Today is April 20, one of those dates that seems to come weirdly pre-loaded with cultural significance—whether you’re talking about weed, 20th century dictators, or the state of school safety in good old 2019. (And, hey: Shout-out to everyone going absolutely buck-wild celebrating the 1912 death of Dracula author Bram Stoker today. You do you, anti-Drac-ers.) For American horror fans, though, 4/20 isn’t just about rolling blunts and thinking of Adolf: It’s also the anniversary of the arrival of George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead on U.S. shores, a.k.a, the first truly great zombie satire film. As it happens, Romero’s sequel arrived in New York—seven months after its Italian release—on April 20, 1979, making today the 40th anniversary of the movie’s domestic release.
Romero’s second low-budget undead blockbuster wasn’t the first film to mine the ravaging undead hordes for uneasy satirical impact—the man himself had pulled the same trick a decade earlier with Night Of The Living Dead, which helped establish a template for movies in which no amount of toothy dead flesh is scarier than the mistakes and evils regular human beings commit in bad situations. But Dawn was one of the first films of its ilk to suggest that zombies themselves could be played for laughs—at least in limited doses. (This is still the film that helped introduce the world to Tom Savini’s legendary gore effects, after all.) Shots of stiff-armed former consumers returning to their beloved shopping malls—“This was an important place in their lives,” one character wryly notes—weren’t subtle, but they still convey a meaningful bite all their own. (Heightened by the knowledge that Romero shot most of the film during night hours at an actual, operating mall, during the height of the Christmas shopping season.)
Still, Dawn doesn’t need the zombies themselves in order to land its bigger laughs. Just take a look at the above scene, in which Ken Foree’s Peter and David Emge’s Flyboy raid an in-mall bank together, extracting thousands of dollars in totally useless cash from the tills. But hey, as Peter notes: “You never know!” (And in case the gag wasn’t clear enough, there’s the kicker of the two men carefully following the customer service ropes as they make their orderly way back out.)
Dawn Of The Dead was a moderate success when it arrived Stateside in 1979, earning back most of its meager $1.5 million budget in its opening weekend, and going on to make tens of millions more. It’s since become an enduring landmark of the genre, and a milestone in the development of the idea that horror films—which tap into our societal anxieties in the goriest, most gut-wrenching/devouring ways possible—can serve as powerful documents of social critique. And hey: How many 40-year-olds can claim an impact as big as that?