Talking about the original here, not the remake. Just like Empire is the best of the Star Wars trilogy, Dawn is easily my favorite of the original Dead trilogy.
We start with things in utter chaos. Unlike Night of the Living Dead, which showed how the zombie plague spread slowly in rural areas, we jump into an urban madhouse where SWAT police are trying to contain an outbreak in an apartment block. Humanity is just barely hanging on and Gaylen Ross plays Francine, a newswoman with schemes to steal the company helicopter and make a break for it. Francine gathers her pilot boyfriend and two of the surviving SWAT cops from the opening and the four go looking for refuge. They find it in an abandoned mall.
Immediately, there is some wish fulfillment at play here. As a kid, I always wanted to spend the night alone in the mall just checking out each store and taking what I wanted. These people first have to clear the mall of zombies but, once they do, the entire place is their playground. Lots of tension is wrung out of how they set the mall up as a fortress. Every action they take to secure the place exposes them to attack. It is almost like they are playing chess with the undead. Of course, as is always the case, zombies aren't their only problem. When a band of motorcycle riding marauders show up, things go south quickly. How far would you go to protect your kingdom?
The performances are pretty great here and the effects represent early work by the master, Tom Savini (who guest stars as one of the bikers). There are sly digs at consumerism here and there but this is mostly just a compelling zombie story. Stay for the scene with the "take your own blood pressure" machine...classic.