Written, directed and edited by George A. Romero
Makeup and cosmetic special effects by Tom Savini
David Emge: Stephen
Gaylen Ross; Francine
Ken Foree: Peter
Scott H. Reiniger: Roger
This movie was released to theaters with no rating because the ratings board at the MPAA was going to give it an X for pervasive gore the likes of which I'm willing to bet they'd never even imagined. It turns out that the Motion Picture Association of America can't really do anything to you if you decide to release your film unrated; this movie, which was made for $650,000 in 1978, grossed $55 million even without a letter in a square on the posters telling Americans that it's probably not a good idea to bring your kids along. Here's hoping that the concerned parents of America actually figured out that little Billy and Susie probably didn't need to watch screaming people torn apart and devoured by the living dead before they had a drivers' license.
I'm positive that it's Romero's politics and views of authority figures that the MPAA hated even more than the 1001 different horrible things that can happen to a human body depicted therein. His films (with one notable exception) are as left-wing as Hollywood is always accused of being; Romero's view of governments, authorities, and the American system are as black and corrosive and negative as anything you'd be likely to come across in a Howard Zinn history. And he puts lots of monsters in the film, too, the spoonful of sugar that helps the message come across.
And it's very telling that a nobody from nowhere (as Romero was in 1968, when his Night of the Living Dead created a genre through sheer awesomeness) wouldn't have made this sequel the year after his massive success breakthrough film. He waited a decade before following up his debut film with another tale of shambling corpses that devour live humans. I'm betting at least part of the reason he waited was to see if he could catch lightning in a jar again was to see if he even had to try--he's got seven different projects on his IMDB page in between his Night and Dawn. But when the Muse got to him, Romero had no choice but to make this film, and do the best job that he could do.
Since Romero was the sole person writing, directing and editing the film I'm guessing that the images on the screen are the closest he could get to the images in his head, using the resources available to him. And lucky for the viewer, he did a genuinely amazing job, giving a movie that is by turns a look at America ripping itself apart like a wolf tearing at its own bowels, a late-70s consumerist satire based on Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" and, for a few moments, a slapstick comedy starring a biker gang. I'm not sure what's entirely up with all of that (and not all the elements fit together perfectly) but this is a genuinely amazing film. If I had to pick one single movie that was my absolute favorite of ever, this would be the one.
The movie wastes no time dropping its characters--and the viewer--into the thick of it. The first scenes are at the WGON-TV studios in Pittsburgh, where one would assume that Emergency Broadcast System tone has been playing on and off for the last several days. The reason for that? Well, funny you should ask. Dead people are rising up again after their hearts stop beating and their brains quit functioning. When they reanimate they wander around in search of living humans, who they attack instinctively with hands and teeth. There doesn't appear to be any cause to it--someone who gets partially devoured by one of the living dead gets up again to attack the living, but so do gunshot victims, people who drowned or starved, and people who died of cancer. That would mean the end of the world pretty quickly; cities would be million-victim slaughterhouses and hospitals would turn into waking nightmares within minutes of the catastrophe's start. As things stand at the start of the film, there is still a semi-functioning government and responses to the ongoing disaster ranging from effective to useless to fatally misguided. At least the government spokesperson on this show lets people know that decapitating a ghoul or destroying its brain will eliminate the threat from that one particular roamer. The problem, of course, is when someone has six bullets and seven undead assailants.
The WGON studios provide examples of all those things at once in microcosm. The security guy at the front door is still checking IDs of anyone trying to get in, while the camera and sound crew are still at their posts getting information out over the airwaves. On the "misguided" side, there's some kind of public affairs show where a government representative is being grilled by the host--but the host doesn't have to worry about keeping his audience's interest. Being informed about the crisis is literally a matter of life and death; there are no higher stakes, but he's still asking questions like it's a political-affairs Sunday morning talk show rather than just trying to help his audience. And the station director appears to have lost his motherfucking mind completely. He's openly concerned about the station's ratings to the point where he wants a list of "rescue stations" superimposed on the screen at all times, even though half or more of those stations have already been overrun by hordes of flesh-eating reanimated corpses. When station employee Francine dumps the superimposed crawl off the air he chews her out because without that list being broadcast, people won't be tuning in. She asks him if he's willing to murder people by sending them bad information and he just demands that someone puts the list back up on the screen (tellingly, he has no idea how to do it himself). The guest and host on the soundstage are openly pissed off that everyone around them is yelling or screwing up. This is a safe spot (although I'm willing to bet that everyone who stuck around to try and inform the Pittsburgh audience what was going on died at their post) and the atmosphere is still full of hatred, fear, panic and rage.
If things are deteriorating in the studio, they're downright apocalyptic out on the streets. With barely any transition (the government spokesman mentions that private homes are no longer considered safe by Presidential fiat, and that everyone's going to be consolidated in huge bunkers for their own protection); that's all we hear before the scene starts. The SWAT team laying siege to a housing project is made up of steely-eyed veterans, scared kids and at least one total psychotic (the WGON station director isn't the only one whose mind collapsed during the end of the world). The negotiators try to get the people holed up inside to come out peacefully, which doesn't work. A couple of young men with pistols try to make a run for it and there's an overwhelming response from the boys in blue.
The SWAT attack sequence pulls quadruple duty for the film--it's an unrelenting assault on the audience's sensibilities, with more than a dozen gunshots to the head showcasing Tom Savini's makeup effects (if the Academy was capable of recognizing the quality of work in independent horror films, this film would have earned him his first Oscar of many). It's a way to show just how badly everything in the filmic world has deteriorated--there are multiple rooms boarded shut full of flesh-eating corpses where the project residents have dumped their dead relatives, children and spouses; when the police break into those rooms they come close to getting wiped out more than once. Third, it shows that the ghouls don't retain any knowledge of their previous life--one woman gets two chunks bitten out of her neck and arm when she embraces the husband she thought she'd never see again (up until 2015 I could only imagine how grotesque that would look on the big screen, and now I know--it's astonishingly brutal and made me cringe even though I had seen the movie two dozen times and knew it was coming). And lastly it's a way to almost subliminally remind the audience of the human cost of everything that's happening. When "Wooly" the SWAT member goes berserk and starts shooting random innocent people there's one of the great exploding heads of world cinema.
But rather than simply showing a catalog of Bad Stuff Happening To The Human Body, Romero is playing a deeper and more subtle game. Right after Wooly kicks down an apartment door and blows a random guy's head clean off Romero cuts to a screaming woman in the same room. Is she the victim's wife? Sister? Mother? It's hard to tell because of how quickly the scene is cut together, but regardless of who she is (and who the man is that Wooly murdered) it's a reminder that everyone who dies is leaving someone behind. The streets are full of shambling corpses but every single one of them--at least this early in the apocalypse--is remembered by someone and is leaving a space in the world with their absence. (And later on, when there are streets full of the walking dead rather than just one building and there are no shots of living people traumatized by the way the world has changed, the viewer's sympathies are overwhelmed--after all, one death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic.)
I just called this "subtle". Deal with it.
After the housing project raid it's not just obvious to the audience that everything's going to fall apart; it's obvious to the characters in the film as well. WGON traffic helicopter pilot Stephen is dating Francine the control board operator; they've hatched a plan to bug out and run away from the city while it's still possible to do so (the undead are thick on the ground, but they're strictly terrestrial). They know a SWAT cop named Roger, and they're planning to offer him a seat on the chopper in exchange for his firepower. Roger, after having just exactly as much as he could take in the housing-project raid, plans to desert his police buddies and run while he can, and extends the offer of "get out of town while the getting is good in exchange for your skills with a firearm" to Peter, another cop who got a taste of the apocalypse while shooting ambulatory corpses in the head in the housing-project basement. Both of them see the writing on the wall and decide not to stick around Pittsburgh till the bitter end.
Turns out that Stephen is going to steal the traffic helicopter from WGON-TV and get the hell out of Dodge before World War Z is completely lost (and it sure looks to me like he kills the radio operator at a police depot to do it, but it's barely possible that he just found the man after he committed suicide). Roger and Peter show up immediately after Stephen calls in to Pittsburgh PD reporting that the police dock has been compromised, with the radio man dead and everyone abandoning the facility. Inside, it's a sort of chaotic detente between all the heavily armed deserters. Nobody thinks of hijacking the helicopter (things are desperate, but not completely apocalyptic yet, and besides--Stephen's the only one who knows how to fly it). One goofball cop with his eyes set very, very close together explains his plan: stealing a police boat and bugging out because "Maybe we can make it to the island". Stephen asks which island, and the cop shrugs and says "Any island" before asking everyone in the area if they have any cigarettes he can bum. He gets no smokes from anybody (two of the people in the helicopter say they don't have any and light up as soon as they're in the air) and proceeds on his probably-doomed effort to leave. There's a magnificent shot of the lights going out in a Pittsburgh skyscraper here--the four protagonists deserted their sworn responsibilities just in time.
And maybe I'm being a little too hard on Doomed Boat Stealing Cop, because the four people in the helicopter don't really have any idea what they're doing either. Stephen even manages to fall asleep in the pilot's seat after pulling a terror and despair fueled all-nighter but Roger smacks the back of his chair before gravity can take over and make it a short subject instead of a film. While flying over rural Pennsylvania Peter takes a look down at the area and realizes that it wasn't just the big city dealing with the surreal terror of the living dead looking for live humans to eat. It's everywhere, and it's just beginning.
Romero takes a detour into showing how badly prepared the world is for this particular apocalypse--rednecks in hunting jackets take to the woods with rifles and Iron City beer in order to shoot the shambling corpses that used to be their friends and relatives and treat it as a grand day out. The army's there as well, pretty much obviously not knowing what to do (I have no idea why they brought those artillery pieces with them). There's some police and ambulance crews as well; it's just a gigantic mishmash of authority figures and civilians shooting at the walking dead and presumably imagining the whole thing will be over in a matter of days or possibly weeks. They're all going to die. And the ones that have enough of their bodies left intact after death will get up and kill others. The amount of denial on display is staggering (my own favorite part of the montage is a bunch of dipshits almost getting attacked from behind because they don't notice a pack of slow-moving, obvious walking-speed ghouls is coming up behind them).
After the Undead Shooting Picnic, the four protagonists land at an abandoned airfield that probably looked kinda post-apocalyptic even before the dead rose and started hunting the living. It's astonishingly dangerous out there in the world now, and the Escape From Pittsburgh almost ends right there. Stephen comes within seconds of being killed by a ghoul while Peter doesn't notice the roamer approaching him while he gasses up the helicopter (the ambulatory corpse is virtually brain-dead, so it does not know enough to keep its forehead away from the whirling helicopter blades in a sequence that should convince even the most hard-hearted viewer that Tom Savini is a wonderful madman). Roger almost gets killed--first he's attacked by a pair of reanimated children, and then Stephen tries to shoot the horribly mutilated revenant (who winds up on the movie's poster) and almost kills him because while he's vitally important to the group as their transportation, he's utterly useless with a rifle. Romero includes the most obvious phallic-symbolism shot I think I've ever seen in a movie during the refueling stop--Peter knocks Stephen's rifle away with another rifle before shooting the ghoul that menaces Roger. Incidentally, the symbolism of characters named "Roger" and "Peter" being good with guns is shallow as a rain puddle but immensely amusing to me.
One "I'm pointing a gun at you so you remember not to do that to anyone else unless you mean it" later, they're back in the air discussing where they're going to run and how they're going to keep the helicopter fueled. Peter drops a little snark at Stephen's uselessness with firearms while everyone tries to figure out the next step in surviving a little bit longer. Peter is also the one who's smart enough to realize that they're looters, thieves and deserters and that whatever civil authority still exists will be really interested in talking to them about that (Stephen rather stupidly asserts that the WGON-TV employee identification that Francine and he have will prove they have the right to use the helicopter). Francine points out that when they took to the skies nobody brought anything to eat or drink and they don't even have a radio so they can tell if Armageddon is wrapping up or intensifying. She's also the only one who mentions that Stephen needs to sleep before he crashes the helicopter after fatigue takes its inevitable toll on him.
Happily enough they're flying over Monroeville, about half an hour east of Pittsburgh as the crow flies. And in 1978, Monroeville had a brand new indoor shopping mall in its downtown, There's a flat roof on top with a helipad, conveniently enough, and that's as good a reason as any to set down and try to figure out what the hell everyone's going to do next. As a special added bonus, there aren't any shambling corpses on the roof of the mall (though the parking lot and the interior stores are a no-go zone). The basic plan is simple and effective: Roger breaks a window pane so that everyone can get inside. Stephen's going to take a nap in the corner while Peter and Roger sneak around the mall and see what they can pick up in the way of camping gear, radio equipment, food and water. Also, Roger needs lighter fluid so everyone who smokes can continue their habit--this turns out to be the semi-serious deciding factor in whether or not to risk exploring the interior of the shopping center. I think they just needed to stretch their legs and move around for a while after being cooped up in the helicopter smelling everyone for a day and a half, and frankly, who can blame them?
This interlude comes close to getting everyone killed (again); Roger and Peter leave a rifle for Francine to protect herself but Stephen takes it from her and wanders off to be part of the big raid. Which is bad news for her when a reanimated dead Hare Krishna stumbles upon the upstairs office and management section that had been taken over by the protagonists as a resting place. Stephen almost gets killed when he misses six times out of six shooting at a ghoul underground in the mall's heating and service-duct section (he reloads one bullet before he trips and it's actually lucky for him that it's in the sixth chamber; by the time the gun actually fires the shambler is close enough that he can't miss). But eventually everyone's safe and sound in the management section and it's decided that sticking around for at least a day or two is a good idea. Then someone has the bright idea that with the right preparations, the mall could be sealed so that the undead can't get inside. After that it's just a cleanup operation and everything that was on sale for the good consumers of Pennsylvania will be free for the taking.
It's when the foursome decides to make the mall their own that things go lethally wrong. Roger doesn't realize how little attention he's paying to his surroundings during the first part of the plan (hotwiring some semi trucks in the mall's parking lot and blocking the entrances with them so the undead cannot get inside). He turns out to be something of an adrenaline junkie as well, and gets bitten because he's not aware of his surroundings. This is a death sentence (although in Romero's filmic universe the bite doesn't transmit a pathogen that infects someone and brings them back to life; rather, every single person who dies with an intact enough brain and body gets back up and staggers around. It's just that human bites are horrifically dangerous due to the amount of bacteria in the saliva, and a dead person's teeth and gums are claggy with shreds of rotting human meat. Dumping a helping of that in someone's bloodstream is one hundred percent fatal, given the lack of access to medical care).
But the mall is now sealed, and instead of a horror / action sequence for the cleanup, Romero just cuts to the end of it with all the now-exterminated corpses sprawled in pools of blood on the two levels of the shopping center. It looks like the aftermath of a war crime more than the triumphant celebration of victory. Part of the reason is that everyone knows Roger is doomed, but part of it has to also be how dehumanizing it gets to shoot staggering once-human corpses so that it's safe to walk around in the mall again. Every one of the protagonists has been stretched just about to their breaking points and now that they've got some time to sit back and take stock, things look even worse than they did while everyone was just fleeing in terror without catching their breath. It's not just that the quartet is inevitably going to be a trio (and although he risked everyone's lives over and over while not paying attention to things and being a showboating dumbass, I still feel terrible for Roger when he says he's going to try not to come back after his inevitable death). It's that the radio isn't broadcasting anything and the TV showed a government scientist that wanted to drop nuclear bombs on "all the big cities" as a way to try and slow down the apocalypse and protect the survivors scattered around America (one assumes the quote about destroying a village in Vietnam in order to save it was on Romero's mind when he wrote that part).
During the mall-looting sequence, Peter and Stephen decide to grab a few hundred thousand dollars from the bank branch on the lower level; they figure that money might still be worth something out in the world, and it'd be foolish to pass up taking it. And when they leave with their ill-gotten gains, they still use the velvet-rope barrier to exit the bank. They're following the old rules of the old world, which is going to be horribly dangerous for all of them because that world is dead and gone--and unlike all the formerly human ghouls staggering around outside, it's not coming back.
Having killed the undead and made a safe spot to live in, now the four survivors have to kill time and it apparently dies quite hard. There's a montage of them picking out anything they want from the stores (and Stephen rolling his eyes at a bomber jacket's price tag cracks me up every time I get to this part of the film). They play some arcade games (the power is still on in Monroeville, at least as long as they're in the mall) and practice putting in the JC Penney aisles. Everyone dresses in looted clothing that's surprisingly tasteful for 1978 and they upgrade from Spam (Roger: "Did you bring a an opener? Then don't knock it--it's got its own key.") to caviar for their rations. Francine points out that the ghouls surrounding the building can't understand anything about what's inside and the general hypothesis is that the mall was an important place in their lives, back when they were living. Now they're a greyish-blue-skinned horde of literally mindless consumers wandering around.
One other thing to complicate everyone's life during this rest stop: Francine realizes that she's pregnant. One of the more horrifying sections of the movie occurs right after she tells everyone; Peter asks Stephen if he wants to "get rid of it", and that he knows how to terminate a pregnancy. Francine is in the room at the time but none of the men making the choice about her fetus thinks to ask her about it. Which is, sadly, not an element of the film that is dated (while the fashions and the term "soul brother" certainly do mark Dawn of the Dead as a product of 1978).
There's also some time for the survivors to address some other practical concerns: Francine wants to learn how to fly the helicopter at least well enough to escape if things go south, and Stephen learns to shoot by putting mannequins up at the mall's ice-skating rink. Incidentally, there really was an ice rink at the Monroeville mall; it was eventually dismantled and the space turned into the food court. Everyone settles into their new routine, although I'm willing to bet at least one of them curses the lack of a bookstore in the mall when there's nothing to do but watch the Civil Defense test pattern on TV and try not to think about the flesh-hungry hordes of walking corpses at the gates. To protect themselves further, Stephen and Peter put up a false wall blocking off the floor access to their hidey-hole; anyone searching the mall won't find them without rolling a 6 on their Secret Doors check and that would mean knowing there was something to look for in the first place.
Turns out there's something else to worry about besides the undead--someone in a nomadic biker gang sees the helicopter on the mall's roof and puts two and two together about the survivors huddled inside. The bikers make a semi-sincere effort to get the protagonists to open the doors ("There's...there's four of us." [laughter from three dozen outlaw motorcyclists]) before just announcing that they're going to raid the place and take whatever they want. It's the third act, and time for things to go completely insane. The entire movie's been filled with gut-churning violence from the start, but when the bikers make their way into the mall things go completely off the chain. Characters are torn apart and devoured while they're still screaming. Blood flows and flesh is shredded. Bullets fly. Blades thwack into skulls. It's an orgy of carnage heightened by the lack of violence for the last twenty minutes or so as the four main characters become accustomed to their stolen home. But it can't last. And, of course, there's more than enough supplies for everyone to share if they wanted to, but the bikers aren't interested in being polite and Stephen confuses an armed takeover of an abandoned building for having built the place himself.
While the bikers' tactics served them very well on the open road, in the confined spaces of the mall and with Peter and Stephen shooting back at them from concealment they're sitting ducks. The ones that don't get shot get eaten, horribly, with entrails filling the ghouls' hands as the undead fulfill their instincts to attack and feed. And right before the carnage there's even time for a pie fight and seltzer-bottle assault on the ghouls, with silent-movie piano music underscoring the way that the biker gang doesn't even take the end of the world seriously. I'm willing to bet that any of 'em that made it out of the Monroeville Mall parking lot alive were doomed as soon as it started to snow--it's one thing to have a mobile caravan of ass-kickers surviving on the open road but quite another to obtain shelter and warmth once society has broken down completely.
And the remaining protagonists? Well, they decide not to kill themselves as the undead swarm their safe spot, but they've got very little food and water, and the helicopter pilot has had several lessons but almost no practical experience. They're almost exactly where they were when the world fell apart at the beginning of the film but with fewer resources and even less of a plan. Maybe they can make it to the island. What island? Any island.
I can remember seeing this movie with a friend who had never watched it before, and she asked why the characters don't do all the things that people do in this little subgenre of film. It's because this one was the film that launched a thousand ripoffs. Just as the Godfather films have been pillaged so thoroughly by derivative filmmakers that a new viewer won't necessarily understand what was so groundbreaking and original, this one is George A. Romero's evil little baby start to finish and it's better than any of its imitators (save one) by orders of magnitude--even Romero's other movies in the series don't come close to this one's heights. If you haven't seen it yet, what's stopping you? Other than the constant barrage of gore and horror, of course. But if you didn't like that sort of thing and you read this far, I think you could safely give the movie a spin. Come for the screwdriver to the ear and stay for the corrosively nihilistic politics!