Dawn of the Dead (1978) d. George A. Romero (USA)
A decade after his groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, Romero returned to the undead genre with a gory and thoughtful sequel that equals and occasionally surpasses its predecessor. While the ending of Night gives the impression that the undead uprising was coming under control, the opening scenes here indicate that this societal sigh of relief was breathed far too soon.
As before, we gain our outside information via television, this time taken inside the beleaguered WGON studio broadcasting reports from terrified “experts” debating the causes and potential solutions to what is now referred to as an “epidemic” of cannibalistic zombies besieging the nation. Following the 1968 classic’s blueprint, the film provides a scattered introduction of characters and situation, then sets the bulk of the action in a single location.
Rather than Night’s rustic farmhouse, Dawn’s quartet of human survivors (David Emgee's air traffic reporter, his pregnant girlfriend Gaylen Ross, and Scott Reiniger and Ken Foree's likeable pair of SWAT team members) hole up in a suburban shopping mall - Romero’s wry commentary on the superficial consumerism of the times.
In addition to the situational horror, Romero provides a generous (and welcome) serving of humor; his flesh-eating monsters are by turns buffoonish, pathetic, and mournful while never diminishing their unrelenting hunger and menace.
Tom Savini (who also plays the psychotic leader of an unruly biker gang) cemented his Horror Makeup Wizard reputation with a multitude of exceedingly bloody, gag-inducing effects (the slate-gray zombie makeup a notable but forgivable foible).
Co-produced by Dario Argento (who re-cut the film for international release under the title Zombi), Dawn generated critical kudos and boffo box office in the U.S. and abroad, which in turn spawned the Italian undead craze, and eventually Romero's own follow-up, 1985's Day of the Dead.