The Curator of Schlock #170 by Jeff Shuster
Dawn of the Dead
“Don’t spit in the soup. We’ve all got to eat.”—Lyndon Baines Johnson
I first watched Dawn of the Dead back in middle school. I had purchased acopy of the VHS tape over a Christmas break back in 1989. I was no stranger to George Romero’s zombie movies at the time, having seen Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead earlier that year.
I think Dawn of the Dead initially disappointed me. Maybe it’s because my first forays into modern horror had been limited to those other two aforementioned George Romero films. Back then, I tended to avoid modern horror movies because I was a chicken shit. The classic horror movies of the 30s and 40s and the gothic horror films of the 50s and 60s were safer, more familiar. Night of the Living Dead was shot in black and white so it served as a kind of bridge between classic horror and modern horror. Day of the Dead had been shot in the mid 80s, but the movie still had a mad scientist character along with a clear villain, familiar things for me to grab onto. But Dawn of the Dead (1978) was uncharted territory.
The movie begins with a woman waking up from a nightmare. Her head is resting on crimson colored shag carpet, which is fixed to the wall behind her. Then I hear that blaring rock score by a band I would later come to know as Goblin. Listen to the main theme. Tell me it isn’t eeriest piece of music you’ve ever heard. The woman’s name is Fran (Gaylen Ross), an employee at a Philadelphia news station, where “the shit’s really hitting the fan.” There’s some kind of talk show going on where a government official is arguing with a Phil Donahue type host over the fact that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living. The people they kill get up and kill! Fran’s boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge) demands that they escape the city with the network traffic helicopter.
We switch over to a scene featuring National Guard and SWAT team members storming a tenement complex. A maniacal SWAT member named Willie goes “apeshit,” shooting up tenants before two other SWAT officers take him out. They are Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger). Roger informs Peter that he’s escaping the city by copter with his friends and asks Peter if he’s like to join them. Peter accepts the offer.
Did I forget to mention that the tenement complex is full of zombies? The most disturbing scene is one of National Guard members busting through a boarded up door only to be greeted by dozens of zombie hands pushing through. Before long these men are swamped with the living dead as they try to get through a crowded stairwell. We never find out what happens next, if the soldiers get devoured or if they manage to escape. Keep in mind that all of this is in the first twenty minutes of the movie. We haven’t even gotten to the meat of the story. I’ll give you a hint as to what it’s all about. It has to do with a shopping mall.
With the exception of the biker gang at the end of the film, there are no clear-cut heroes and villains. We don’t get a Mr. Cooper or a Captain Rhodes. We get four people trying to survive a zombie wasteland, four individuals who I started off not liking too much, but who have since become like old friends. Some movies are like having visits with old friends.
Sometimes those visits include flesh-eating zombies. There are worse things.