Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the Dead is George A. Romero’s zombie-splattering follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. It takes the premise of the end of the world through the uprising of corpses in the form of a Zombie Apocalypse, and shows these consequences on a world of the 70s — a time of increasing racial tensions and rampant consumerism.
The film uses the unique and genius setting of a Pittsburgh mall to showcase these themes and features creature and gore effects even more impressive than his first zombie film.
The characters are relatable. The situation tense. The action exciting. And if you like classic zombies, but can’t really cotton with the black and white and low production of Night of the Living Dead, then Dawn is a great step forward towards modern film-making and production quality while not losing any of the old-school-cool or original authenticity of Night.
But beyond being simply down-right fun and horrific (especially due to the one-of-a-kind gore effects) the film also stands as an important observation on the time period in which it was made. In One Generation Consuming the Next: The Racial Critique of Consumerism in George Romero’s Zombie Films, Henry Powell does amazing work to connect the movie’s observations on race and American consumerism into a single and focused vision.
Powell observes that since Night of the Living Dead Romero has used “depictions of white masculinity” to “focus on the conflicts between characters representing … American inequalities … certain characters to represent unthinking and selfish whites.”
In Dawn Romero takes these concepts and expands his observations on “consumerism to expound on the ways American society essentially leaves minorities (especially African Americans) behind in its quest for individual success.”
The use of the Zombie as an allegory to provide observations on dynamics between white and black society is nothing new to Romero. Powell notes:
Western society adopted the image of the zombie in the late 19th … century and warped it to make Haitians seem untamable.One Generation Consuming the Next: The Racial Critique of Consumerism in George Romero’s Zombie Films – Henry Powell
Haiti became “a primeval and deeply exoticised ‘other’ to Western modernity, a place set apart from both space and time,” where sorcerers ruled society by turning people into zombies and destroying the social order. Haiti became the representation of the deindustrialized world full of people that would never have the ability to be anything but laborers and therefore could justifiably be used as slaves.
Romero continues this tradition and breaks these ideas into the modern sphere by turning the trope on its head. In his zombie films of the 60s and 70s, “an African American is … often is the most logical and moral character in the entire film. The idea of the “other” is inverted as we end up pulling for the black character against oppressive whites.”
Night of the Living Dead starts this inversion, and it is finished with its combination with consumerism in Dawn of the Dead. Romero points to the inequalities present in the late 20th century America not only in the hearts and minds of society, but in the established economic and law and order structures of America itself. Powel observes:
The most marginalized people in the … the film, African Americans and Latinos, are unable to save themselves from the destruction going on in their own homes. The most horrific scenes of the film take place in a housing project as zombies and police alike attack poor minorities who cannot escape their financial woes.
By highlighting these scenes as some of the most desperate and heartbreaking “Romero shows a brutal police force” carrying out oppressive orders on desperate minorities and connects this to economics “through parallel editing, consumer culture in general, as
causes for this struggle.”
If you have stuck with me through all of that, power to you. Don’t let the academic musings of one fan let you think this isn’t a flat-out entertaining gore flick in addition to all these societal observations present. This is a superlative example of the how horror can be reflective of our own society and be both enlightening and just plain, bloody, fun.