Dawn of the Dead (also known as George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Zombie internationally, Zombies in Britain, and alternately called Zombie: Dawn of the Dead) is a 1978 American / Italian horror film, written and directed by George A. Romero. The film featured David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross. It was the second movie made in Romero's Living Dead series, preceded by 1968's Night of the Living Dead, and followed by Day of the Dead in 1985. Dawn of the Dead contains no characters or settings from its predecessor, and shows in larger scale the apocalyptic effects a zombie epidemic would have on society. In the film, a plague of unknown origin has caused the reanimation of the dead, who prey on human flesh. Several survivors of the outbreak barricade themselves inside a suburban shopping mall.
Dawn of the Dead was shot over approximately four months, from late 1977 to early 1978, in the Pennsylvania cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Monroeville. Its primary location is set in the Monroeville Mall. The film was made on a relatively modest budget estimated at US$650,000, and was a significant box office success for its time, grossing an estimated $55 million worldwide. Since opening in theaters in 1978, reviews for the film have been nearly unanimously positive.
In addition to three official sequels, the film has spawned numerous parodies and pop culture references. A remake of the movie premiered in the United States on March 19, 2004. Labeled a "re-imagining" of the original film's concept, several major themes, including the primary setting in a shopping mall, remain essentially the same. Cultural and film historians read significance into the film's plot, linking it to critiques of large corporations and American consumerism and of the social decadence and excess going on in America during the late 1970s.
The film opens in the television studio of the fictional station, WGON in Philadelphia, where confusion reigns. Following some exposition— in which Stephen (David Emge), the station's traffic helicopter pilot, and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross) plan to steal the helicopter in order to escape the zombie threat — the plot turns to another of the film's protagonists, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), as he and the rest of his SWAT team raid a tenement building because the largely Puerto Rican and black Caribbean residents are ignoring the martial law imposition of delivering the dead over to National Guardsmen and evacuating private dwellings.
The immigrants are slaughtered by the SWAT operatives and their own dead relatives, who emerge from their rooms after being reanimated by the zombie infection. During the raid, Roger meets Peter (Ken Foree), part of another SWAT team, and the two go down to the apartment building's basement, where they meet a one legged priest who has just given the undead their last rites. They soon find the basement packed full of undead that the living residents had kept from being seized by the National Guard. After the two kill the zombies with shots to the head, Peter suggests they desert their SWAT team and flee the nightmarish city. Late that night, along with Francine and Stephen, they escape Philadelphia in the TV station's helicopter, with the intention of reaching the safety of the Canadian wilderness. Following some close calls while stopping for fuel, the group happens across a shopping mall, which they initially plan to use as a pit stop.
Leaving the small area of the mall they were using to rest, Peter and Roger decide to enter the main area of the mall to retrieve supplies. Stephen takes their last weapon and joins them, finding the schematic plans of the mall. After Stephen narrowly escapes a small group of the undead, one of the undead moves up the stairs where Francine remains, making his way toward the weaponless Francine. The men in the group trick the undead toward a department store, then escape through an elevator air shaft. They make it back to the hideout in time to save Francine, but in her shock she is immediately skeptical of their new idea to make the mall their own private sanctuary. Despite her objections, they press on. Their plan to make the mall safe for habitation is to block the large acrylic glass entrance doors with semi trucks to keep the undead gathered outside the mall from entering, then destroying the remaining undead inside with ammunition they acquire from the mall's gun shop. During the blocking of the mall entrances, the impulsive Roger acts recklessly, leading to him being bitten by one of the undead and dooming him — by the rules set in the previous movie — to a slow death and eventual reanimation.
After clearing the mall of its zombie inhabitants, the four settle in. The group indulges their every material desire as the undead paw at the mall entrances. As depicted on infrequent television broadcasts, society beyond those doors continues to collapse. Roger slowly succumbs to the infection, but asks Peter to wait to kill him as he wants to try "not to come back." He does reanimate, however, and Peter finishes his friend.
As in other zombie films directed by George Romero, the scourge of living death is not simply spread by bites. In Romero's films, anybody who dies for any reason -- heart attack, cancer, gunshots, hanging, etc. -- will rise as a zombie, unless their death involved severe brain trauma.
The film skips ahead several months. Stephen has instructed Francine in piloting the helicopter. Francine was earlier revealed to be pregnant, and her appearance provides a rough estimate of the time that has passed, as she appears to be near the end of the second trimester. By this time, all emergency broadcast transmissions from the outside world have ceased entirely, though Stephen clings to the faint hope of another broadcast. Stricken with boredom, the novelty of their materialistic utopia wears thin.
One night, however, the three survivors refuse to answer a short wave radio call from a malevolent biker gang who know of their presence and are intent on looting. The bikers break into the mall, in the process letting in hundreds of the undead. Angered, Stephen interrupts their plunder and initiates a battle with the bikers. In the end, several bikers and Stephen are bitten by zombies. Peter escapes unscathed. While Francine wants to flee immediately, Peter decides to wait to see if Stephen will return. Stephen quickly bleeds to death from a combination of gunshot wounds and zombie bites. Upon his reanimation, Stephen leads a large group of the undead toward Francine and Peter's hideout. After killing Stephen, Peter helps Francine escape to the roof but says he does not want to flee. At the last second, Peter decides against suicide and fights off the undead approaching him. He reaches the helicopter as Fran pulls away from the landing pad. The movies ends with the duo facing an uncertain future as they fly away from the mall at dawn in the low-fueled helicopter. As the credits roll, there are multiple shots of the once again zombie-infested mall.
Much of the lead-up to the two suicides was left in the film, as Fran stands on the roof doing nothing as zombies approach, and Peter puts a gun to his head, ready to shoot himself with a Derringer before suddenly deciding to live and escape with Fran. While Romero has said the original ending was scrapped before being shot, behind the scenes photos show the original version was at least tested.
Romero and his producer, Richard P. Rubinstein, were unable to procure any domestic investors for the new project. By chance, word of the sequel reached Italian horror director Dario Argento. A fan of Night of the Living Dead and an early critical proponent of the film, Argento was eager to help the horror classic receive a sequel. He met Romero and Rubinstein, helping to secure financing in exchange for international distribution rights. Argento invited Romero to Rome so he would have a change of scenery while writing the screenplay. The two could also then discuss plot developments.
Romero was able to secure the availability of Monroeville Mall as well as additional financing through his connections with the mall's owners at Oxford Development. Once the casting was completed, principal shooting was scheduled to begin in Pennsylvania on November 13, 1977.
As December rolled around, the production decided against having the crew remove and replace the Christmas decorations — a task that had proved to be too time consuming. Filming was shut down during the last three weeks of the year to avoid the possible continuity difficulties and unavoidable lost shooting time. Production would resume on January 3, 1978. During the break in filming, Romero took the opportunity to begin editing his existing footage.
The airfield scenes were filmed at the Harold W. Brown Memorial Airfield in Monroeville, an airport located about 10 miles from the mall that is still in use. The scenes of the group's hideout at the top of the mall were filmed on a set built at Romero's then-production company, The Latent Image. The elevator shaft was located there as well, as no such area of the mall actually existed. The gun store was also not located in the mall — for filming, the crew used Firearms Unlimited, a shop that existed in the East Liberty district of Pittsburgh at the time.
Principal photography on Dawn of the Dead ended February 1978, and Romero's process of editing would begin. By using numerous angles during the filming, Romero allowed himself an array of possibilities during editing — choosing from these many shots to reassemble into a sequence that could dictate any number of responses from the viewer simply by changing an angle or deleting or extending portions of scenes. This amount of superfluous footage is evidenced by the numerous international cuts, which in some cases affects the regional version's tone and flow.
The makeup for the multitudes of extras in the film was a basic blur or gray tinge to the face of each extra. Some featured zombies, who would be seen close-up or on-screen longer than others, had more time spent on their look. The film has been criticized for the lousy makeup of the zombies. Even Savini himself later said it was a mistake to paint them in gray, because many of them ended up looking quite blue on film. Many of the featured zombies became part of the fanfare, with nicknames based upon their look or activity—such as Machete Zombie, Sweater Zombie, and Nurse Zombie.
A cast of Gaylen Ross' head that was to be used in the original ending of the film ended up as an exploding head during the tenement building scene. The head was shot with an actual shotgun to get the head to explode.
One of the unintentional standout effects was the bright, flouresent color of the fake blood that was used in the film. Savini was an early opponent of the blood, produced from 3M, but Romero thought it added to the film. Some say this is the biggest flaw of the film.
For Dario Argento's international cut of Dawn of the Dead, the Italian director used the band Goblin (incorrectly credited as "The Goblins") extensively. Goblin was a four-piece Italian band that did mostly contract work for film soundtracks. Argento, who received a credit for original music alongside Goblin, collaborated with the group to get songs for his cut of the film. Romero used three of their pieces in his version.
The Goblin score would later find its way onto a heavily Dawn of the Dead-inspired film, Hell of the Living Dead.
Internationally, Argento controlled the final cut for non-English speaking countries. The version he created clocked in at 119 minutes. It included changes such as more music from Goblin than the two cuts completed by Romero, removal of some expository scenes, and a faster cutting pace. Released in Italy in September 1978, it actually debuted nearly nine months before the US theatrical cut. In Italy it was released under the full title Zombi: L’alba dei Morti Viventi, followed in March of 1979 by France as Zombie: Le Crépuscule des Morts Vivants, in Spain as Zombi: El Regreso de los Muertos Vivientes, in the Netherlands as Zombie: In De Greep van de Zombies, by Germany’s Constantin Film as Zombie, and in Denmark as Zombie: Raedslernes Morgan.
Dawn of the Dead went on to gross approximately $55 million worldwide, equivalent to approximately $177 million in 2007. , the return on investment of its roughly $650,000 budget made it a highly profitable film. Its success in then-West Germany earned it the Golden Screen Award, given to films that have at least 3 million admissions within 18 months of release.
For a thorough comparison of all major releases of Dawn of the Dead, see comparison of Dawn of the Dead versions.
In the lone review for the film attributed as negative, New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin could not discuss the merits of the film, as she walked out after the first fifteen minutes of the film due to "a pet peeve about flesh-eating zombies who never stop snacking.
In 2004, after numerous VHS, Laserdisc and DVD releases of several different versions of the film from various companies, Anchor Bay Entertainment released a definitive Ultimate Edition DVD box set of Dawn of the Dead. The set features all three widely-available versions of the film, along with different commentary tracks for each version, documentaries and extras. Also rereleased with the DVD set was Roy Frumkes' Document of the Dead, which chronicled the making of Dawn of the Dead and Romero's career to that point. The Ultimate Edition earned a Saturn Award for Best Classic Film Release.