Here’s a truly terrifying Halloween predicament: George A. Romero’s 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead is unavailable to stream digitally on any of the major services this year. While reasonably priced used DVDs can be found online — the film is currently out of print in disc formats — some collector sets and Blu-rays fetch up to $150. (Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake, however, is widely available.) This is a cruel trick to play on horror fans, as George A. Romero’s follow-up to Night of the Living Dead is absolutely crucial to horror movie history and deserves better than this apocalyptic fate.
Ten years after Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead essentially created the modern zombie genre, the master returned and raised his game. Where his first film was in black and white, the sequel was in full color — clearly off-putting to many assaulted by its blood, guts, and gore. (Janet Maslin of the N.Y. Times was representative of this point of view; in her review, she acknowledges she walked out after 15 minutes.)
But the film’s champions, such as Roger Ebert, while sympathizing with Maslin’s aversion to the first quarter hour of “almost unrelieved mayhem,” saw something more: “If we can survive the gruesome imagery and see beyond the obligatory scenes of the horror genre, Romero gives us a savagely satiric vision of America that’s not easy to forget. This is both a very difficult film and a very good one.”
In the ’60s, Night of the Living Dead played out in a secluded farmhouse, and fans saw in it a commentary on American society’s tension over civil rights. Its hero was played by African-American actor Duane Jones, though Romero told NPR in a 2014 interview that was not intended to be a statement: “He was, quite simply, the best actor from among our friends.” Romero further explained to NPR his view of the film’s message: “We were talking much more about how people remain stuck on their own agendas even though there’s something extraordinary going on outside. There’s still fighting about mundane, stupid things.”
By the late ’70s, with Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s eye had turned to the rotten effects of consumerism and materialism, and he made his point by turning a suburban shopping mall initially into survivors’ oasis, but ultimately a kind of death trap.
But put aside the underlying message, and what’s on screen is frightening — and, without question, gory. Special effects artist Tom Savini — launching a career that would include work on ’80s horror classics like Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and many more — masterminded nearly 100 onscreen kills. Each was as unique as it was intense, from the machete to the head to the screwdriver through the ear to the helicopter rotor blade scalping.
And yet, it maintains its warped sense of humor: Dawn of the Dead climaxes in perhaps the most absurd way. In the middle of a biker gang attack, the bad dudes raid a bakery and commence a pie fight with zombies — a crowning achievement in modern horror.
In the years since Dawn of the Dead, zombies have taken over the pop culture world in a way Romero never could have predicted — and he’s not happy about it, telling The Hollywood Reporter, among others, why he thinks “The Walking Dead and Brad Pitt [in World War Z] just sort of killed it all.” (We can only guess how he feels about the Lady Gaga Zomby Monster High doll.) And yet, while none of today’s blockbuster zombie projects would exist without the original Dawn of the Dead, it’s hard to believe Romero’s film is buried and gone for anyone seeking a high quality digital copy to stream on Halloween. At least the mall used to have video stores…