Dawn of the Dead: The Guts and Gluttony of a Classic

Thirty-eight years after its release, we look back at George Romero's Dawn of the Dead classic and why it is still timely.

George Romero is the master of zombie horror and the maestro of political commentary. He infuses his features with salacious scenes of gore and violence, but his films always manage to retain some of the wit and social awareness found in tamer genres. With The Crazies (1973),he showed viewers the devastating effects of an ineffective army; in Knightriders (1981), it was jousting knights riding bareback on motorcycles; and for Creepshow (1982), he blended tales of morality with cartoons and captions.

At first glance, Romero’s films often seem to examine just the macabre and miraculous, yet in his second feature in the Dead trilogy, Dawn of the Dead (1978), he does not just examine zombies; Romero charts the darkness at the core of human nature.

Dawn of the Dead takes place on the brink of apocalypse as zombies slowly begin to take over the United States. Arial shots of both the town and countryside show vacated streets, army tanks, and gun-savvy rustics picking off zombies as if they were fish in a radioactive barrel. The film’s four protagonists—Stephen, Peter, Roger, and Francine—escape the chaos via helicopter, only to seek shelter at a mall in Pittsburgh. Their sanctuary soon becomes a modern Mecca as they are able to survive on the bounty of the various department stores while indulging in candy, records, and fur coats. As the film progresses, however, Romero incriminates the film’s protagonists with the same disease that afflicts the zombies: greed. He refuses to differentiate between humans and zombies; rather, he points to their similarities. Romero challenges the definition of what makes us fully human by creating a film in which humans and zombies are equally equated, whether visually or narratively.

The opening scene of the film takes place in a newsroom where no zombies are to be found, yet the soundtrack is eerie, plodding, and methodical, as if to aurally suggest the presence of zombies as a constant, hovering threat. Romero initially starts with a close up of Fran’s face, suggesting the viewer’s affinities will lie with her since she is our only focal point, but the camera slowly draws away to reveal the bigger scene of pandemonium running rapid through the newsroom. As Nicki Minaj might sing, the night (and mayhem) is still young.

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While we are immersed in a familiar setting with familiar faces, the dissonant music, scored by Dario Argento and The Goblins, repeatedly reminds us of the lurking presence of destruction. At times, the screechy, vibrating twang of the instruments recalls the harrowing scene in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) where a young girl stabs her mother to death with a trowel. Echoes of the mother’s piercing shrieks seem to have settled within this score, but, instead of pairing this unsettling music with zombies, Romero pairs it with humans, as if to suggest that we must also be wary of ourselves, not just the zombies that remain undetected on the periphery of both the story and the camera.

The steady tempo of the bass thumps like a heart beat, rapidly increasing alongside our own so that we are fully engaged in this scene, yet we are unable to reconcile whether we are meant to associate ourselves with the harrowing timbre or with the fear it induces. Our audible engagement with this scene frightens us, because Romero indicates we may have to fear ourselves, just as this sort of overture dreads the introduction of our two ostensible protagonists, Steve and Fran. Hence, the filmmakers wed viewers to an uneasiness that will pervade throughout the film, whether zombies are mise-en-scene or not.

Romero automatically cuts to an apartment complex where the army lies in wait for the living residents to give up their undead. One soldier is almost rabid with his desire to kill the resistant residents, demonstrated by his slew of curses and racial slurs. This soldier’s verbal and subsequent physical violence renders him almost identical to that of a zombie, for, even with the pacified residents, he kills without purpose or reason in what Tony Williams describes as an “indiscriminate slaughter” in The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead. With this scene, the bloodthirsty, bigoted soldier reorients our attention away from the zombies’ violence and illuminates our own. The blue army uniforms, and the pasty blue parlor of the zombie palate, become a kind of Yves Klein whirlwind of arms and torsos. Though the deaths are graphic, the subsequent montage of violence juxtaposes both eviscerated zombies and humans, with no moral judgment from Romero on whether one death is worse than another.

When the four protagonists make their escape and descend on top of a gigantic shopping mall in Pittsburgh, they greedily describe the mall as a “gold mine.” While Fran (our focal point from the start of the film and thus the only human character with whom we even vaguely identify) does protest, “This is exactly what we’re trying to get away from,” there is a subtle ambiguity to her protest: does she mean zombies or consumerism? Or both? She is wary of the zombie-ridden department stores and the eerie serenity of displays for wigs, cutlery, and clothes. The zombies are shot in different areas of the complex: riding the escalator, passing by shops, and lingering near fountains. Their slow gait and vapid expressions are no different than that of a passive window shopper.

Romero equates humans and zombies with the same fascination for capitalism and consumerism, even when it does little to aid or assist these beings in their present circumstance or in providing nourishing sustenance. Though the zombies come here out of some primal instinct, it is the humans who greedily descend on the mall like Cher with a platinum credit card in Clueless (1995). Romero makes comedy out of the zombies aimlessly bumping into one another as they roam the mall, yet they are oblivious to the commodities: it is the humans who are fully aware of their craving to consume whatever their heart desires.

For Fran and the three men, the mall fulfills all their consumerist desires that will keep them physically alive and also allow them to indulge in unnecessary pleasures. Fran does upgrade her wardrobe and though she may not be reckless when she rocks her Givenchy dress, she is stylin’ from this point until the end of the film. Roger and Peter run through the mall like little children, whooping and hollering while waving their guns above their heads. The mall becomes a playground, and Romero captures this childlike ecstasy with fast jump cuts and overhead shots of the men skipping in between endless racks of clothes.

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While the zombies merely inhabit the mall physically and attempt to satisfy their conditioned hunger, it is the humans who succumb to greed instead of merely focusing on survival. The exclamation, “Let’s go shopping!” is not prefaced with what is needed or necessary, but resounds emptily in the air; the statement is as vapid as the action itself. The protagonists are rabid consumers, who are as ridiculous and cartoonish as the zombies in their insatiable greed.

Parallels between the zombies and humans increase as Peter and Roger collect their first round of bounty for the group. Romero shoots the zombies as seen from Roger, Peter, and even the (human) audience’s perspective, then immediately juxtaposes with shots of Roger and Peter from the zombies’ perspective. In these shots, Roger and Peter are often filmed through the glass windows of a department store. The cinematography symbolically separates viewers from these men by placing a literal barrier between the camera and the characters. Romero severs the audience’s affinities from the characters by keeping them at a distance from the viewer’s gaze, and then Romero employs the same cinematic shot with the zombies. But instead of shooting them from a distance, these shots are close-ups of the zombies’ faces, garments, and grimaces.

The audience witnesses in detail the remnants of these beings’ former lives. Romero creates specific backgrounds for each zombie, whether a nun, a nurse, a baseball player, or a Hare Krishna. By focusing the viewer’s attention on these details, Romero ‘humanizes’ the zombies, forcing us to question the difference between that of human and zombie; the similarities and differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ become interchangeable.

Ironically, once the humans have created a stable environment for themselves, they become mirror images of the zombies that the audience saw in the apartment complex basement. Their expressions become listless and their activity is reduced to shuffling cards for poker or pouring drinks while they watch television. On the surface, they have everything a modern homemaker could desire, but their boredom renders them identical to the walking dead. In a montage where the protagonists’ hands reach for candy, coffee, and jewelry, the cinematography matches the scenes of carnage, where zombies greedily grab for intestines, entrails, and arms.

One might recall a more tranquil, but equally disturbing scene at the end of The Stepford Wives (1975) where every woman’s shopping cart brims with food, their expressions as vapid and disinterested as our quartet. Even Fran, the one who said, “This is exactly what we’re trying to get away from,” paints her face with gaudy makeup and douses herself in expensive perfume. If this were 2016, she’d be Instagram ready after pilfering an iPhone. As Courtney Love sings in “Doll Parts,” Fran wants “to be the girl with the most cake.”

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The humans’ violent natures are accentuated when a biker army threatens their haven. It is the bikers who wreak havoc and destruction on all surrounding them instead of the zombies who now passively reside in the parking lot outside. Observing the helicopter through their binoculars in a predatory shot, the bikers then zoom into the mall in a whirlwind of gas exhaust and expletives. They open the doors and turn the mall into a circus show as they smash glass and throw cream pies in the zombies’ faces. One looter picks up a television and his partner shouts, “Man what the hell are you going to watch on that thing?” He regards it momentarily before replying, “I dunno” and tosses it aside.

The bikers are more inhuman than the zombies, for their wanton destruction involves the unnecessary humiliation of the undead, even though the walking corpses are virtually interchangeable from the humans. The bikers kill not to defend themselves, but because they have turned killing into a sport. Romero previously directed the audience’s attention to the individuality of the zombies, particularly when Fran and a zombie baseball player regard each other somberly and respectfully through a glass door. The zombie is not aggressive or antagonistic; he merely studies Fran thoughtfully before he moves on. The bikers completely disregard all propriety that one would show another being (living or dead) and make a mockery out of an apocalyptic tragedy. At this juncture, Romero’s statement is clear: the zombies are as much a victim of our violence as we are of theirs.

Dawn of the Dead is what Beth Accomando calls Romero’s “taxonomy of horror.” And this is not because of the salacious scenes of gore, but because he turns the camera on our darker, internal nature which is just as greedy, if not more so, then the flesh-eating zombies. Romero chastises the capitalists and consumerists with ferocity and wit that reality TV shows, such as My Super Sweet 16, address today. Romero demonstrates the lengths human beings will go to in order to preserve not only their lives, but their belongings as well. Nothing says success like accruing one too many possessions.

Towards the end of the film, it is not the zombies that dehumanize and antagonize others, but the human characters—like a fictional Stanford prison experiment where an illusion of authority renders inexcusable behavior from the gluttonous group. Thus Dawn of the Dead reveals our primal, darker selves, and forces viewers to realize that maybe we really are the problem as we steal, consume, and, ultimately, destroy ourselves.