I figured that since I discussed the cinematic importance of Night of the Living Dead recently, might as well keep going and discuss why Dawn of the Dead is such a big deal. It’s important to the horror genre but in in the same way NotLD was. I love Dawn of the Dead (both Romero’s version and Argento’s Zombi cut) and it has legions of fangs. However I’m not quite a fan of the legacy it’s left behind.
Some Background on Mr. Romero
The success of Night of the Living Dead didn’t exactly catapult George Romero to fame but it did give him something on his resume to make producing and directing easier. In the ensuing years he directed There’s Always Vanilla (1971 – and his only romantic comedy), The Crazies (1973), Season of the Witch (1973), and Martin (1978). Wile Martin did have some success with the arthouse circuit and The Crazies eventually gained cult status – none of these were particularly successful. In face critics outright hated There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch.
While visiting the Monroeville Mall in Monroeville, PA romero found inspiration in wondering how people could survive an emergency situation inside. Using that as the basis for a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Romero wrote the screenplay but was unable to find any funding for the film. Luckily, word of the sequel reached Italian director Dario Argento who was a big fan of NotLD. Argento was able to secure funding for the project and brought Romero out to Rome to further collaborate on the screenplay.
Romero was able to use the same Monroeville Mall that inspired Dawn of the Dead for the film’s location. Other scenes were shot in and around Monroeville or nearby Pittsburgh. Tom Savini had been offered the job of make-up and effects for Night of the Living Dead but was unable to as he’d been drafted into the service for Vietnam. His time there greatly influenced his craft and his team was able to present a new level of horror make-up and effects unlike any people had seen before. Principal photography on Dawn of the Dead concluded in February of 1978; the film premiered theatrically April 20, 1979. The rest, as they say, is history.
A lot has been said about the possible social commentary in Night of the Living Dead especially with regards to its black leading man; people argue that never mentioning the racial issue at all in the narrative is itself a strong statement about race reclations. George Romero has said that Duane Jones was cast as Ben in NotLD simply because he was a talented actor – nobody cared about race. Other than a general mindset of “damn the man” anitestablishmentarian thinking there was no true intent at social commentary, just a desire to make a good horror movie. With Dawn of the Dead, however, Romero’s social commentary is very evident and absolutely intentional.
In a panel discussion about the film, Max Brooks, author of Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, summed up the social message of Dawn of the Dead quite well:
[su_quote cite=”Max Brooks” url=”http://maxbrooks.com/”]’Dawn of the Dead’ really was the middle finger to the death of the baby boomers. It was this generation that started off so idealistic and was like ‘Hey man, don’t trust anyone over 30, man, don’t trust anyone over 30,’ and then they turned 30. That moment [in the film] when he says ‘What is that? looks like a shopping center. One of those new indoor malls’… It was the dawn of the death of the ideals. [/su_quote]
Shopping malls were a rather new innovation in 1978 but grew to be, and still are, the apogee of American consumer culture. There’s a scene in Dawn of the Dead when Francine wonders aloud why the zombies keep coming to the mall. Its explained to her that the undead are operating on base memory and instinct, trying to perform the same routine they did in life. This is America at its most basic – a nation of mindless consumers with no idea why they want to buy all the things they do. When there is no more room in hell the dead will walk the Earth… and keep shopping