The Decadence of Dawn of the Dead 1978

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In modern usage, the word decadence is usually associated with luxury. A fancy dessert may be decadent, as may a gown encrusted with diamonds. More specifically, though, the term denotes a period of moral decline and extravagance prior to the collapse of a once-great civilization. Think of the orgies of the late Roman Empire, or the glamorous parties of the Roaring 20s. It also shares its root with another, less attractive word: decay. A society entering its decadent phase is one that has already died, and indeed has begun to rot. Party-goers and merry-makers may attempt to distract themselves from this, but eventually the stench will become unbearable. So hows does that relate to Dawn of the Dead 1978?

1978’s Dawn of the Dead is a movie about decadence in every sense of the word. Faced with the threat of human extinction, the film’s heroes barricade themselves inside a shopping mall, living out a consumerist utopia while zombies run rampant outside. The more they lose themselves in material pleasures and hedonism, the more obvious it becomes that the world as they know it has ended. This horror classic from George Romero is a scathing indictment of a civilization in decline, a chronicle of American decadence in all of its glitz, glamor, and gore.

Dawn of the Dead 1978 horror movie image of survivors in the mall

Initially, the social commentary in Dawn of the Dead may seem a touch on-the-nose. Watching zombies stagger around the mall, the characters comment how their behavior is not so different from before. They return to the mall due to “some kind of instinct,” says Stephen (David Emge), “a memory of what they used to do.” Horrified by the almost-human behavior of the shopping dead, Francine (Gaylen Ross) asks: “What are they?” Peter (Ken Foree) responds: “They’re us, that’s all.” There is little difference, Romero implies, between the mindless consumerism of 1970s America and the shambling of an undead horde.

Direct equivalence between mall-goers and zombies, though, is a more simplistic reading than Dawn of the Dead deserves. A richer meaning can be found by moving beyond simple metaphors and thoughtfully examining the dynamics between human beings and their environment. What this cinematic “dissection” reveals is a recurrent motif of decadence. Throughout the film, there is a consistent mismatch between living, flourishing tissue on the outside, and stagnation and decay beneath the surface. The characters who are unwilling to recognize the ugliness beneath a thin veneer of decadence are doomed; the only hope for survival is to stop living in denial and face the grim, unavoidable truth.

Dawn of the Dead 1978 Original Trailer

This mismatch is present from the very beginning of the film, and harkens back to Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. In Night, the news was a source of security — TV anchors gave advice to survivors throughout the film, even directing them to evacuation sites. In the first moments of Dawn, however, we are taken behind the scenes at a news station where it is clear that nobody knows what they are doing. The studio is in chaos, with half of the staff yelling over one another, and the other half abandoning their posts. Even the list of evacuation sites from Night is revealed to be out-of-date — although this last detail does not stop an executive from insisting that the studio continue to broadcast the list. What’s sending a few survivors to their deaths, after all, as long as viewership remains high?

Right after this introduction comes another crucial sequence, in which a unit of the National Guard invades a public housing complex whose tenants have refused to give up their dead. By clinging to old rituals and refusing to accept their new reality, these tenement-dwellers have locked themselves in with a horde of zombies. More depraved, though, is the behavior of the National Guard toward these (mostly black and latinx) civilians; they fire machine guns indiscriminately, causing more deaths than the zombies themselves. Hidden beneath a thin layer of government-sanctioned authority, the moral decay of these unhinged, bigoted soldiers is apparent. Once again a curtain is whipped aside, revealing the ugly truth of a society hopelessly in decline.

These two introductory sequences expose how central institutions of modern America — media and law enforcement — are thin bandages over seeping wounds. The rest of the film, set almost entirely in the shopping mall, doubles down on this theme. Even after our heroes establish a secure base camp with enough supplies to last a lifetime, there is little comfort to be found. The novelty of an unlimited shopping spree wears off quickly, and it is soon clear that they are merely going through the motions of decadence. The more they distract themselves with lavish outfits and expensive toys, the more their consumerist paradise resembles a slaughterhouse.

dawn of the dead 1978 horror movie still image of zombies

Eventually the contradictions between outer decadence and internal decay become impossible to reconcile. After one of the four is killed securing the perimeter of the mall, the others decide they would rather face an uncertain future than die inside a prison of their own making. This about-face comes too late, though, as their attempts to flee attract the attention of a roving gang of bikers. The sinister delight with which the bikers descend on the mall may seem a bit over the top, but that is the point. Other than their lack of restraint, there is no substantial difference between these cackling Mad Max rejects and our own heroes. If the world as they know it has died, then what is really more depraved: basking in decadence, or stripping it for parts?
As the ending credits play over a cheerful montage of zombies romping through the mall, the film’s message stays with the viewer like a bad taste.

If Night of the Living Dead showed America as a powder keg ready to burst, then 1978’s Dawn of the Dead makes the claim that it has been dead for years already; we are simply living our last, decadent years inside its rotting corpse. What better way to illustrate this than to juxtapose the literal walking dead next to the rituals of modern consumerism? George Romero proved with his followup to Night that he could go bigger, bloodier, and more ambitious. But more than forty years later, it is the powerful social message of this horror classic that stands out the most.

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The Undying Legend of George A. Romero

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Scary Movies and Series

It doesn’t take a horror buff to know the name George A. Romero, whose uniquely nasty brand of undead carnage has horrified theaters and households worldwide since the late 1960s. His Living Dead series is one of the chief contributors to the look, sound and overall behavior of zombies in modern culture, and Romero is often described as “iconic” within the horror genre and “Father of the Zombie Film” for his essential and influential work within the Zombie sub-genre.

Starting out in 1960, just after graduating from college, Romero began by shooting short films and television commercials before getting together with some friends in the later 60s and forming what they called Image Ten Productions, the company that would produce his first cult classic, Night of The Living Dead (1968). Since then Romero’s work has been revered and detested in just about equal measure, and here I will explore some of the more notable entries in his filmography and why they were so divisive from societal commentary to pushing the limits of horror.

George Romero passed away July of 2017. RIP to one of the greats; George Romero February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017

When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.

George A. Romero

Night of The Living Dead (1968)

The original. The progenitor. The timeless classic which pioneered the entire zombie genre. Romero’s first major motion picture shocked audiences with its mix of graphic violence, creeping horror and sharp social commentary back in the late 60s, when all people had seen of zombies were the more focused and often voodoo-based flicks of the 30s and 40s, beginning with Victor Halperin’s 1932 opus, White Zombie. Night of The Living Dead tells the tale of a group of Pennsylvanians hiding out from the undead apocalypse in a farmhouse basement. Grim news reports detail the carnage in the surrounding areas as the group fend off the walking dead from their makeshift fortress. Being filmed in black and white certainly adds a lot to the grotesque atmosphere and hides a lot of the budgetary and technological constraints of the time, proving Romero’s first entry to be just as effectively gruesome today as it ever was.

Turns out there was a miss in the copyright of the original Night of The Living Dead so it can be readily streamed for free on many services as it is now in the Public Domain.

Stream Night of The Living Dead -1968 – free on Youtube

The Crazies (1973)

Crazies Romero Zombie Horror Movie Poster

The few films Romero released just after the critical success that was ‘Living Dead were sadly not so well received, one of these being The Crazies. The Crazies centers around a small town affected by an airborne bioweapon which causes people to become homicidal psychopaths. We follow a nurse (Lane Carroll) and her husband (W.G. McMillan) as they try to flee their infected town. When the US army turns up to control the outbreak, the chaos ramps up even more in what is, if not Romero’s best work, still a potent low-budget shocker with plenty to satisfy even discerning horror fans. Like many of Romero’s classics,The Crazies was a big enough hit to warrant a remake in 2010, with a fresh and terrifying look at the source material that some deem to be better than the original.

The Amusement Park (1975)

Romero’s The Amusement Park movie poster featuring a man who has a carousel in his head

While not exactly horror, and not exactly a feature film, Romero’s The Amusement Park is as sharp on social commentary as it is chilling. Believed lost until 2017 when a print was found and given a 4k restoration by IndieCollect, the film was originally commissioned as an educational piece on elder abuse but mothballed after completion.

Lincoln Maazel plays Martin, an elderly man on a visit to, you guessed it, an amusement park. What follows is a ride as unsettling as it may be upsetting for some, and though the metaphors on the way elderly people are treated by society are heavy handed, Maazel’s disoriented performance amongst the screaming crowds and roaring rollercoasters is as frightening as ever. The Amusement Park is Romero at the height of his vicious cynicism, a deeply unnerving psychological head trip peppered with absurdist jabs at an uncaring society. If Romero was alive to see its eventual release I’m sure he’d have more than one interesting story to tell, though to have it released at all is a blessing for any horror fan.

Dawn of The Dead (1978)

1978 Dawn of the Dead Horror Movie Poster

Ten years after his original zombie horror show Romero returned with Dawn of The Dead. While it features no characters or settings from its predecessor, this was the second film in Romero’s Living Dead series and focused on the wider effects the zombie outbreak has on society. Boasting a much larger scale and a clearly bigger budget, Dawn focuses on two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend as they seek shelter from the rotting hordes in an abandoned shopping mall. It is often regarded as one of the best zombie movies ever made for its uncompromising and shocking gore, sharply misanthropic social commentary and no-holds-barred zombie action.

Shot at the Monroeville Mall and in Pittsburgh; the special make-up effects were created by Tom Savini, also a Pittsburgh native. To this date the mall still holds an annual Zombie Fest.

Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow (1982) Movie Poster

Creepshow saw Romero leaning more into his campy tendencies with a hilarious horror/comedy anthology film based on the E.C. horror comics of the 50s. Written by, and starring none other than Stephen King himself, Creepshow is a colorful, wacky homage to pulpy low-brow horror that pays true tribute to its inspirational works. An all-star cast including Tom Savini, Leslie Nielsen and Hal Holbrook play out five brief but volatile short horror films with such stories as a rural man dealing with an extraterrestrial visitor, a man using unorthodox means of revenging his cheating wife and a terrifying monster breaking free of its holding cell and causing a path of destruction.

Day of The Dead (1985)

day of the Dead 1985 Romero Zombie horror film

Romero’s Living Dead series is back with another scathingly cynical view on society decorated with buckets of blood and gore. Day of The Dead is the third in the series and, while not considered to be as incendiary in its message and haunting in its execution as previous entries, it still has a few gruesome tricks up its sleeve. Its story sees the zombies coming together and evolving as the survivors of the outbreak hunker down in an old missile silo underground. Focus is given more to the dangers of people rather than the undead this time around, with survivors devolving into cavemen below the surface while the zombie hordes begin to thrive in their new kingdom. Day of the Dead deals with the conflicting ethos of science vs military in a ravaged Earth, demonstrating as clearly as ever that humans don’t need to be nukes into oblivion when their own idiocy can get them into a similar state.

Land of The Dead (2005)

Land Of The Dead Horror Movie Poster featuring zombies and a city

Fast forward 20 long years and Romero proved once again that his zombies simply don’t stay dead. Land of The Dead developed Romero’s concepts of human hierarchy further by splitting the surviving factions of humans into upper-class, who live out the apocalypse from the comfort of their high-rise tower block, and lower-class, who must sweat it out in the makeshift slums below. While some of the originality of the original trilogy is lost in the sometimes-on-the-nose social commentary this time around, there is plenty of flesh-eating fun to satiate the hungriest zombie fan. Paul Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) enforces brutal class distinctions between his feudal society while a secret rebellion is in the works to overthrow him. Couple these elements with a horde of evolving zombies that are learning to adapt, and the chaos of Land of the Dead is really something to behold.

Diary of The Dead (2007)

Diary of The Dead (2007) movie poster featuring someone recording zombies in a burning city

Now here is a curveball that none saw coming. With Romero’s fifth installment in his Living Dead series he decided to change format completely and shoot the whole affair in a found-footage/documentary style. While independently produced, the film did see a theatrical release by The Weinstein Company. This entry takes place at the beginning of the outbreak, telling the tale of a group of students and their professor attempting to make a horror film in the forest. Before long the living dead hone in on the class and begin to pick them off one by one. Romero’s political edge is as prevalent as ever, with a good amount of his jabs being taken at the media and their implication in disastrous events, in this case the zombie apocalypse. There’s not a whole lot more to say about Diary of the Dead as, as entertaining and effective as it can be, the whole field starts to feel a bit trodden by this point.

Survival of The Dead (2009)

Survival of The Dead (2009) horror movie poster featuring a zombie reaching for you

A zombie virus has plagued the Earth, and one group of soldiers traverses the more rural areas to scavenge for supplies after abandoning their post. The soldiers hear of a safe haven on Plum Island, however when they get there they find a fierce battle between warring families, The O’Flynns and The Muldoons. The O’Flynns want to exterminate all zombies for good while the Muldoons want to live peacefully among their living-dead friends and family. A plot like this leaves plenty of room for Romero’s signature scathing wit, though even the most die-hard fans will admit at this point that their hero is starting to run out of ideas. Sub-par directing, questionable acting and a script that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be makes Survival of the Dead barely a footnote in the legacy that once took theaters by storm.

George Romero’s Other Works

Aside from his extensive work with Zombies he also contributed to horror with the following films and TV show.

 Martin (1978)
 Knightriders (1981) 
Monkey Shines (1988) 
The Dark Half (1993)
Bruiser (2000)

created and executive-produced the television series Tales from the Darkside, from 1983 to 1988.

I didn’t play practical jokes at home. I had a strict upbringing, which is part of my rebellion. I was raised Catholic and went to parochial school, which is why priests and nuns appear in my movies a lot, and I don’t have very much nice to say about them.

George A Romero

If you are inspired by George A. Romero like we are you can now study horror at the George Romero foundation.

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