told ya so!” in everyone’s face?

Kristine: I would love to hear Romero’s thoughts on Katrina. To wit – Francine won’t give the cop a cigarette though she has them.

Sean: Peter laughs when he recognizes that she actually had cigarettes.

Kristine: Also, even though this might have been the right call, right away they decide to lock out the bikers. Who knows, maybe they could have worked with them and fought off zombies together? But they are like, nope. Like you said, the breakdown and “every man for himself” attitude happens so fast. The priest’s words of advice fell on deaf ears. Men remain locked in this brutal struggle for survival. That religious plea for mercy and non-violence means nothing in this universe.

Sean: Those bikers were so “Altamont.”

Kristine: Ha ha, I know. They were buffoonish and insane. The way that they enter the movie helped contribute to the overall more comic tone, I thought.

Sean: Did you spot Savini?

Kristine: Of course I did. He was hilarious and had a bigger role then I expected. I love how he is in everything.

Sean: He is a character. I mean, this is one of the movies From Dusk Till Dawn really rips off.

Kristine: His date-rape-disco-dude getting his head blown off in Maniac is still my favorite Savini appearance. I still find that scene shocking.

Sean: Did you spot the big headsplosion in this movie, when the racist cop kicks open doors during the tenement raid? Just fyi, the sequences towards the end of the bikers getting ripped apart by the zombies was probably my first exposure to true gore effects as a kid. I must have watched this when I was 11 or so? I remember being actually shocked and physically shaken by the images of the zombies fishing intestines out of people’s stomachs and tearing people in half. These were revolutionary gore setpieces.

Limp-wristed gay pride zombie goes on a freedom march.

Kristine: Back to Roger. I feel like our good will towards him is an important contrast with how much we find Stephen annoying and terrible. All of Roger’s reckless behavior and fuck-ups made me worried and anxious, not annoyed like when Stephen was dumb.

Sean: Because Roger is reckless through competence. Not incompetence like Stephen the Emasculated.

Kristine: I found the truck scene, when Roger winds up getting bitten, to be incredibly stressful.

Sean: The truck scene is the most stressful scene in the movie, totally. But I love how they wheel Roger around in the wheelbarrow for the rest of the movie.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: So great.

Kristine: I thought it was interesting how both Francine and Peter assumed Stephen had succumbed to the zombies almost right away, when he actually fought them off longer/better than I had expected. And he was important because, remember how you said these zombies retained some memories or some instincts? That was what zombie Stephen had that caused him to lead the zombie mob to the hide out…

Sean: Well, exactly. Even in death Stephen is fucking up and making life harder for his compatriots. For as much as I hated Stephen, he made a cool-looking zombie, though. But that scene where Stephen is attacked and bitten is one of the ones I wanted to talk about, how we see Peter make the choice not to go back for Stephen…

Kristine: Peter made the 100% right choice. Do you think he would have made a different choice if it were Roger?

Sean: Yes. He would have gone back for Roger, no question. But don’t you think him abandoning Stephen undercuts Peter’s moral authority?

Kristine: No, I think it underscores it.

Sean: How?

Kristine: Leaders have to make decisions. I thought the situation with Stephen was obviously dire, and Peter probably would have gotten killed trying to rescue him. And Stephen was the weak member of the group. I think in 1978 Peter doesn’t have to be the saint that Ben was in Night of the Living Dead. I loved when Peter was going to give up and commit suicide… but then he changes his mind. And the music gets all jaunty and Private Benjamin.

There are just too many Latoya Jackson jokes in this image to pick one.

Sean: He becomes the Blackinator.

Kristine: He does. The music was hilarious and silly.

Sean: The sounds of his punches were so bad ‘70s tv. Total Dukes of Hazzard punchsounds.

Kristine: Ha ha yeah. It worked, though. I was rooting for him.

Sean: Yes I loved it.

Kristine: Especially since he didn’t know if the helicopter was waiting for him or not…

Sean: I like that in this movie, our heroes are intact and still fighting at the end. Even though I respect Night of the Living Dead’s hardcore ending, this one felt right.

Kristine: God, Night of the Living Dead was bleak. I think I have said this before, but Night of the Living Dead and Martyrs are equally bleak to me.

Sean: I see that.

Kristine: Earlier you were contrasting the dynamics between Roger/Peter and Fran/Stephen. I thought the domestic scenes between Fran and Stephen were fucking unbearable. With the TV? When he turns it off and she doesn’t say anything but turns it back on? That mundane domestic unrest really set me on edge, almost more than the zombies lurking around every corner. Like, you could see that same scene playing out if there were no zombies and Fran and Stephen just “had” to get married and have this terrible existence just because of the baby. I am imaging all these 1970s couples sitting in the theatre watching this and thinking, “OMG – that’s us!”

Sean: I mean, like Helen and Harry Cooper in Night of the Living Dead, right?

Kristine: Exactly. Right down to the male being the one who cuts off the technological communication with the outside world, right? Francine/Helen want the radio/TV on. They want contact with the outside world. I think the act of Stephen turning off the tv set and Fran turning it on was a direct homage to Harry and Helen and the radio scene, and I think I get one million horror movie points.

[Editor’s note: As commenter Steph reminds us below: “It’s not Francine who turns the TV on. She turns it off. She acknowledges that its been nothing but static for days (and maybe her skepticism about its helpfulness goes deeper than that–she worked for the press, remember? she goes out of her way to TURN OFF some actively UNHELPFUL broadcasts at the very start of the movie), while Stephen says, “Maybe they’ll come back on,” and wants to keep the TV on just in case. I think the motivation for the characters here is that Stephen is the more wishful-thinking of the two, the whole time. Fran is reluctant to settle in the mall in the first place (Stephen says, “Look how much great stuff we got!!”) and speaks up several times over the course of the movie to say they should go, especially when the bikers show up.”]

Hillbilly zombies are even dumber than your average zombie.

Sean: Yeah, but I also thought Stephen/Fran were supposed to also be a double for Barbara/Johnny in the original, which was incestuous and weird. Like that scene when they stop at the gas station and Fran just watches while Stephen is on the ground fighting a zombie in his black driving gloves? It was total Johnny realness.

Kristine: Yeah, you’re right about that. I have a question. If you were trapped in a mall, for whatever reason, what would you do? What stores would you go to, etc?

Sean: I would raid the record stores and play music and read all the books.

Kristine: Too bad record stores and bookstore don’t exist in malls anymore.

Sean: And probably wear outfits just to do it…

Kristine: Yeah, I liked when Francine did her makeup and they all wore pimp fur coats. Even though Peter in his fur coat was a little bit too Superfly to handle.

Sean: I mean seriously though, if a zombie apocalypse happened, I would be like, “Well I’m reading every book ever now. So bye.”

Kristine: Yeah, exactly.

Sean: So you are only one movie away from the complete original Romero zombie trilogy.

Kristine: What is the last one? And which is your favorite?

Sean: Day of the Dead is the end of the original trilogy. Though Romero went back in the 2000s and made another trilogy that is not anywhere near as good, all George Lucas-style. I like all of the original trilogy for different reasons. Day of the Dead is the purest gorefest and overloaded with batshit insanity.

Kristine: What was Dario Argento’s contribution to Dawn of the Dead, exactly?

Sean: Dario invited Romero to Rome and oversaw the script revision process. Dario oversaw all the music…

Kristine: Dario and his musical taste.

Sean: Yep. The score is so “D’Argento.”

Kristine: It is.

Sean: Terence Trent D’Argento.

Kristine: I liked this movie a lot, but I don’t know if it will stick with me… I found the satire a bit too broad and easy. But it was smart and enjoyable, and had more pathos then I was expecting.

Sean: Fair enough.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Batshit insanity… I loved it!

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!

Got too mad

20 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)

  1. I love this review. I love this movie, I used to watch it over and over and was totally obsessed with it.

    I actually don’t think that the mall was Utopian at any point. It’s like the Utopian aspect is always just out of reach because reality keeps intruding – at first they are confined to upstairs, and then when they are in the act of barricading the mall so that they can clear out the zombies Roger gets bitten so that the zombie plague is in there with them constantly. And then he dies and everything is kind of hollow. And then the bikers.

  2. I am very persuaded by your point about the lack of Utopianism…. Romero’s films are generally pretty bleak. I think we’re going to do a zombie month soon and watch Day of the Dead. It will be the first time I’ve watched it since the mid-1990s…

  3. I just watched the movie and really enjoyed reading this discussion. I just wanted to point out a couple things that you guys misremembered during your conversation.

    At the point of the awkward dinner scene, where Peter serves Fran and Stephen dinner, yes, Roger is dead, so he couldn’t have done it. If they had served Fran and Stephen together, that would have been way less weird (I could see Roger hamming it up), but otoh, him being dead helps justify Peter doing a thing like that. He is on the one hand, giving Stephen and Fran some alone time, but at the same time, he’s getting HIMSELF some time away from them. After he leaves them, he takes a bottle of champagne and goes out to the courtyard by himself and pops the bottle, spilling it over Roger’s grave. (How could you forget that? …Am I alone in shipping those guys? The “military bromance is better than romance” vibe you guys touched on is much more palatable if you interpret Roger and Peter as a gay romance).

    Also, yes Fran DID shoot zombies. She shot down a handful while Roger and Peter were moving the trucks. She actually probably saved Roger’s life, before he decided to go back for his bag. But I agree with you on the whole; I’d have liked for her to have had a more active role. But she comes a long way from beginning to end. And her uselessness early on is shown as partly a result of the way the men treat her; she’s sort of just assigned that role and she is aware of that and struggles against it.

    Lastly, the comparison of Francine and Stephen to the couple in Night of the Living Dead… It’s not Francine who turns the TV on. She turns it off. She acknowledges that its been nothing but static for days (and maybe her skepticism about its helpfulness goes deeper than that–she worked for the press, remember? she goes out of her way to TURN OFF some actively UNHELPFUL broadcasts at the very start of the movie), while Stephen says, “Maybe they’ll come back on,” and wants to keep the TV on just in case. I think the motivation for the characters here is that Stephen is the more wishful-thinking of the two, the whole time. Fran is reluctant to settle in the mall in the first place (Stephen says, “Look how much great stuff we got!!”) and speaks up several times over the course of the movie to say they should go, especially when the bikers show up.

    Stephen and Peter are equally adamant about not abandoning the mall, but it’s Stephen who starts shooting first (Peter unleashes the zombies on them, but doesn’t seem to want an actual all-out fight with them) — which might contradict some of your analysis of Stephen as the emasculated one and Peter as the ultra-masculine one. What really makes Stephen irritating and weak as a character is not that he’s not manly, exactly, it’s that he so clearly WANTS to be–he leaves his pregnant girlfriend alone, unarmed, when he realizes that the other dudes are off being manly without him. He’s insecure and arrogant at the same time. He’s self-important and petty. Idk, in some ways this just becomes semantics and a discussion over what we define as “masculine.” (Is it just any positive features exhibited in a male?).

    Anyway, great discussion. Thanks for sharing all these great thoughts.

  4. I disagree with a lot of the points made in the discussion, but this is written in a way that didn’t irritate me so I’m comfortable just disagreeing. Interesting points of view, regardless.

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