Revisiting Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Despite being widely considered one of the best horror movies ever made, to be completely honest the original Dawn of the Dead was never on the top of my list. Its chaotic in media res opening and need for the viewer to just go with the flow confused me. Perhaps you could chalk it up to my age, but for years I’ve always preferred the 2004 remake in part because of its brilliant, simple opening scene. But the third time appears to be the charm, because the original movie really resonated with me when I watched the director’s cut of it yesterday (or at least what I think is the director’s cut – but we will get there).

Summary: Three weeks after the dead begin rising up as flesh-eating zombies in Night of the Living Dead, society is in the midst of a full collapse. A TV news executive, her traffic reporter boyfriend, and two SWAT team members join up and take refugee in a shopping mall.


Early in the COVID pandemic during lockdown, I decided to join many people in the seemingly counterintuitive decision to watch zombie apocalypse movies as a way to pass the time and cope. I recorded a virtual introduction for Night of the Living Dead for a library series, and decided I should really give both Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead a rewatch as well since I hadn’t seen them since I was a very young horror fan knocking “Must See” titles off my list.

Also with Dawn of the Dead in particular, I was intrigued by learning about the different cuts of the film and Dario Argento’s roles in the creative process. Being a huge fan of Suspiria and reading how Argento made a cut of Dawn that focused on the horror and featured a soundtrack by Goblin, I decided to watch the European cut. In hindsight, I realize that was a mistake. For someone who already found the opening with the news station and SWAT raid very discombobulating, the last thing I needed was to watch a cut of the film that cut out exposition and character development to more quickly get to the kills and carnage (not that I don’t love that part of it too!). For more about the differences between the cuts, this is a nice little summary of the key changes: “Battle of the Cuts: Dawn of the Dead” by Oktay Ege Kozak.

Despite my lackluster experience rewatching the Argento cut early in the pandemic, I recently listened to the Girl, That’s Scary! episode of both iterations of Dawn of the Dead and listening to the co-hosts breakdown their love of both versions of the film made me want to give it another watch. I found what appeared to be the director’s/theatrical cut online (there is also an extended cut, but I wanted to watch the version Romero favored this time). I couldn’t tear my eyes away even while watching it on my tiny phone screen.

Probably what I looked like to my phone while I watched the movie

Maybe it was because I knew to expect the chaotic energy at the beginning, but seeing the news station purposely air incorrect information in order to keep people watching while pundits scream at each other on air really hits home in 2023. Watching a SWAT team conduct a racially charged raid against Black & Puerto Rican civilians hits home in 2023. I’m certainly not the first person to notice how timely a lot of the themes from this 40+ year old movie are.

From left to right: Fran, Stephen, Peter, and Roger (in the wagon)

Our four main characters are developed quickly. Traffic reporter Stephen is wise enough to hatch an immediate plan to escape the city and brings a valuable skill to the group with his ability to fly a helicopter, but his inability to subdue his fragile male ego plunges the group members in danger repeatedly. TV news executive Fran demands her boss take down the outdated scroll of emergency shelters that are no longer operational, but given no other choice or direction follows Stephen in the helicopter. Stephen’s friend and SWAT team member Roger is shell-shocked at the carnage he witnesses in the low income housing raid, before realizing the grim reality of what they must do to survive. Peter, another SWAT team member, has a strong survival instinct and natural leadership abilities that make him an excellent asset to the group.

Stephen’s pragmatic demeanor belies his dangerous need to assert himself. When he realizes Peter and Roger have gone to explore the mall, he takes the remaining gun and leaves Fran defenseless in the storage space, nearly getting her killed. He then proceeds to nearly get himself kills ricocheting bullets around a boiler room while attempts to stop a single zombie coming after him. He becomes upset and frustrated when Fran insists on equal footing in the group. He does begin to sort himself out and contribute more effectively to the group’s survival, but eventually loses his composure again and causes the shootout with the biker gang that ultimately compromises the entire mall. His last act of service is to become a zombie and lead the herd into the secret access tunnel to where Fran and Peter are holed up during the biker raid. But he does make a pretty fantastic zombie so at least there’s that.

Fran seems like Romero really took criticism of Barbara’s character in Night of the Living Dead to heart. Fran is exhausted and traumatized, but earnestly puts in the work to become a skilled member of the group. She feels like a step between Barbara and the much more assertive Sarah in Day of the Dead.

I found Roger to be far more sympathetic during this viewing. I more clearly witnessed his despair and shock at the beginning of the film as well as his reluctance to shoot the human-appearing zombies despite the life-or-death nature of the situation. The comradery between him and Peter and their expertise allowed the situation to retain a semblance of normalcy that becomes irrevocably shattered when a fatal mistake is made.

And finally there is Peter. Peter is too good for this world and certainly too good for this group. He is a natural survivor and managers to keep a calm demeanor even as the wider world and insular group begin to fall apart around him. His frustration only begins to sweep through as the situation gets more and more untenable.

I know some people will loathe this train of thought and I certainly don’t think it was intentionally written this way, but it is interesting that the two cisgender straight white men are the ones who lose their cool in this newly upended world, while Peter and Fran are the ones who ultimately make it out alive. By virtue of their race or gender respectively, Peter and Fran are used to a higher degree of unwarranted danger and seem better equipped to not lose sight of what it takes to survive when society isn’t necessarily going to break your fall. Peter’s training and pragmatism certainly contribute to his success, but he also doesn’t really let his guard down in the same way the other men do. Likewise, Fran insists early on that she learn to fly the helicopter and also practices her shooting skills even after the group achieves a breather in the mall after they’ve barricaded and reinforced it. Comparatively, Roger gets careless in his zeal and Stephen gets complacent with the creature comforts the mall provides.

I think part of the reason I was so indifferent to this movie when I first watched it as a tween or teenager was the stifling sadness at watching the group try to live out a life of pleasure while confined together in the mall, only to realize they couldn’t achieve happiness even being surrounded by material luxuries in relative safety. This is most apparent with Stephen’s rejected marriage proposal. He is still trying to go through the motions, but it is clear him and Fran don’t really love one another the way they should. Hell really is being trapped in a stale, loveless relationship that has clearly run its course.

“What the hell is it?”

So much has been said about the movie’s commentary on consumerism and the similarities between the humans and zombies it is not worth rethreading here. One thing I did want to note is the way the mall itself was still sort of a novelty in 1978 – so much so that Peter asks “what the hell is it?” as they fly towards the building. Roger responds with a helpful bit of exposition: “Looks like…a shopping center, one of those big indoor malls.” At the time, malls weren’t so ubiquitous that a viewer would automatically know what the building was. Forty-five years later, sweeping indoor malls have become so passé the line sounds like an explanation of an artifact from yesteryear. Despite the significant role malls plays in youth culture in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, they now seem like a thing of the past preserved in media created during their heyday (e.g. Chopping Mall, The Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge, Mallrats) or nostalgic-media about that time period (Stanger Things, Fear Street Part 1: 1994).

“This was an important place in their lives.”

I would have to rewatch Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead to be sure, but it feels like the zombies becoming increasingly more human over the course of the trilogy. They are vacant-eyed ghouls in Night, and while the theme of the human characters being the true villains is apparent, the zombies aren’t really shown as sympathetic in the first film.

In Dawn, there start to be real glimpses of humanity in the zombies. I noticed this small moment where this baseball zombie is seemingly dumbstruck by Fran, choosing to sit and stare at her instead of trying to beat at the glass door as the other zombies are wont to do.

This is why although a lot of people seem to dislike the bikers throwing pies in the zombies’ faces, I think that moment is pivotal in showing the lack of respect the bikers have for the former humans. Much like the rural whites at the beginning of the film having a little too much fun shooting at what I would presume are former neighbors given the sparsely populated fields, some of the surviving humans prove their lack of humanity in the way they treat both other humans and zombies alike. Comparatively, the protagonists in Dawn are matter of fact in herding and disposing of the zombies in order to create a safe space to hole up. They don’t make light of killing the former humans and in the process retain more of their humanity. It is a theme that really comes to a head in Day of the Dead with one character’s attempts to rehabilitate a single zombie.

Random Notes/Observations:

  • Anyone who has been around a couple having a passive aggressive fight knows Peter was really going through it when Fran and Stephen took turns silently getting up from the dinner table to turn the TV on and off during the apocalypse.
  • Another quick moment that was genuinely creepy and sad was when the guys play arcade games, and the racing game Roger is playing suddenly crashes and has him seemingly crashing through the ground in the game. At this point he is already pretty close to turning, and it really feels like even his last moments of earthly joy have been disrupted by the reminder he is doomed.
  • On that note, watching the newly zombified Roger slowly sit upright till the sheet falls off his face is also very unnerving. For how much is made of the intentionally corny, funny moments in the film it is really tense and frightening in parts as well.

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