Dawn of the Dead is a 1978 zombie horror film written, directed, and edited by George A. Romero, and produced by Richard P. Rubinstein. An American-Italian international co-production, it is the second film in Romero's series of zombie films, and though it contains no characters or settings from the preceding film Night of the Living Dead (1968), it shows the larger-scale effects of a zombie apocalypse on society. In the film, a phenomenon of unidentified origin has caused the reanimation of the dead, who prey on human flesh. David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross star as survivors of the outbreak who barricade themselves inside a suburban shopping mall amid mass hysteria.
Romero deliberately held off making a sequel to Night of the Living Dead for several years to avoid being stereotyped as a horror director. Upon visiting Monroeville Mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania with a friend whose company managed the complex, he decided to use the location as the basis for the film's story. The project came to the attention of Italian filmmaker Dario Argento who, along with his brother Claudio and producer Alfredo Cuomo, agreed to co-finance the film in exchange for its international distribution rights; Argento also consulted with Romero during the scriptwriting phase. Principal photography on Dawn of the Dead took place between November 1977 and February 1978 on location in Monroeville and Pittsburgh; the special make-up effects were created by Tom Savini, whose work on the film led to an extensive career creating similar effects for other horror films. In post-production, Romero and Argento edited separate versions of the film for their respective markets; Argento's version features a progressive rock score composed and performed by his frequent collaborators Goblin, while Romero's cut primarily favors stock cues from the De Wolfe Music Library.
Following its Italian premiere on September 1, 1978, Dawn of the Dead was released in other markets the following year. Despite facing difficulties with various national censorship boards ― in the United States, it was released unrated to improve its commercial prospects after it was given an X by the Motion Picture Association of America, and it was liable for seizure during the "video nasties" moral panic in Britain during the 1980s ― the film proved to be a major success at the box office, grossing $66 million worldwide against its estimated budget of $640,000. Noted for its satirical portrayal of consumerism, Dawn of the Dead has received widespread critical acclaim since its initial release; like its predecessor, it has garnered a large, international cult following. In 2008, it was chosen by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, along with Night of the Living Dead.
Dawn of the Dead was followed by four official sequels, beginning with 1985's Day of the Dead, and a separate series of unofficial Italian-made sequels, beginning with 1979's Zombi 2. It has also inspired a 2004 remake directed by Zack Snyder, as well as numerous parodies and pop culture references.
The United States is devastated by a mysterious phenomenon that reanimates recently-dead human beings as flesh-eating zombies. Three weeks into the crisis, it has been reported that millions of people have died and reanimated; despite the government's best efforts, social order is collapsing. Rural communities and the National Guard have been effective in fighting the zombie hordes in open country, but urban centers descend into chaos.
At WGON TV, a television studio in Philadelphia, traffic reporter Stephen Andrews and his pregnant girlfriend, producer Fran Parker, are planning to steal the station's helicopter to escape the city. Across town, police SWAT officer Roger DeMarco and his team raid a low-income housing project, whose mostly black and Latino tenants are defying the martial law of delivering their dead to the National Guard. The tenants and the officers exchange gunfire as the officers try to gain entry. Roger unsuccessfully tries to restrain Wooley, a brutal and racist trooper, after he maniacally kills several unarmed civilians. Wooley is shot dead by an officer from another unit, Peter Washington. As the SWAT team dispatch the reanimated dead that have injured or killed several tenants, Roger forms an alliance with Peter, suggesting they desert and join up with Stephen, who is his friend. An elderly priest tells them that several zombies are confined in the basement; the two go there and take on the grim job of eliminating all of them.
Later that night, Roger and Peter join Fran and Stephen at a police dock and then leave Philadelphia in the helicopter. Following some close calls while stopping for fuel, the group comes across a shopping mall, and decide to remain there since there is plenty of food, medicine, and all kinds of consumables. Peter and Stephen camouflage the entrance to the stairwell which leads to their sanctuary, and they block the mall entrances with trucks to keep the undead from penetrating. This involves driving through crowds of zombies who are indifferent to their own injuries and attempt to enter the trucks. Roger survives a particularly dangerous encounter, and becomes reckless as a result. He is soon bitten by the zombies.
After clearing the mall's interior of zombies, the four enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle with all the goods available to them, furnishing their makeshift apartment with the mall's many commodities. Roger eventually succumbs to his wounds and dies; when he reanimates as a zombie, Peter shoots the reanimated corpse in the head, killing it. Sometime later, all emergency broadcast transmissions cease, suggesting that the government has collapsed. Now isolated, the three load some supplies into the helicopter, in case they might need to leave suddenly. Fran gets Stephen to teach her how to fly, in case he should be killed or incapacitated.
A nomadic biker gang sees the helicopter in flight, and break into the mall, destroying the barriers and allowing hundreds of zombies back inside. Stephen, overwhelmed by territorial rage, fires on them, beginning a protracted battle. Stephen gets shot and mauled. When he reanimates, he instinctively returns to the sanctuary and leads the undead to Fran and Peter. Peter kills Stephen while Francine escapes to the roof. Peter locks himself in a room and contemplates suicide, but when the zombies burst in, he has a change of heart and fights his way up to the roof, where he joins Francine. The two then fly away in the helicopter to an uncertain future, leaving the now-abandoned mall to be overrun by the zombie horde.