Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Title: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Director: George A. Romero
Writer/s: George A. Romero and Dario Argento

In the late 1970’s the zombie apocalypse has arrived. This film takes place exactly where the last film left off, except now everything is in color and the people are edgier and far more prepared to deal with the undead. The dead have clearly got the upper hand, and so those that remain are making plans to escape to safer zones. In this film Romero uses the undead to focus on society’s obsession with consumerism, and you’ll soon realize why. It is also worth noting that this is my favorite film from the original trilogy.

It starts with Fran (Gaylen Ross), our female protagonist, who works at a TV station that won’t be on the air for very much longer. The station broadcasts live debates about the apocalypse, and employs several so-called experts to give information to the nation. We learn that the rescue stations that were discussed in the first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) are no longer operable but are still  advertised as functioning. There is a lot of tension within the station and Fran is scared. Along comes Stephen (David Emgee), Fran’s boyfriend and the owner of a helicopter license. They plan to steal the TV station’s helicopter and escape along with a friend of Stephen’s, Roger (Scott Reiniger) who is a member of a police SWAT team involved in ‘exterminating’ zombies in inner city apartment blocks mostly comprising of African Americans. Within one of the apartment blocks the police discover that the tenants have been keeping their dead (and the reanimated dead) in the basement. Roger is forced to slaughter every single person in the building and is aided by fellow SWAT member, Peter (Ken Foree). In the aftermath Roger suggests that Peter joins them in the helicopter.

Once in the helicopter they discuss the fact that the ‘rednecks’ have made a sport out of shooting the undead/zombies in the head (which just happens to be one of the few ways one is able to kill them). The camera pans down to a field where this is indeed happening.

Eventually they have to stop for fuel, and whilst this happens they are attacked by more of the undead. Peter is forced to shoot two children who have been ‘turned’ and were hiding inside the garage’s main office. During this attack it is discovered what a good shot Roger is, though often reckless and how inexperienced Stephen is when he accidentally aims his gun at Peter.

Once up in the air again it is established that they cannot simply fly forever and would need to stop for fuel quite regularly. Quite by accident they land on the roof of a mall that appears to have a storeroom in the attic. They discover both fuel and food there, and with roof access it seems the perfect place to camp out for a while. The only problem is that the mall itself is crawling with zombies. Romero’s feelings toward consumerism in American culture are highlighted in this discussion between Fran and Stephen:

Fran:“What are they doing? Why do they come here?”

Stephen:“Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives”

Once inside Roger and Peter go on a mission to collect supplies. To disguise any noise they might make they turn on the lights, music and fountains that make up the whole ‘mall experience’. The weird juxtaposition of the undead wandering aimlessly around the mall bumping into overly done-up mannequins and listening to the manufactured ‘elevator music’ is both creepy and oddly humorous.

In the meantime TV newscasters are still broadcasting that the dead should be destroyed on sight. Fran, whom we’ve now discovered is pregnant, feels imprisoned inside the mall. She wants to be of more help, and even asks Stephen to teach her to fly the helicopter, just in case.

They come up with a plan to further protect the mall by blocking all the entrances with big trucks. With Stephen “Flyboy” in the air, Fran on the roof with a rifle, and Peter and Roger moving the trucks they are able to block the mall from further invaders. However in the middle of moving the trucks Roger is bitten. He is taken back to the hideaway, and seems to have the infection under control, for now…

They clear the mall of the undead and spend months living hedonistically among the mall’s many departments. This is where Romero really brought his consumerist point across. The characters are seen trying on clothes, gorging on food, playing arcade games and messing around in the weapon’s store. It’s actually really fun watching them indulge in the very thing that most of us have dreamt of doing. I mean, who hasn’t imagined themselves being locked in a mall overnight with your friends and access to all the good stuff with no need for money or the hassle of authority figures? In this now ‘lawless’ society they are completely alone and able to do exactly as they wish. In a scene with Fran ice skating alone in an empty rink this fantasy doesn’t appear so great anymore as the reality of their isolation kicks in

Eventually Roger succumbs to his bites and has to be shot by Peter. They bury him in the mall’s gardens. The team are devastated but continue to attempt a sense of normalcy. Stephen and Peter gamble with all the excess cash they found and drink heavily, whilst Fran who is now visibly pregnant attempts domesticity by cooking dinners and decorating their hideaway as though it were a typical American home filled with all the right things. Everything in these scenes points to Romero’s insistence that consumerism equals normalcy and essentially (and fatally), complacency.

Finally the TV broadcasts stop, causing despondency among the survivors. Stephen teaches both Peter and Fran to fly the helicopter – just in case.

It is this previous complacency I mentioned earlier that will cause the final showdown in the mall. A gang of bikers discover their hideout. They move all the trucks protecting the doors and crash through the place, destroying everything in their path and violently looting. Realizing they have probably lost the mall as the zombies stream in, Peter and Stephen wage a war against the gang. In the chaos a lot of the bikers are ripped apart viciously by the undead, and Stephen is killed in an elevator attempting to escape. He turns, and with his foreknowledge leads the dead right to their hideaway. At this point Peter stubbornly says he will stay behind and urges Fran to escape in the helicopter, but right at the last minute he changes his mind and joins her in the chopper. We all breathe a sigh of relief and cheer them on as they fly away with no plans as to how they will get more fuel, but at least they are alive.

The final credits roll and we are left with scenes of the mall completely overrun with the undead wandering aimlessly among the ripped apart dead and all the things that human beings love to spend their lives consuming.

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