A camera pulls back from what appears to be a 1970s-style shag carpet. It's not. It's the lining in a soundproof room. A woman awakens, shaking, but she's not waking from a nightmare; she's waking into a nightmare of the walking undead stalking, killing, and consuming the living. The nightmare, of course, belongs to George A. Romero's fertile imagination and the film 'Dawn of the Dead' released unrated in 1978-1979 due to violence and gore, remains a high-water mark for the undead/zombie sub-genre Romero redefined a decade earlier with 'Night of the Living Dead.'
Taking 'Night of the Living Dead' as a given, Romero set 'Dawn of the Dead' mid-apocalypse. The well-ordered world as we know still exists, but it's quickly unraveling, leaving the voracious undead in its wake. The sleeping/awakening woman in the first scene, Francine (Gaylen Ross), is one of 'Dawn of the Dead's' central characters. A mid-level television station manager at WGON-TV in Philadelphia, Francine watches first-hand as the station's management structure breaks down, mirroring, apparently, events in the outside world.
With a government scientist and a television personality arguing the hows and whys of the undead, a clever way to drop information on audiences unfamiliar with 'Night of the Living Dead' or, due to time involved and the absence of home video, faded memories of the original's ground rules, including the all-important "shoot or destroy the brain" rule for dispatching the unruly undead, 'Dawn of the Dead' segues to Francine's boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge), the television station's helicopter pilot. Stephen sees the bloody fingerprints on the wall and suggests they flee Philadelphia. Stephen, however, doesn't have any plans beyond running away.
The state and federal governments have declared martial law, forcing city residents to leave their homes for relocation centers. Most go willingly, but in the second scene, featured here as the "scene we love," several SWAT teams descend on an apartment building in the projects to forcibly remove the occupants (mostly Latinos and African-Americans). Bodies fall, the undead, kept by the building's occupants behind boarded-up doors, escape, causing several more deaths, each more bloody, gory and gruesome than the last. Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), members of two SWAT teams, cross paths and decide to flee.
This particular scene does more than introduce Peter and Roger. It serves as a microcosm of the government's failing/failed response to the undead threat, but also gives us a glimpse of Romero's late 1970s. While two of his hero-protagonists are police officers, he makes another member of Roger's SWAT team a virulent racist, keen on clearing out the recalcitrant occupants of the apartment building with force (the more excessive, the better). It's no coincidence that Peter, and not Roger, dispatches the racist police officer.
That specific action connects Roger and 'Dawn of the Dead' to Ben (Duane Jones) and 'Night of the Living Dead's political and racial subtext. In (spoiler alert) 'Night of the Living Dead's climax, Ben dies, not by an undead attack, but at the hands of a racist with a gun who, giving in to racial prejudice, kills Ben, assuming he's a flesh-eating ghoul. The apartment building's occupants desire not to leave also echoes 'Night of the Living Dead's single-location premise, a farmhouse surrounded by the undead. The police use excessive, arbitrary force to forcibly remove the occupants, killing many in the process. Romero wants us to ask: Would the police (circa 1978) have acted the same way if the occupants were white, like all but one member of the SWAT teams?
Here's the scene in question (fast forward to the 6:19 mark):
The general idea, that we (meaning the still living) are an equal or even greater threat than the hordes of the undead, runs through Romero's 'Dead' films. Romero also foreshadows, both here and for later films, the question of what to do with the newly undead. In 'Dawn of the Dead's' most emotionally wrenching scene (and a worthy "scenes we love" candidate), one of the survivors watches his friend die, then waits patiently for him to reanimate as the newest member of the undead before dispatching him with the bullet to the head. It may mean less after thirty-two years of sequels, remakes, imitators, and video games, but in 1978, in 'Dawn of the Dead,' it had emotional meaning and resonance for moviegoers who wanted more than just gore and violence from their horror films.
And all that's well before the survivors arrive at their seemingly last destination, an empty suburban shopping mall, empty, of course, with the exception of the undead shoppers. Cue Romero's not-so-subtle critique of American consumerism and social decay (a new society rising up and consuming the old).