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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Dawn of the Dead’ at 45: A zombie love affair that never died

A scene from George A. Romero’s 1978 horror classic “Dawn of the Dead” (United Film Distribution Company)

By Jason Bailey

“I like the zombies,” George A. Romero said in 1977, in one of the many conversations with various publications collected in the book “George A. Romero: Interviews.” “You have to be sympathetic with the creatures because they ain’t doin’ nothin’. They’re like sharks: They can’t help behaving the way they do.”

Romero had good reason to like the zombies — they gave him a career and a legacy. He memorably dramatized the exploits of the undead in the 1968 chiller “Night of the Living Dead,” the first of six films in his “dead” cycle (which continued through his final film, “Survival of the Dead” in 2010). The second of those films, “Dawn of the Dead,” was released in the United States 45 years ago this month, an anniversary being celebrated with revival screenings at theaters and drive-ins around the country (including the New York outposts of the Alamo Drafthouse and both Nitehawk Cinema locations). It remains one of the most influential (and profitable) horror films of all time, prompting a slew of imitators here and abroad, as well as a hit 2004 remake that led to another zombie boom (still underway, via “The Walking Dead” and its endless spinoffs).

As identifiable as he would become with genre movies, Romero — a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker who funded his projects by producing industrial films and commercials — went through what he called “a paranoid phase of not wanting to be a horror moviemaker” after the success of his first zombie feature. But, “gradually, as I became comfortable with what ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was, and with what my reputation was, I finally got the idea” for a “Living Dead” sequel.

The fuse for the production was lit by Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento (“Suspiria”). “He was a fan of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and knew that I was contemplating doing Part II,” Romero explained in 1982. “We showed him the script, and he offered half the budget up front in exchange for the non-English language world.” It would be Romero’s largest budget to date; he secured the rest from private investors stateside.

What really sparked Romero’s imagination, however, was the location. He was friends with Mark Mason, one of the owners of the Monroeville Mall, east of Pittsburgh — then one of the largest shopping centers in the country. It would make for a perfect expansion of the isolated farmhouse location in the first film, a place where his heroes could hunker down with supplies to wait out, or fight off, the zombie apocalypse. Romero worked out a deal to shoot overnight, starting when the mall closed at 11 p.m. and stopping when cleaning crews (and cardiac patients on therapeutic mall walks) arrived at 7 a.m.

“I wrote a treatment, and it was very heavy, ponderous, possessing roughly the same attitude as ‘Night of the Living Dead’,” he said. “But then I realized that the place itself, the mall, was too funny to serve for a nightmare experience.” And thus, “Dawn of the Dead” became a consumerist satire, with zombies shuffling mindlessly through the mall and up the down escalators as bland Muzak blares through the shopping center’s loudspeakers. (They came there, one of the survivors surmises, because of the “memory … of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”)

Romero wasn’t only infusing his horror picture with sly satire and social commentary. “I’m also a sucker for high adventure,” he said. “The mall in ‘Dawn of the Dead’ struck me as a high-adventure area; there are even jungles in it! And all those guns and weapons and using the car in it — it’s ‘The Dirty Dozen’ coming to Monroeville.”

To provide the film’s considerable gore, he called upon his frequent collaborator Tom Savini, the makeup man whose experience as a Vietnam combat photographer informed his grisly and convincing effects.

There was so much bloodshed, in fact, that when the Motion Picture Association reviewed “Dawn of the Dead,” they slapped it with an “X” rating for extreme violence — which for most mainstream distributors would make it unreleasable, as that rating restricted its play dates and advertising (many major chains would not show X-rated pictures, and most newspapers and television stations refused ads for them). Luckily, Romero and his producer Richard P. Rubinstein were independents, so they could release “Dawn” unrated instead.

“We couldn’t get U.S. distribution, even though we had automatic European distribution, and so we made a print and that was it,” Romero explained in 1999. “We rented a theater in New York and took an ad in the paper and said we were showing it, and a few distributors came and saw the audience reaction, and that’s how UATC picked it up,” he said, referring to the distributor United Artists Theater Circuit Inc. The film opened in New York and other major markets April 20, 1979, and became one of the year’s runaway commercial hits, with worldwide grosses of $55 million, unadjusted for inflation.

Though some mainstream critics appreciated “Dawn” at the time (Roger Ebert called it “one of the best horror films ever made”), The New York Times’ Janet Maslin was not among them. “I have a pet peeve about flesh-eating zombies who never stop snacking,” she wrote in her review. “Accordingly, I was able to sit through only the first 15 minutes of ‘Dawn of the Dead.’” Her colleague Vincent Canby would subsequently review the film in its entirety (negatively). But in 2020, Maslin posted on Twitter, “Walking out of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ was an unprofessional and stupid thing to do, and anyone offended by my review is right. It’s a mistake I never made again.”

Not that Romero probably minded much. The commercial success of “Dawn” ensured his financial stability and artistic freedom in the years to come, and though he would later acknowledge the film’s messaging — which can be read as anti-government, anti-colonialist or anti-capitalist — he knew what to say in 1979 to get butts in seats. “It’s really meant to be a schlock film,” he told Variety, “and that’s what it is.”

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