Movie Review of Dawn of the Dead (1978)

by JoHarrington

George A. Romero's gore-fest follow-up to his classic 'Night of the Living Dead' has zombies milling aimlessly around shopping malls. It's often more comedy than horror.

'Dawn of the Dead' was precisely what I expected 'Night of the Living Dead' was going to be.

Relentless hordes of zombies intent upon gnawing on human flesh; and, in this case, peering into shop windows, lumbering after bargains and being distracted by all manner of shiny pretties. Could the anti-consumerism message be more blatant?

Along the way, the gore is so unrealistic that it stops being grisly and becomes comedic. Nevertheless, it entertained me for 2 hrs 20 mins.

Dawn of the Dead (Ultimate Edition) on DVD

Dawn of the Dead Loses the Subtlety of Night of the Living Dead

The satire hits you with a sledgehammer. The storyline is submerged in the gore; and it's far more comedy than actual horror.

I watched Dawn of the Dead the day after seeing Night of the Living Dead, both for the first time. Both have frequently been nominated in best *insert number* film of all time lists.  After seeing the latter, I could see why.

The sequel, in my humble opinion, cannot be compared with the iconic Night of the Living Dead. So much of the claustrophobic subtlety, which really marked that movie for me, was lost in the far more blatant Dawn of the Dead.

There are obvious comparisons.  We have people holed up in a building, while flesh-eating zombie hordes pummel the doors and windows.  We have an apocalyptic, fall of civilization as we know it scenario, and we have human beings attempting to come to terms with it all.

But the range of emotions on offer in Night of the Living Dead seemed much more stinted in its sequel.  It's a different kind of film - more gore, more comedy, more wry observations about Capitalism and a sneaky, understated anti-war theme - but it didn't leave me as moved as the original.

Dawn of the Dead is precisely what I thought Night of the Living Dead was going to be.  A veritable feast of grisly horror and a series of inventive ways to a) survive and b) kill said oncoming zombie hordes.

Unfortunately for lovers of gore-fest horror (for which this must surely be the Mother of them all), the effect is somewhat lost in how utterly unrealistic the blood appears. It's bright red, almost comic book brightness, and they certainly do not look like real wounds.

I never once recoiled with squeamishness.  But I did chuckle a lot.

Trailer for Dawn of the Dead (1978)

You will see the level of gore for yourself in this trailer. They are not the world's most realistic effects though.

What is Dawn of the Dead About?

Those who have seen Night of the Living Dead will know that it ended with the zombie infection spreading out over the whole of Pennsylvania and into the rest of the USA.

This picks up around that point.  Via a helicopter ride and television footage, we get to see how much of the American countryside is over-run.  By halfway through the film, we also learn that the cities are now completely infested.

A pregnant newscaster and her weather reporting boyfriend hitch up with two S.W.A.T. team police officers.  They make their hiding place inside a shopping mall. 

The zombies try to get in, but the humans have it all completely defended.  However, the living dead are nothing if not persistent.  As the months pass and civilization breaks down outside, it's apparent that no rescue will come.

Dawn of the Dead Movie Poster

Dawn of the Dead is Hilarious with Serious Undertones

I nearly placed this review into Wizzley's comedy movie category, but left it in horror alongside its predecessor.

Dawn of the Dead doesn't take itself too seriously.  It's a desperate situation and the brutal horror is all about; but that doesn't mean that we can't all laugh about it.  There are some scenes which are mildly amusing, but which alternate between other moments of dramatic intensity.  But there are others which are shot firmly tongue in cheek.

There are no sacred cows.  Want to see a zombie nun or Buddhist monk?  We have them here. How about small children wanting flesh?  Present and correct.  All dignity in death has gone.  There are zombies mugged for their wallet or jewelery, before the human raiders simply outrun them.

I think it's going to take a long while for me to get the image of a zombie on an escalator out of my mind; as well as those on a skating rink. 

Yet it has its serious side too.  We can all be very smug about the constant bombardment of anti-consumerism/anti-Capitalist imagery.  How many zombies does it take to claw at a shop window, before you get the message?

But those making this movie had also been in Vietnam.  If you look closely, you can see the influence of that very real horror.  Tom Savini's make up and effects were based on corpses he'd seen in war.

The plot too has a strong anti-war message. The only times when the main quartet are seriously threatened, are on the occasions when one or more of them become gung-ho for violence.  Somebody, usually Peter, counsels peace, but the testosterone overtakes one of the men and suddenly 'we have us a war'.

That never ends well.

Buy Blu-Ray or Alternative Cuts of Dawn of the Dead

There have been dozens of different edits of this movie. The European version was called 'Zombie' and that had even more!

Dawn of the Dead Doesn't Pass the Bechdel Test

But it fails on the most ridiculous of all omissions, when Romero was patently attempting to get it right.

As the movie began I stared in shock.  It appeared to be passing the Bechdel Test in the opening scene!  Tick!  Wonderful!

But that really was it; and it wasn't that great. 

Dawn of the Dead begins with Francine (Gaylen Ross) curled up in a corner having a nightmare. As she murmurs in her sleep, a male colleague shakes her awake and asks if she is alright.  She replies in the affirmative, while a female colleague sits up from her slumber too.

"I'm still dreaming." 

"No, you're not."  Francine grimly tells her.  Woot!  A Bechdel Test pass right there, in that tiny exchange.  But there's more! 

The scene shifts to the doorway, where there's chaos with people bustling in and out of the tiny booth-like room.  We learn that this is a television studio, but everyone seems to be talking at once.  They are on air, but all professionalism has been blown in anger and hysteria.

A second female colleague squeezes through the door to hand Francine a drink. 

She imparts news on the current situation, "The guys in the crew are going crazy. Couple of them flown the coop already. I don't know how long we're going to stay on the air."

Francine just pats her arm and walks on through into the melee.  All of this was in the first 57 seconds of the movie.  Francine never talks to another woman again.  But films have passed the Bechdel Test on less.

George A. Romero came under some serious criticism for his portrayal of women in Night of the Living Dead.  This was at the height of the Women's Lib movement and his classic became a kind of by-word for Hollywood's disdain for females.  He had to do better here, and he really tried.

But there's a problem.  The Bechdel Test evaluates the representation of female characters based upon three criteria.  They have to have a conversation (which occurs here), which isn't about male characters (which also occurs here, though more so with the 'dream' exchange than the latter).

It also has to have more than one named female character.  Francine is named, but who are those colleagues?  They are not named. 

Feminist issues are apparent, in a scene slotted about halfway into the movie.  Francine ironically tells the returning men that, "I would have made you breakfast, but I don't have any of my pots and pans."

They ignore her.  Just faint smiles of acknowledgement, without really looking up.  Then she lets rip with beautiful assertiveness.  "I'm not going to be den mother for you guys," Francine affirms, before making it clear that they are not to make any more plans without consulting her too. They'd already done that several times, each with a marked lack of common sense.

Then she messes it up by apologizing for her stand to her boyfriend.

Later, she demands, and is given, a gun to defend herself.  She wryly quips that she'll try to work out how to use it.  A scene later, she proves that she's been a sharp-shooter all along.  They really shouldn't have side-lined her for her gender.

Yet there were other scenes which seriously made me cringe.  News about her pregnancy is greeted with a discussion about its abortion.  The question is asked of her boyfriend, without Francine even being addressed. Though the unacceptable nature of that was covered in the movie.

What was played straight was her boyfriend discovering her in the toilet, wracked with morning sickness.  "Leave me alone, it's my problem!"  Francine groans.  He hesitates.  "I just don't want you to see me like this, okay?"

Given that they're stuck behind a barricade with zombies surrounding them, then perhaps a pregnancy wasn't ideal. But to have it repeatedly referred as a 'problem' and implying that it made Francine somehow ugly wasn't great.

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.
Updated: 05/08/2013, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 12/16/2012


Guest on 12/16/2012


JoHarrington on 12/15/2012

I haven't been to a mall since watching it. That's not related, I don't go to many malls. But when I do, I'm so going to hum it too. The possibilities for hilarity are endless!

Guest on 12/15/2012

great movie...loved it and the shopping mall scene is terrific...I hum the tune when ever I go to

JoHarrington on 12/10/2012

I really do need to find this film. That's three recommendations now!

kate on 12/10/2012

yeah shaun of the dead is good!

JoHarrington on 12/10/2012

Yes, it was a very funny film. Horror comedy, which didn't take itself too seriously.

EMK Events Ltd on 12/10/2012

It's just a laugh, innit?

JoHarrington on 12/04/2012

My friend recommended Shawn of the Dead to me a couple of night's ago. I'm looking for it to watch now. I'll try even harder with two recommendations!

dustytoes on 12/04/2012

I don't remember this movie, but Shawn of the Dead is pretty funny.

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