“Dawn” breaks (sorry, sorry) with a shot of what looks like 1970s carpeting. Which is what it is, only the carpet is on the wall.
Which makes sense, because it’s a TV studio, so they’re trying to muffle the sound.
The camera pans down, and there’s a lovely blonde woman sitting on the floor, sleeping, then having a nightmare, then waking up.
Everything in the office is chaos. The blonde says, “I’m still dreaming.”
And then things get a little crazy, so here’s what you need to know:
The news is still on the air, but from inside the station, all you can hear is how the information they’re sending out is wrong.
Remember the so-called rescue stations everyone was going to try to get to at the end of “Night?” Well, at least half of them have been knocked out now, but they don’t have an updated list, so they’ve been using the wrong list for at least 12 hours.
The blonde demands that they stop showing the list of rescue stations until they get the new list up.
Her boss gets upset and demands that they keep showing the outdated list, because otherwise people might tune out. They argue, loudly, and more than likely on the air given the crazed nature of the newsroom.
If anyone ever wants to create a video essay on why people don’t trust the media, they could show this clip and slap “The End,” on it, and be good to go.
In the studio, one man interviews another man about what’s going on – and the guy being interviewed is not well liked, since he keeps telling people the truth: These things are getting up, and killing people, and the people they kill get up and kill more people.
A dark-haired man enters the studio, and goes to talk to the blonde, whose name is Fran. He tells her to meet him on the roof at nine o’clock – they’re getting out of there.
Which brings us to another scene of soon-to-be-chaos, which quickly becomes a scene of chaos.
A bunch of military types – a SWAT team? the army? the police? I have no idea – are trying to get the people located inside a massive apartment building to come out. This is probably related to the fact that martial law is in effect, and no one is allowed to stay in a private dwelling due to the fact that the dead are eating the living.
But no one actually says this. You have to use inference.
Finally, several people come out, carrying guns and firing, and they get shot at, or just plain shot, for their troubles.
The SWAT team, or whatever it is, fires off a few gas canisters and moves into the building, sending people outside as they go.
One of the guys, Willy, loses it completely, thanks to the fact that the people they’re moving out are various shades of not-white and Willy is nine kinds of racist. He runs along, killing people at random, until someone shoots him and brings him down.
Then the zombies come out, and the chaos just gets worse.
One of the SWAT team members opts to head to the basement, away from the horror upstairs.
Once he’s there, he runs to a sink to throw up – and discovers he’s not alone. Another SWAT team member asks him if he was in Willy’s group – and our blonde “I’m-getting-out-of-here” guy says he didn’t see how Willy died.
Both men stop pointing their guns at each other, which leaves us with Blonde Guy and Black Guy sitting around, having a smoke.
Blonde guy implies that he’s ready to run away. He asks if it’s right to run.
The answer is yes, Blonde Guy. If people are being eaten, and you don’t want to be one of them, running is a great way to go.
Suddenly, a priest comes out of another room. He tells the men that the people in the building are now willing to go quietly. He tells them that a bunch of not-dead people are locked up in the basement.
And he tells them: “You are stronger than us. But soon, I think they be stronger than you. When the dead walk, we must stop the killing, or lose the war.”
The SWAT team locates a portion of the basement that’s been boarded up, and attempt to clean out the dead. But they pretty much blow it, and are overrun by various and sundry people-eaters.
Black Guy and Blonde Guy locate a small pocket of undead, and shoot them in the head, one by one while the dead feast on various body parts.
And now we’re back with Fran, and her male friend, Stephen. And here comes Blonde Guy, who still doesn’t have a name, and Black Guy, whose name is Peter.
The four of them get into a helicopter loaded with a few supplies, and they take off.
Then it’s the next morning, and the helicopter is still flying, passing over a bunch of cops and rednecks who are drinking coffee and beer and killing zombies in what could be best referred to as a horribly unorganized manner.
The foursome lands at a small refueling station, where they discover that most of the fuel is already gone. They fill up as much as they can, while looking for more supplies.
I’m sorry, let me reiterate: Despite the fact that there are walking dead everywhere, four people with guns decide not to carefully watch out for each other, but instead opt to split up.
Peter goes into the office, where he hears a noise in a closet.
Outside, Fran and Stephen bump into a couple of zombies. Stephen kills one with a hammer blow to the head, then knocks the other one over.
Peter starts shooting the closet, to kills whatever is inside.
Stephen calls to Blonde Guy, whose name is Roger. Roger is being stalked by a zombie with a very tall forehead. This lasts until the zombie crawls up on a box, and gets his forehead cut off by the still-moving rotors on the helicopter.
Inside the office, Peter is attacked by two zombie children, who he shoots in the head.
Outside, Stephen keeps trying, and failing, to shoot various zombies in the head. Roger then moves Stephen’s gun out of the way and shoots the zombies in the head for him.
In the process of doing all this, Stephen almost shoots Peter accidentally. So once all the dead stop moving, Peter stomps out the door, goes up to Stephen, sticks a gun in his face and gives him a verbal beat-down.
And then it’s night again, and the helicopter is once again just about out of fuel. Arguments ensue – where to land, where to get fuel, whether it’s safe to land near a city, and finally, Peter just lays it all out: They’re a bunch of renegades in a stolen helicopter. They’re the bad guys.
The next morning, they spot a mall – with a helicopter landing pad on it. They land, and at first it seems like there are too many zombies around. But Peter and Roger figure out that all the stores are locked up tight, so if they can get in through the roof they should be safe.
Fran wonders what all the zombies are doing here.
Stephen replies: “Some kind of instinct. Memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
That sounds logical, until you realize that really what most people would do if they “used to do” anything, is go to work and sit around in meetings. Which would be funny, but probably not satirical.
The foursome looks through all the windows on the roof of the mall, and finally locate a bizarre office with a bunch of boxes marked “Survival” on them. They head down into the office, and find out that there’s only one way in or out of it.
So they cover it with boxes and everyone gets some survival food (Spam!) and some sleep.
Or rather, Stephen gets some sleep, and Roger and Peter realize that the mall is basically a gold mine of supplies, that there aren’t that many zombies there yet, and that this could be a great place to hang out for a while.
So they give Fran a gun, and warn her that it has a kick, and Peter and Roger head downstairs. Leaving the dude who can’t hit a zombie in a head with a gun and the woman who can’t shoot at all alone to defend themselves.
Peter and Roger locate another office with a LOT of keys, and some walkie-talkies. Then they turn on the power to the entire mall, since they might need it.
This leads to several humorous moments with the zombies, as they fall into the fountain, trip on the escalator, and in general act like the brain-dead monsters they are. Or like *Insert a joke about your least-favorite political affiliates here.*
Fran wakes Stephen up so that Stephen can run down and try to “help” the other guys. Taking her gun in the process. What a great guy.
Downstairs, Peter and Roger go to the center of the mall, which is all boxed in via glass and doors and locks. They almost get eaten, but it’s a little early in the movie for one of our four main characters to die, so they make it out with no problems.
Upstairs, Stephen finds the office the other guys were just in, and locates a gun and a set of floor plans. So he doesn’t see the zombie go wandering by the window behind him. This man’s survival instinct has not at all been honed by the zombie apocalypse.
In the mall, Peter and Roger grab a wheelbarrow and throw a bunch of stuff in it, like a TV, and a radio, and maybe some food, and a jacket, and I have no idea what else.
Then they sneak over to the glass wall farthest away from where they need to go, which is downstairs, and they pound on it, attracting all the zombies away from where they want to go.
Then they run all the way to the upstairs part of the enclosure, unlock the door, and run back to the where they came from, complete with a wheelbarrow full of borrowed goods.
Stephen, meanwhile, has discovered his zombie friend, and chases him around in the dark for a while, finally shooting the zombie in the head at the very last second. It’s called, “Building Suspense,” as I understand it.
Stephen heads back to the stairway, only to be attacked by three more zombies, which he isn’t a good enough shot to deal with, even at point-blank range.
At that moment, Peter comes running up with the wheelbarrow. They all abandon the wheelbarrow and head back to the glassed-in part of the store.
The plan is to go back downstairs and get all the zombies down there again, but while they’re running along, Roger is attacked by a zombie who was just kinda sitting there, acting like a mannequin.
Since no one can shoot the zombie and avoid hitting Roger, Roger instead reaches for the tool belt of the attacking zombie, who I guess was a maintenance guy before he was dead. Roger pulls a screwdriver out of the zombie’s belt, then stabs the zombie in the brain – through its ear.
This sounds so awesome when you say it that way, but it raises a ton of questions. How did the maintenance guy end up in this part of the mall? Why does he only have one screwdriver? How did he die in here? Because he couldn’t have died in the mall and walked in, the enclosure was locked.
I guess you could concoct some strange scenario where a guy who doesn’t actually work at the mall gets his kicks by dressing up as a maintenance guy, so he dresses up in a costume and carries only one screwdriver and hides in the mall when they lock it up, only he has a heart attack and dies when the zombie apocalypse comes.
I’m willing to hear other suggestions, however.
Anyway, the trio heads back down the stairs and does the window-pounding thing, this time waiting a long, long while so all the zombies will come down and not find the door to their secret fortress.
Only one of the zombies finds the door to their secret fortress, and heads up towards Fran.
While this is happening, the dudes converse about maybe staying in the mall for a while, since it has all this stuff they can use. Stephen pulls out the binder with the map of the mall in it, noting that there’s a passageway that runs over all the stores.
The boys go up into the elevator shaft and locate the “shaft,” which is actually a heating vent. They unscrew the cover, and go through the shaft to their hideaway hallway.
Meanwhile, Fran, who was left without a gun because Stephen took hers, is found by a zombie. First she tries to delay him by sticking boxes in front of the door. Then she tries to scare him off with a flare, but as I noted in my “Night” writeup, zombies aren’t afraid of fire. The zombie does stand back in an attempt to not get torched, but he still tries to make a grab for Fran.
Fran drops her flare, and tries to go up the ladder to the roof. But… I don’t really know. She could climb all the way up, it looks like, but I guess there’s a lot more suspense in just having her dangle just within arm’s reach of the zombie.
The boys arrive just in time, and club the zombie in the head. The zombie dies. Fran cries. Roger and Peter take the zombie into the downstairs hallway and leave him there. Then they start hauling all their awesome loot up the stairs.
They get a test pattern on the TV, but no information.
The radio is not much help, either, though there is some information we can’t hear, and is therefore not important.
Peter notes that Fran looks sick, and Stephen confesses that she’s pregnant. Peter asks if Stephen wants to “take care of it.”
Stephen says no, then goes into another room, where Fran is on the floor, smoking, and wondering why her vote doesn’t matter.
Discussion is had. Are the four of them safe here? Can they sleep through the night, or should someone keep watch? Are they still planning on going to Canada?
The next morning, two things happen:
One, Fran declares that she wants a say in what’s going on. And that she’s not going to play Den Mother to all of them. And that she doesn’t want to be left without a gun again. And that she wants to learn to fly the chopper.
Two, the boys decide to use all the Eighteen-Wheelers parked nearby to block the doors, which they can then lock from the inside. This will keep the monsters from piling up and breaking into the mall.
So Stephen flies the boys down to the semis, and Roger hotwires a couple of them, and then they’re off and running, slamming into zombies as they go. It’s awesome, especially once you read the credits and realize they only had two stunt guys, which means they just kept hitting the same guys over and over and over again.
Once they get to the mall, Roger jumps out of his truck, and hops into Peter’s truck, and then they head on back to the truck stop, or whatever that place is, to grab another truck.
Now, of course, they’ve attracted some attention. The creatures come for Roger, who left his door open when he went to hotwire another truck. This is the kind of thing that gets you killed in zombie movies.
Roger tries to grab his rifle, but the strap gets stuck. There’s some suspense, but Peter and Roger manage to headshot the zombie attackers.
Roger pretends he isn’t shaken up by being attacked. Though he does go out of his way to run down even more zombie stuntmen.
Roger jumps from his truck to Peter’s truck, pausing to shoot a few zombies in the head. They drive away. Suddenly, Roger realizes he forgot his tool kit in his truck.
Peter grabs Roger by the collar and asks if Roger has his head screwed on straight. Roger insists he’s all there.
They head back to Roger’s truck, and get the toolkit. And also, Roger gets bitten. In the leg. And the arm.
Roger says, “There’s a lot to get done before you can afford to lose me.” Roger is not really in touch with his feelings, I fear.
And then it’s later. Fran bandages Roger up, and plans are made – it’s time to clean the zombies out of the mall.
Stephen and Peter head to the guns and ammo store (which you ALWAYS find in malls, of course) and get… lots of guns and ammo.
LOTS of guns and ammo.
And then everyone heads into the mall, loaded up with lots and lots of guns. And ammo. Peter pushes Roger around in the wheelbarrow.
Once again, they head to the glassed-in center of the mall, which they unlock and go into. They head to hardware and get a bunch of blowtorches. The plan is to run out of the glass enclosure and lock all the outside doors.
Fran suggests they use one of the cars sitting in the center of the mall.
The boys decide this is a swell idea, and escape out the door. Stephen almost forgets to leave the keys with Fran, but she yells to him, and there’s a tense moment where Stephen tries to get the keys off his belt while a single propane torch putting out the flame of maybe three matches protects him.
To call it silly is an understatement.
The men head right for the car, which seems like a good idea, until you realize that they’re all totally gunned up and should kill the twenty or thirty slow-moving zombies before bothering with the car, and then they’d have all the time in the world.
Two of these guys have a lot of gun training. It would probably take them maybe two minutes to kill everyone in the immediate area. Or am I being too logical?
Roger goes through the back of the hatchback car and starts hotwiring it, only a zombie grabs him by his injured leg and opens up his wound again.
Peter shoots the zombie attacking Roger.
Roger gets the car started, and they head to the first set of doors, locking and latching all of them, then setting the alarm.
Then they head to the next set of doors.
(Here’s a thought: People will tell you how thoughtful this movie is. How it’s a parody of consumer culture. How it’s got dark streaks of humor running through it. True? Sure.
But this movie is pretty much wall-to-wall action. That’s why people like it. They’re so busy thinking about all the ideas in the movie after watching it that they totally forget that something like every two minutes, someone’s sorry bottom is on the line.)
Later, all the work is done. The doors are locked, and every last zombie in the mall has been shot in the head.
And then it’s later again, and Stephen and Peter discuss putting up a false wall, which will hide the fact that the four of them are in the mall from anyone, zombie or living, who breaks in. By hiding the door to the upstairs, no one can possibly find them.
Unless they come in through the roof, of course.
Meanwhile, Roger’s leg is infected, and he’s a-gonna die. This makes the other three people in the crew alternately depressed or, for a change, more depressed.
Some time later, Stephen and Peter build the false wall while Fran has morning sickness, which she doesn’t want Stephen to see.
Peter notes that the bodies are all going to start rotting soon. So they take all the dead bodies and stick them in the walk-in freezers. Which is pretty astonishingly unsanitary.
Then the boys go to take some money from the bank. Peter states: “You never know…”
And then it’s a shopping montage. Or a stealing montage. Whatever you want to call it.
Followed by a scene where everyone plays video games.
Followed by the one scene everyone knows in the movie, where Peter says, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
Which leads to Roger writhing in pain as he dies. Roger asks if Peter will take care of him when he goes. Roger also notes that he’s going to try not to come back.
Time goes by. Roger zombies up. Peter shoots him in the head.
And on the TV, a scientist says people have to remain rational and logical.
Peter and Stephen bury Roger in a little park-looking thing in the mall.
Later, Stephen and Fran practice shootings mannequins.
Even later, Peter serves a romantic dinner to Fran and Stephen, then heads off to drink champagne and toast their fallen comrade.
Back at the dinner, Stephen offers to rings to Fran. Fran says, “We can’t Stephen, not now. It wouldn’t be real.”
That night, the two of them lie in bed, looking depressed. Especially Stephen, who has probably just realized that there’s exactly one woman around, and his chances of getting a mistress are pretty slim.
Time passes. Dates get marked off on the calendar. Fran looks more pregnant.
Also, their living space looks more like a living space, with furniture, and various other things I guess they dragged up the stairs somehow, even though they walled themselves in.
That night, the boys play poker while Fran cooks. They go to eat. Stephen refuses to turn off the TV, even though there hasn’t been a broadcast for three days. Fran turns the TV off. Stephen turns the TV back on.
Fran asks: “What have we done to ourselves?”
Fran clearly isn’t thinking about the alternative option, wherein she gets to be an especially rare rump roast.
Later, Stephen practices flying the chopper with Fran. She’s very excited to have learned how to fly, even though all they do is go up in the air about a foot, and come back down.
And anyway… it’s a bad thing.
Because there’s a gang of raiders not far away, who spots the moving chopper.
The raiders attempt to radio to the trio, first asking how many of them there are, and then telling them that they don’t like people who don’t share.
And here come the raiders. Complete with motorcycles and guns. Stephen notes that there are hundreds of creatures on the ground, and Peter notes that the gang is, basically, a professional army.
Stephen and Peter head downstairs to shut all the gates.
The bikers break in through the loading docks. Peter notes that the raiders are going to have their hands full, and probably won’t even notice Peter and Stephen.
You know what? Doesn’t matter. If it were me, I’d still hole myself up and keep low until it was all over.
The raiders come in, and steal… valuables. Which are pretty much not valuable at this point. I guess we could argue that this is meant to demonstrate that professional armies are populated with stupid people, but it’s tough to say what Romero was going for here.
And then – they start throwing pies in the faces of the zombies.
And spraying them with seltzer water.
The raiders continue looting. Stephen basically freaks out and starts saying, “It’s ours. We took it.”
Then Stephen starts shooting. Because he really doesn’t value his own life.
Either way, his cover is blown now.
And so is Peter’s.
Now it’s war.
And by war, I mean the mayhem factor goes up a bit, with raiders shooting at zombies, and running away from zombies, and cutting off the heads of zombies. While Peter and Stephen shoot at raiders. And raiders hunt for them.
Stephen heads for an elevator.
Peter heads up into the ceiling, to the shafts.
The lights go out. By which I mean the power goes out. By which I mean Stephen is trapped in the elevator.
Stephen goes up the elevator shaft. The power comes back on. The elevator goes down.
Stephen gets shot by raiders, who fire up into the elevator shaft.
Things start to fall apart.
Some of the raiders take off. Some of the raiders get eaten.
Stephen goes back to the elevator. Peter radios Stephen and says he’s coming to get him. Stephen tries to climb back onto the top of the elevator. But it’s too late. The elevator opens, and the zombies come for him.
Their bologna has a first name, and it’s S T E V E.
Peter escapes through the shafts and goes back to Fran. Fran figures Stephen is dead. Peter says he heard Stephen’s gun, so maybe Stephen is okay. They’ll just wait a while and see.
Later, Fran tells Peter that Stephen hasn’t answered the radio for hours, and that they should go.
In the mall, things are looking very crowded, in a zombie-type way.
And then the elevator opens, and there’s a very living-dead Stephen.
Here’s an interesting question: Why are the Valentine’s Day decorations up? How bored WERE these three?
Stephen, who might be dead but still has an awesome memory, finds the false wall that leads the upstairs, and breaks through it.
Peter knows the score and says it’s Stephen, and that the zombies are coming up.
Peter tells Fran to get out of there. Peter doesn’t want to go.
Zombie Stephen gets into the upstairs. Peter shoots him in the head.
Peter tells Fran to move, and Fran goes up the ladder to the roof.
Peter then heads into a different room and closes the door.
Fran starts the helicopter.
Peter sits in another room, with the door closed, while zombies climb up the ladder to the roof. Peter puts a gun to his head. It looks like this is it.
Fran opens the door of the copter and looks out at the zombies that are coming up on the roof.
And then: Triumphant Music! Peter fights his way through the zombies and up the ladder! He gets to the roof!
But wait! Fran has taken off!
But wait! Fran lowers the chopper just long enough for Peter to fight his way past the zombies so he can get in.
Peter asks: “How much fuel do we have?”
Fran: “Not much.”
Peter: “All right.”
And they fly away into the sunrise, giving the movie a really up and really down ending, all at the same time.
Then, as the credits play, we get to watch zombies walk around in the mall.
Feel free to speculate whether our two remaining heroes lived or died – because “Day of the Dead” isn’t going to tell you.