Following the events of Night of the Living Dead (1968), we follow the exploits of four survivors of the zombie apocalypse as they take refuge in an abandoned shopping mall following a horrific SWAT evacuation of an apartment complex. Taking stock of their surroundings, they arm themselves, lock down the mall, and destroy the zombies inside so they can eke out a living, at least for a while. Tensions begin to build as months go on, however, when they come to realize that they've fallen prey to c
"Just because I'm showing a guy being disembowelled doesn't mean I have to get heavy and put a message behind it," remarked George Romero in 1983. Given that he had just delivered the distinctly message-free portmanteau flick Creepshow he may have been feeling less than profound. But his previous movie, Dawn Of The Dead, is a bright scarlet splatterfest that manages to deliver not only some of the most astonishingly intense horror make-up effects to date (courtesy of Tom Savini), but is also a bleak, pessimistic attack on modern consumerism. Dawn Of The Dead is a movie that leaves you unsure whether a planet populated by mindless zombies desperate for their next fix of warm human flesh isn't preferable to the world they are destroying. Or, at the very least, it's a close run thing.
Timewise, Dawn picks up shortly after the end of Night Of The Living Dead (1968), but in terms of style they couldn't be further apart. Monochrome sparseness and claustrophobia have given way to colour, rapid cutting and a sense of utter chaos. While Night Of The Living Dead had been an effective, fiercely original shocker, Dawn added political and social satire to the stew. The end of the Vietnam war and the resulting politicisation of American youth had trickled through to one of their favourite genres. It also delivered FX man Savini from active duty where he had been deployed as a combat photographer. Indeed, Vietnam was partly responsible for the intense, body-shattering effects. Savini had spent his time during the war photographing blasted limbs, detached genitalia and exploded heads. "Much of my work for Dawn Of The Dead was like a series of portraits of what I had seen for real in Vietnam. Perhaps that was one way of working out that experience," he told journalists. Though he later moaned that the blood in the movie "Looks like melted crayon" he delivered a positive miasma of flying flesh and gore and established a quite literally mind-blowing signature shot for the movie: a zombie's face, vacant and unsuspecting is seen through the scope of a rifle before suddenly exploding in a haze of red.
Zombies wander up and down escalators tumbling into indoor fountains accompanied by elevator muzak and superstore special offer announcements (the movie was shot entirely at night in a new shopping mall in Romero's native Pittsburgh). There are even clown and Hare Krishna zombies which Romero obviously takes great delight in dispatching. But it's the more disturbing images that linger. A group of rednecks lazily taking potshots at the undead in a kind of turkey shoot. Zombies paw with desperate avaricious expressions at shop windows, looking like bargain-hunters queuing for the January sale in Hades. A woman hugs her husband only to have him bite a chunk out of her shoulder. Amid the carnage, there's even room for the odd poignant moment. Stephen (David Emge) and Francene (Ross) attempt to have a romantic meal in a deserted Indian restaurant, and there are shots of Gaylen skating alone in the deserted ice rink. Slowly the occupants of the mall begin to realise that for all the consumer goodies to be purloined, the building is, as possibly it always was, a prison from which they stand little chance of escape.
In 1985, Romero followed Dawn Of The Dead with Day Of The Dead, a disappointing conclusion to the trilogy which focused on Savini's bloody fireworks to the exclusion of all the thoughtfulness that had distinguished the first two films. But, as seems to be the rule in trilogies, it is this haunting, pessimistic second installment that is the one that continues to work its bleak magic. As Peter (Foree) remarks observing the undead pawing at the windows: "They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here." "What the hell are they?" asks Stephen. The reply is one of the most chilling lines in the annals of horror cinema. "They're us, that's all."
Romero's movie is a cavalcade of alternately disturbing and satirically funny images.