There is no doubt that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the one film that started it all –the dead coming back to life and wanting to eat living humans. It even does the whole ‘trapped in a house surrounded by zombies’ thing pretty well. But the overall mood and tale of the story is nothing like the story in Dawn of the Dead. In fact, if you break down the basic elements of Dawn, you would have the generic formula for most modern zombie movies. Dawn of the Dead is more than just a trend-setting film however (and besides, the trend would not catch on until many years after the film was made), it is a great horror film that is still great to watch until this day.
What is Dawn of the Dead?
Dawn of the Dead is technically, the sequel to the Night of the Living Dead film. This 1978 horror movie followed the story of four people trying to survive the start of the zombie apocalypse. Stephen and Francine work for a television studio while Roger and Peter are SWAT team officers. Together, they all manage to get inside a shopping mall which they use as a fortified base. As expected of a zombie film, they are faced with challenges brought about by their own personal issues and from the threat of other living people.
Despite being a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn does not feature the same characters (spoiler, everyone from the first film already died). And the movie is set several years after the first story. Since original film, the reanimated dead have been causing a lot of chaos for people. While Night’s ending depicted small armed groups being able to round up zombies and restore some degree of order, this is apparently not the case for more urban and commercial zones –heavy populated cities are not faring as well. Also, Dawn establishes the concept that the cause of the zombies is still unknown (throwing away the radio news from the first film about a satellite returning from Venus).
Starting the Trend
While we did write “as expected”, the fact is that when this film originally came out, that was not the case. In this modern day and age, we know to expect such things from a zombie movie because of films like Dawn of the Dead. This movie taught us all what to expect from a general sense. All the key survivor traits –like the one guy who does not tell others if he got bitten, or the girl who turns out to be pregnant, is seen in this film. And while this seems rather silly or cliché when done by other characters in other films or shows, Dawn of the Dead’s protagonists get away with it because they did it first.
The idyllic lifestyle that the four main characters get when they first get into the mall is nothing short of fantasy wish-fulfillment, indulging themselves heavily on what the mall has to offer without having to worry about having to pay for anything. It pretty much shows the basis for the idea that in a world where society has fallen, not everyone would consider it as a bad thing. There are those who would find it as a positive change to their lives.
Lastly, the motorcycle gang that they encounter near the end of the film is the basis for every single militia/gang/cannibals seen in other zombie movies –they are the ‘villains’, people with deliberate choices to become cruel or worse. It is a great movie element when you consider that zombies, while inherently dangerous, are also not malicious entities (and thus gives the viewers characters to consider as true antagonists).
One of the best advantages of living in the modern age is that while there are multiple cuts for Dawn of the Dead (which changed depending on where the film was released and how the filmmakers opted out of the ratings system), it is possible to see any version of the film very easily. We do recommend seeing the longer Director’s Cut version, though the slightly shorter theatrical release is almost as good as it.
Practical effects used in the film are also very impressive. While some are easy to spot in the movie, the most manage to look real thanks to the excellent use of camera angles and lighting. One of the early parts of the movie, which depicts a SWAT team raiding a building, shows that the director knows how to direct good action aside from delivering good scares. Speaking of good scares, there’s a lot of great build up with it comes to suspenseful or tense scenes in the movie; making this a good movie to consider if you want to have a marathon of scares.