Today, it is all about the zombie. Love it or hate it...or think it has been overused to the point of market saturation...the zombie is here to stay.
Dawn of the Dead would bring the gruesome violence of the zombie to audiences in vivid color. While Night of the Living Dead was filmed in black and white (simply because it was a cheaper film cost), Dawn would flaunt its gore brilliantly. Brooding and sinister darkness would be replaced with in-your-face disembowelment.
The second film in the Romero-zombie franchise would quickly establish the infectiousness of the zombie. The opening scene in the WGON newsroom would have a man being interviewed on camera state very emphatically, “These things get up and kill! The people they kill get up and kill!” (Dawn, 1978). The zombie created by Romero is horrifying because it comes in the form of friends, family, and loved ones. Even though their bodies carried the graphic depictions of their demise and an unhealthy skin tone of bluish-green, their victims still “saw” their former human selves.
There could be no mistake that these monsters were in no way human. In addition to their discoloration, they moved in slow jerks and fits. The zombie showed no recollection, remorse, or hesitation as they tore into living flesh. No longer human, these undead creatures were not cannibals. They are monsters.
Standing on the balcony in the mall, Ken Foree would recount something his character’s grandfather once said. This line would be echoed by fans for the decades to follow. “When there is no room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.” (Dawn, 1978). Like so many have done over the past three decades, giving a “tip of the hat” to Romero, he gives acknowledgement to the Afro-Caribbean belief system of Vodoun. However, there can be no mistaking the Romero-zombie with Wade Davis’ tetrodotoxin-induced zombies. Romero’s creation is no mindless servant. Instead, these monsters attack and eat the living. They are no longer human and are immune to all forms of attack used against them save one: destroy the brain.
There is a darkly humorous scene in Dawn of the Dead which illustrates the frighteningly near-imperviousness of the zombie David Emge’s character (Stephen) is shooting at approaching zombies. His bullets strike the body several times to no avail. Scott Reiniger’s character (Roger) steps in, knocks Stephen’s rifle aside, and with a single headshot, drops the approaching zombie to Stephen’s befuddlement. While the scene plays out in comedic fashion, the horror aspect can be easily seen. These monsters, while slow moving, will keep coming for you. They may be missing limbs, or have gaping wounds with viscera spewing forth, but that does not matter.
Like any legitimate monster, the zombie has a glaring weakness that will bring it down. Vampires have stakes to the heart or sunshine. Were-creatures can be dispatched with silver bullets. Zombies need a critical blow to the head. In each case, nothing else would suffice.
Dawn of the Dead would officially launch the zombie to monster stardom. It would be a vehicle for tales of morality as well as horror. And, like anything groundbreaking as well as outstanding, it would inspire imitation in the form of everything from generic rip-off to lampoon.