My Top 8 Horror Films: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I said I wouldn’t talk about movies that have been well explored, but this movie has too much of an influence on me to not mention. This sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968) follows a quartet, two AWOL SWAT team members and two local news teammates, as they seek refuge from a collapsing society and zombie hordes in a shopping mall. Yes, it’s a satire about American consumerism and all that, but how it makes its critique is often forgotten.

The movie begins with a local news station descending into chaos as a talking head derides a scientist’s advice, thus fueling hysteria; what makes you think that what happens in our everyday will suddenly disappear in times of crisis? Any student of history knows that catastrophic events reveal and exacerbate social ills. The SWAT team characters are introduced during a raid on a slum primarily inhabited by Black and brown people that have refused to surrender their dead for burning. A shootout ensues, and one member of the SWAT team finds delight in being able to kill so many POC; a fleeing Latino is shot in the back, even after surrendering his weapon. Meanwhile, the police and military happily work with beer swilling, gun-toting rednecks to clear out rural areas (we see the result of this in the final scene of Night of the Living Dead). Isn’t that the reality we live in? The worst of our society recklessly celebrating their power over the oppressed? “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,” Ken Foree’s character, Peter Washington, famously says. I agree. In fact, they’re in charge.

It’s in this context that the characters find refuge in the comforts of unrestricted gluttony and abundance; but how long can hoarding resources and wealth really last? The movie haunts me as I watch the zombie apocalypse mirror what happens every day, now. The original ending is even more unsettling (and/or liberating): all of this will go to shit real fast, and there’s no escaping our inevitable death if we continue this way {1}.

Foree as Peter Washington is particularly great to watch as his Blackness is not skimmed over as some happenstance trait or character quirk. In the aforementioned raid on the tenements, he struggles to mercy kill the Black and brown zombies who were kept in a basement by their families. When his white partner asks, “Why do these people keep them here?” Peter, without looking at him, answers, “Cause they believe there’s still respect in dying.” But he doesn’t blink twice to shoot white zombies, including undead children, and keeps his gun drawn when white men tell him to put it away. Peter threatens to shoot the only white man who knows how to drive a helicopter for firing in his direction to kill a zombie, asking, rifle barrel pointed at the camera, “Scary, isn’t it? Isn’t it?” There’s even a scene where the white woman of the group asks Peter, after each member of the quartet mention who they’ve left behind, if when he said ‘brothers,’ did he mean “real brothers or street brothers?” He gives her a stare before looking out the helicopter window. Peter tries to make peace with the fact that he’s going to have to really go through this shit with white people.

Really?

Really?

It’s an incredibly ambitious film, perhaps the first zombie epic of its kind that dared to use a scary movie gimmick as a vehicle for a blatant, societal critique. The 70’s make-up and effects, though certainly of its time, are still unnerving. Not to mention, there’s just great shots: a helicopter hovers off into the night, and the camera lingers on a skyscraper whose lights slowly shut off level by level. I prefer the Director’s Cut, if you decide to watch it.


Reyes Ramirez