SEPTEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DAWN OF THE DEAD
"When the dead walk, Señores; we must stop the killing, or lose the war."
Much has been written about George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and how it was a commentary on the times. For years in interview after interview, George would listen to many a dreamy-eyed critic: who would wax on about the myriad subtle nuances of social commentary that they read into NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, only to have George burst their bubble by saying, "Nope, I just wanted to make a monster movie with zombies and cannibals."
By 1978, however, George was willing to change his tune. Now he really did want to make both a gross-out monster movie and one with social commentary. This was due to George finding himself hero worshipped by a lather of Italian Horror and Splatter directors. Those dang ol' Italians were going apeshit with making Zombie / Cannibal movies. At least one even got arrested and jailed for it! Italian Director, Dario Argento, was brought on board with his hero George (Hey, Dario's family and friends were largely responsible for getting the movie made!) to get together and make Romero's screenplay for DAWN OF THE DEAD a reality.
DAWN OF THE DEAD begins with a television station. The worst run TV station you ever saw. During an very confrontational interview by apparent teevee personality, Mr. Berman (David Early: CREEPSHOW, MONKEY SHINES, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, INNOCENT BLOOD, THE DARK HALF), there is no discipline, no concern for the FCC, and no worry if anything anyone does could make them lose their job. In short, the TV station is our microcosm for what's happening to the world at large. Society is unraveling because, as the scientist being interviewed, Dr. Foster (David Crawford : LADY BEWARE) says,
"Everyone of those things that are not exterminated get up and kill. The people that they kill, get up and kill."
The movie picks up where NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD left off. It is now the dawn. The living dead are everywhere and no one knows why. Scientific rationality, prevalent for trying to explain the living dead in the first movie (it may have been a satellite that crashed to earth, bringing something with it), is abandoned with the breakdown of morality - for religious superstition.
At one point, Swat cop Peter says,
"My Father used to say, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."
If your Dad is walking around the house muttering this kind of stuff, it's time to call the Rest Home.
In all three movies, the living dead are never explained beyond various theories, none of which are meant to stick. This insanely horrible thing is just happening and the living will have to adjust to survive.
Its easy to see how the dead over-run us. When, in your grief, you see your beloved husband, wife, or child get back up and walk, you are willing to accept it. You want to believe that, with their body mobile, some trace of the person you loved is still within. But the zombies are as indifferent to us as the Pod People from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Worse in fact, since the zombies appear to have lost all intellect, all personality; they are relegated to their most basic of functions, which is to eat. The heat of living people attracts them and the cannibalism is blatant. They are slow and weak, but like ants, they overwhelm us in sheer numbers. We as a society are unwilling to accept that. As a whole, the majority of the population cannot bring themselves to decapitate or put a bullet in the head of a beloved come back to life.
Even worse, there are many who are trying to protect their dead relatives and friends from those who would exterminate them. They lock the living dead away in basements and tie them up, as if the living dead will somehow get over their cannibalism and rot like a person would get over a cold.
Scientists have the answer, "These things are nothing more than motorized instinct." "They must be exterminated!", but it's nothing that people want to hear.
Panic stricken with terror and grief, everyone is coming apart at the seams and the world is dissolving into chaos.
When the movie opens we see Fran (Gaylen Ross: CREEPSHOW) waking from a nightmare. She works in a television station. The station manager is so wrapped up in his work he can think of nothing but ratings, the rest of his staff are abandoning their posts even as their local talk show host is interviewing a guest scientist.
Fran's boyfriend, Steven (David Emge: HELLMASTER), is the station's traffic chopper pilot. He is going to steal the chopper and get Fran and him away from the main centers of population. Fran, still refusing to accept the situation, refuses him. But Stephen's insistence, coupled with the information that the government will soon be shutting down the station and going over to National Emergency Broadcast, breaks her will.
For us, the world is brought down to four survivors: The naive Fran, her naive but wannabe tough guy fiancé Stephen, his best friend, the realistic Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), who is a SWAT cop, and the hard-nosed Peter (Ken Foree: FROM BEYOND, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) - a fellow SWAT member and friend Roger made while popping zombies in a housing project.
With such a depressing, nihilistic doomsday movie, George felt obliged to play a lot of scenes for laughs. You know, the kind of human foibles we all have and go through while exterminating - and being hunted by - zombies. In fact, DAWN OF THE DEAD is the funniest of the three DEAD movies and Romero shows his talent for wry morbid humor the same way he did with MARTIN.
In this movie George satirically pokes fun at the American obsession of buy, buy, buy consumerism. Even the mindless zombies come to the mall every day, though there are no humans there. As Stephen puts it "This was a very important part of their lives."
In one of the many pieces of commentary in the film, Cops, soldiers, and "Rednecks" wind up being the only ones upon whom we can pin the hopes of our future. Gun owners and hunters in general are the only ones willing to exterminate the dead, even making a jolly community gathering out of it. Only they are willing to stand and fight: to carve out and maintain a pocket of human society capable of surviving the Horror while the rest of us run. Yet in one scene, Stephen, looking down on them from the helicopter as he flees, sneers, "Those rednecks are probably enjoying this." Not long after, Stephen is also enjoying the extermination of the zombies. But unlike the "rednecks" and cops, who are ever aware of the consequences of their actions, Stephen is like a kid, doing it purely for fun, unmindful of the risk until its too late.
Though I watched an excellent print on Anchor Bay Entertainment's "Anniversary Edition", the DVD - sadly - is bereft of much in the way of features. The best is a very ironic old television advertisement that was actually used for the Monroeville mall where the movie was largely shot. The advertisement, if nothing else, shows just how dead-on Romero was in his portrayal of American consumerism. Romero wasn't so jolly with DAY OF THE DEAD.
DAWN OF THE DEAD never loses track of just how serious the situation is. Humor is balanced nearly perfect with scenes of violence, gore, and horror - and as always, the on the mark human dialogue and interaction. These movies would utterly fail without it. The actors, mostly unknowns, are incredibly realistic in their characterizations, making their lives and deaths all the more involving and tragic. This is not your cutesy wink and nod insipid plastic acting and too utterly hip dialogue that you get from many of Hollywood's forgettable slasher flicks. These are not high strung kid actors with flip soap opera emotions. These are characters you are, meet, and with whom you can identify.
I give DAWN OF THE DEAD 5 Shriek Girls. This is a classic.
SEPTEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DAWN OF THE DEAD
In retrospect, all the warning signs were there. A patient had been sent to ICU for a simple bite after he suddenly became unresponsive. Who's that they're wheeling into the hospital? Is that another bite victim? And the ambulance driver, busy already? Don't want to listen to the news right now. Let's find some music.
Yes, it would be easy to scream at Ana (Sarah Polley - THE SWEET HEREAFTER, GO) for not catching the clues, for not getting out while the getting was good. But like everyone else, she was too wrapped up in her own life to care about anything else. She was late from a long shift at the hospital and wanted nothing more than to get home to her husband and plan a three day weekend at the end of the month. Sure, people say you should stop and smell the roses, but the world moves too fast. Besides, the roses would always be there, right?
It's easy for the horror film viewer. All he or she has to do is watch. But how could anyone really see the catastrophic events of DAWN OF THE DEAD coming? In short, you can't. We didn't see 9-11 coming, the closest thing America has had to an apocalyptic event in the last fifty years. That was a single strike with a definable enemy and we are still feeling waves of fear and loathing in regards to such a horrible tragedy. Much like the World Trade Center bombings, the people in DAWN OF THE DEAD go to sleep to one world and wake up to another. Making things even crazier are all of the unknown variables. The plague comes without any clear reason or warning and it changes our global landscape forever.
Ana escapes her hometown, after narrowly surviving an attack from a neighborhood girl and then her own husband. She is found by Kenneth (Ving Rhames - MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1-2), a police officer short on communication and big on intimidation. The group continues to grow on that day and in a few of the days following. The protagonists wait out the zombie plague in the Crossroads Mall, until they can either find out more about what's going on, or wait for help to arrive. Throughout their time together, allegiances are tested and destroyed, priorities are rearranged and life as anyone knew it starts from scratch.
Hopefully, I shouldn't have to remind anyone out there that this is a remake to George A. Romero's 1978 classic, DAWN OF THE DEAD. Let me just say that this film never really stood a chance of topping that masterpiece. No, I didn't go in biased (although I was a bit upset when the project was brewing). But the fact is that no one has been able to top that film for the past 26 years. Even more than it's predecessor, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN is the most influential film to ever come of the zombie sub-genre. In my opinion, it's also the most terrifying film ever made, tying only with THE EXORCIST. DAWN is to blame for a good number of my sleepless nights. Could the remake ever hope to recapture that brilliance? Well no, but that doesn't mean it's completely terrible either.
This is as good a place as any to address the horror community's hesitance to accept the wave of countless remakes that continue to be developed. I can only speak for myself. I often get infuriated when I hear about a remake. The reason behind most remakes is pure greed. A studio sees an established name and wants to milk a new generation for it as it goes through the necessary hurdles. But that is all at the studio level, and if they had their way, there wouldn't be a single original idea out there. The filmmakers are best left on their own to make something worthwhile. They should not be held responsible for what brought them to this job. Their only responsibility is to create something worthwhile.
My wariness over remakes is often a deep love for the original material. I don't worry about the remake effecting the original for me. I've seen the original film, I've often cherished the original film. It's something no one will ever be able to take away from me.
I do worry about the next generation of horror fans. Will this be the only DAWN OF THE DEAD they know? Last year's remake of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was surprisingly good, but there already those who embrace the remake and don't intend to see the original because "it's old." More people seem to be unaware that THE RING is a remake than not. And at least those remakes were good. I feel truly sorry for the millions who will say, "THE HAUNTING? That was that crappy film with Liam Neeson, right?" We really just pray that the films will be decent, that they won't embarrass the original too much and most of all, that audiences will still check out the originals.
There are three main things the new DAWN OF THE DEAD has in common with its predecessor.
1. Both films are called DAWN OF THE DEAD, and the remake has various nods and winks to the original in subtle things like snippets of dialogue, actor cameos and prop labels.
2. Both films deal with the opening moments of a zombie plague.
3. Both films take place mostly in a shopping mall.
That is essentially where the similarities end. As a remake, it's setting itself up for a fall, but as it's own horror film, it's not too bad. The less you think about the original and the more you accept the film on it's own terms, the better off you'll be. Admittedly, this is not always an easy thing to do since the film tries to draw a comparison at certain stages, even if the situations in each film are completely different.
Things that are different in this film - there are plenty. For one thing, there are more victim- er, that is survivors. Five people initially enter the mall - already one more than in the original's group. They are met by three rent-a-cops already in the building and before long are joined by even more survivors. This gives the opportunity to see even more human blood spilt in the film. Good news for gutmunching horror fans is that the film does not skimp on the violence or gore. The violence is more stylized and ironically less effective than it should be (can we please get a moratorium on the "shutter-cam?"), but there are several moments that will make some of the most jaded viewers jump.
You'd expect the abundance of new characters to open the film up for more character development. Unfortunately, what it does is spread the characters too thin. We only really get to know a handful of the characters, and for those lucky few, James Gunn's script does a great job. As for the rest of the meat on the zombie smorgasboard, it regulates them to the sidelines. Some characters are given no more than a few scenes of dialogue, even if they survive into the third act. Others are so ridiculous that they should have been rethought from the beginning, if not left out entirely.
And that is probably the biggest flaw of the film, the unbelievable way in which some people behave in the midst of the epidemic. As I mentioned earlier, the five people that make their way into the mall do meet up with mall security. What I did not mention is that they introduce themselves to the quintet at gunpoint. Naturally, they don't want to let a whole bunch of people in who are going to bring in some zombie baggage. These guys go beyond that, immediately setting up their own little regime.
The ridiculous way in which mall security behaves is a severe blemish on the film. Even though the world is going to hell in a handbasket, this group of rent-a-cops still have a hierarchy. C.J. (Michael Kelly) is the boss, he has his redneck associate and the trainee. They give orders and in a laugh-out-loud touch, are even concerned about their guests leaving a mess in the sporting goods store.
Never once is it mentioned what is painfully obvious to the rest of us. No one has a paying job anymore. They have no bosses, no employment and any seniority that existed before is null and void now. Nevertheless, they order people around and in one line, Kelly accidentally recalls Ben Stiller's character in HAPPY GILMORE with shocking accuracy and a complete lack of irony. It should be noted that C.J.'s character does go through some nice changes in the script. I will not say whether he is redeemed or not. Suffice to say, if the script needed that character, at least they did something unexpected with him.
But as for the rest of mall security? Well, there's the Terry the trainee (Kevin Zegers of WRONG TURN and amusingly enough, the AIR BUD movies) who has the hots for one of the surviving girls. That's basically his whole character. A nice guy? Sure, I guess, but not a very deep one. As for the associate Bart (Michael Barry), he is given the worst dialogue in the entire film. - "You know what really sucks," he says. "You know that fat chick at the Dairy Queen? I would have hit that shit." When Terry mentions that the woman is probably dead, along with everyone he ever knew or loved, Bart replies "Yeah, that sucks too," shortly before calling the trainee a "faggot." Whether this is meant to merely illustrate this character's screwed up priorities or whether it's a lame attempt at humor is unclear. It's a complete disaster no matter what you make of it. Remember the punks who kept their mall jobs in the apocalypse film NIGHT OF THE COMET? It's the exact same thing and that's probably where James Gunn got the idea. But in NIGHT OF THE COMET, it was played for laughs. Here, we're expected to take it seriously.
There's also the other jerk of the group, Steve (Ty Burrell), who exists mainly to provide comic relief and a segway into the climax of the film. Picture Isaac Mizrahi combined with the character Matthew Perry plays on FRIENDS and you won't be far off. The fact is that when characters need to be selfish and obnoxious, they do so in such broad ways that it becomes impossible to empathize with them.
But stupid behavior is not limited to the idiots of the group. Some of the people we would expect to lead make some lamebrained moves as well. At one point, in order to pass the time, they make a game out of shooting the zombies in the parking lot that look like celebrities. Now, on one level, this is a nice touch and one of the few moments that really recalls the dark comedy from the original film. On a much more apparent level however, this makes no practical sense. They are already low on ammo. Wouldn't you want to preserve every last bit of juice you had in case you needed to defend your fortress, or perhaps make a quick dash? Well, they don't let that get in the way. And although the lack of ammo is brought up, no one is chastised for taking part in the game.
If you are hoping to find any of the original's scathing satire on rampant American consumerism, don't hold your breath. Let's face it, even on a low budget ($28 million is low for Hollywood. And yes, I find that ridiculous as well), this is a studio picture and was birthed thanks to rampant American consumerism. Now, there's an irony George would just love.
So, there is no subtext here. No big statements to be had. Nothing beyond what the viewer can draw on his/her own, such as the previously mentioned correlation to the 9-11 bombings.
There is an attempt at gallows humor, but without the bleak and accusing undercurrent, the humor comes off as being a hindrance to the growing feeling of dread that should be permeating throughout the film. So, what is the gag factor here? Well, the groups throws little barbs and jabs at one another. There are also little winks to the audience. This is sometimes in passing references to the original film (also making it hard to separate the two). Also, there is the placement of "aren't we clever?" gags on the soundtrack, like the music which consists of such tunes as "All By Myself" and "Don't Worry Be Happy." I've got to tell you something, I hate winks. I hate it when films go out of their way to show you how clever they are. It reeks of desperation. I would much rather see a film that comes off as clever, just by giving us a good solid movie to enjoy. It's something John Frankenheimer was able to do with his films that now seems almost lost.
And then there are the parts that could just be seen as musical numbers. That's right, musical numbers. No one gets up and sings thank God, so you can put your Bollywood zombie nightmares to rest. But we are given the standard montages that just aren't as meaningful as you would like. The worst one of these is a lounge version of Disturbed's "Down with the Sickness." In fact, Disturbed's original version of "Sickness" is played at the end, meaning this already overplayed nu-metal anthem gets two more appearances in the same film. The humorous moments, and to be fair there aren't many, are meant to alleviate the audience's fears and call attention to the "it's just a movie" aspect of the film. To me, that shows a lack of confidence in the material. If they wanted the film to be more memorable, they should never let up for a second. At the very least, director Zack Snyder should have handled the lulls much better than he did.
Something horror fans will notice immediately is that the zombies are no longer the lumbering, pasty folks that they would expect. Instead of mindlessly shuffling forward, not reacting to any bodily harm or physical obstacles, we get something much more peppy. The zombies in the new DAWN OF THE DEAD run like a pack of wild animals. They sprint and pounce, which gives them an unusual new sense of urgency and instinct. I have mentioned in the past that I have no problem with this. Who says zombies has to be slow? George Romero? Well yes, and his zombie films are the greatest ever made. They are the most terrifying vision of the undead we've seen, a tradition that was proudly carried on in films like Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (which was actually called ZOMBI 2 to capitalize on the original DAWN's title overseas). But let's remember that Romero is just one guy with one vision. If we can play fast and loose with vampires and werewolves throughout horror history, why not zombies? Although it's certainly different, I have nothing wrong with running zombies.
I should mention something DAWN does I do have a problem with though. Zombies can run, jump and do anything the person could do while they were alive. But that's it. There are some moments that have the zombies doing some pretty intense gymnastics that you just couldn't see the people pulling off during their waking lives. In that respect, the running zombie thing doesn't ring true. I can believe the little kid creeping up before pouncing and running. I don't see the kid getting slammed into a wall then rebounding off the wall, catching air and landing in a perfect, insect-like crouch.
Now, I've focused on some of the things I was not thrilled with in DAWN OF THE DEAD. Let's mention some of the things I did like. When the characters were allowed to grow, they proved themselves to be embodied by some very talented people. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber and Mekhi Phifer all turn in great performances. Although he's only in a bit part, Matt Frewer also turns in some of his best work here. All of these actors portray real people who find themselves trapped in an unreal world. They all deserve credit for remaining true to their characters. Far from phoning in performances as many actors are apt to do when they find themselves in "another, lowly horror film", they do some amazing things with their roles here, approaching it with true professionalism.
Surprisingly, no one in the main group has those air-brushed good looks that have adorned the cover of many a teeny-bopper horror film. Any pretty boys and girls are regulated to the background and when they do speak up, aren't as attractive on the inside as they are on the outside. Even Polley has a certain down to earth beauty. If I saw Polley walking down the street and had no idea who she was, I would have no problem pegging her as a registered nurse. An attractive nurse, but someone far from the trappings of La-La Land.
There are little touches and flourishes throughout the film that are very effective. Kenneth is distant, but not mean-spirited. He gets to know the people he's stuck with, not because of any kind of agenda, but simply because that's the way things work out. Kenneth does develop a meaningful relationship with an unlikely neighbor, however. As he is on the rooftop of the mall, he notices another person on a rooftop kitty corner from the shopping complex. They have no way to get to one another and there doesn't seem to be any way to talk to each other. Their only means of communication is through the dry erase boards they scrawl messages on. It's just that kind of emotional touch that prevents the film from sinking into a sea of mediocrity.
Even better is the subplot involving Mekhi Phifer. Guilty over the things he has done in his own life, he finds himself the protector of a pregnant woman. He now seems unconcerned with himself. His mission in life becomes to see the baby born, even through all the chaos and start a family. This would at least prove that there are some things that cannot be destroyed. This little part of the script is responsible for the absolute best moments of the film.
There are lots of great little touches that can be found in equal parts thanks to James Gunn's script and Zack Snyder's direction - so see, they don't do a completely bad job of it. The third act of the film is much more exciting than you would expect. Think a crazy prison break in the midst of Zombie Armageddon and you have some idea of the pulse-pounding conclusion. Being a studio film, they can actually increase the carnage here. Snyder gives us a vast landscape of seemingly impossible odds. The sequence is filled with a number of real jolts, some inventive flourishes and lots of big things that go "boom."
In fact, I'll close the review by saying that I really wish they had left the ending alone. Had it ended when it did, DAWN OF THE DEAD would close on a positive note. But when the credits begin, the story does not end. I would suggest that you leave the theatre the second you see the end credits come up. They'll try to get you to stay in your seats through use of a quick gratuitous breast shot, but don't be fooled. Run for the exit so the last image of DAWN OF THE DEAD is a poignant one. Sadly, the extra footage shown in brief spurts during the end credits is just trash. It actually succeeds in trampling on much of what came before in the film. Further research has shown that this is pretty much what the filmmakers completed when they did re-shoots a couple months before the film's release. I guess they felt that the ending needed a boost. Personally, I think they should have left well enough alone.
There are several things to like about the new DAWN OF THE DEAD and several things to despise as well. Ending as it does, and containing enough stand-out moments of pure insipidness, moments that would cause you to rip your hair out in frustration, it might be hard to find the good stuff. But the good stuff is there. Even piled under some sloppy character development, misfired humor and Hollywood glitz, there is plenty of good old fashioned horror mojo to make the new DAWN OF THE DEAD worth at least one look. It manages to dodge a bullet and become just watchable enough to recommend. I would have liked more of what made the film work and less of what didn't of course. But the greatest parts of the film are handled so well, that it almost evens itself out in the end.
SEPTEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DAWN OF THE DEAD
Rewind . . .
. . . and, growing up, I had a friend who was big into horror films, and had all sorts of things on tape via his older brother. I, on the other hand, was never very much into the horror films that seemed popular at the time, the Halloweens and Friday the 13ths. Sure, they were scary, and I didn’t quite mind being scared. Nor was I particularly squeamish. But those slasher flicks were basically about leading lambs to the slaughter, and I couldn’t identify with the characters or situations in them. They didn’t have the sort of spark that captured my imagination, and seemed more or less to be mere pornographic depictions of murder (how some things never change). Aside from Stephen King and a few other writers I enjoyed, I mistakenly thought all horror was like that, and film horror especially was just an endless serious of masked psychopaths chasing teenage girls through midnight forests.
Then my friend introduced me to George A. Romero’s zombie films.
He did so with a connoisseur’s appreciation for effect, and with scrupulous adherence to chronology. I can’t remember if we watched all three films in the ‘Anubis Cycle,’ Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, over the course of the same evening or not — I kind of doubt it. But what I do remember was the somewhat illicit thrill of watching these flicks on the VCR after my parents had gone to bed for the evening. At the age of ten or eleven (or twelve?) these grainy, unrated b-movies — dubbed copies gotten through conventions or mail order film clubs — had a dangerous feel to them. They were underground, not part of the mainstream, and more extreme even than the Freddy and Jason fare other kids my age might be able to talk their parents into letting them watch. They also felt more real, of almost documentary quality, which only added to the appeal — and to the slight fluttering in my stomach as I fed the tapes into the machine, conscious that I was crossing a line into unknown territory . . .
Night of the Living Dead was good, I thought, if a bit hokey at times and pretty limited in scope. Day of the Dead was good too, as it really laid the apocalypse on thick — and it was the ‘end of the world as we know it’ vibe of these films that really captured my imagination as an already dyed-in-the-wool aficionado of post-apocalyptic stories. But it was Dawn of the Dead, the middle film in what is loosely described as a trilogy, that really got me excited. It took the premise of Night of the Living Dead and made it bigger, but it was a lot more fun and had more appealing characters than Day of the Dead. Indeed the characters make this film, relying as it does on four actors to carry the whole piece (with some help from the zombies, of course).
Dawn of the Dead established the now-familiar premise of survival in the face of a zombie apocalypse — it is the film that cemented the concept and gave us its dominant tropes. Despite being Romero’s second zombie film, it really is the first ‘modern’ zombie movie, the movie that gave us zombie humor, suggested that our fellow humans were more dangerous than any walking corpse, and let us share in the vicarious anarchic thrills of the collapse of western civilization and its abundant material culture. Yes, the idea of a world devoid of rules where you can go and steal what you want and do what you want and be entirely justified in doing so is an intrinsically appealing one. Tinged as it is with the depressing prospect of the end of humankind as a species of living organism, and you have the classic push-pull thematic backdrop to a zombie apocalypse scenario. Dawn of the Dead, with its survivors who have managed to build a new life of comfort and material abundance in that most American of places, the shopping mall, manages to parlay the initial premise of monster horror into a kind of vast and melancholic dread which is, for me now and as a kid, one of the finest of cathartic experiences.
Maybe I was just a weird kid.
Fast Forward . . .
. . . to an era when today’s weird kids have zombie lunchboxes, and parents think nothing of letting their munchkins see horror films more gory and shocking than anything Romero and Savini could cook up with their 1978 low budget effects and make up. And we have video games and books and movies; all sorts of movies big and small. Breakfast cereal, childrens’ pajamas, and scented candles soon to follow, I’m sure — and all this commoditization of zombies is sort of amusing when you consider that one of the themes of the movie that gave birth to the genre was the commercialization of modern life. Sadly, Romero’s two further explorations into zombieland since his three core films, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, both fell victim, in my opinion, to his awareness that people where saying he was a director with a message, and so he set out to deliver one above giving us a good story – rather than the reverse.
But what about Dawn of the Dead? “It’s about consumerism, man, and, like, how consumers are just zombies.” Sure, that’s in there, but is the film really about that? Of course not, and here is where the problem with Romero arose, the notion that he is a satirist or gore-spattered Mark Twain derailed him from what he did best, making great low-budget movies about zombies. Yes, he is sharper than most, and infuses his films with a certain symbolic depth that I suspect is more about the happy accidents that arise when one is in the throes of the creative act, than a great deal of forthright planning. Be wary of he who sets out to make art, because it’s likely the guy who believes passionately about his no budget zombie movie will end up shooting rings around the would-be artist, because his goal is totell a story, not send a message. Romero’s messages were oh so much smarter when they were the incidentals of his terrific stories, and not the basis of them.
Anyway, in watching Dawn again after a space of many years — and many zombie movies — I was struck by a lot of things. First, how unbelievable most of the zombies were. In our age of hyper-effective make up and effects we are used to zombies that bleed and slough skin and look a mess in general. There are a few decayed looking zombies in Dawn, but for the most part they are people with gray face paint. They tend not to be as convincing as either the black-and-white zombies of Night of the Living Dead, or the more modern looking rotters of Day of the Dead, but this actually works well in conjunction with one of the movie’s main themes, and that’s the developing contempt for the zombie threat. Initially terrifying, the survivors learn that they can out run and out smart whole packs of zombies, and their ingenuity gradually sees them master their new environment of the mall and take it back from the undead. Zombies become a figure of fun, easily disposed of, and just as easily used for the venting of frustration and anger. It’s an uncomfortable but somewhat viscerally relatable exploration of the lines between life and death, and it rightly identifies that the most unsettling thing about a zombie is not that it is dead and hungry, but that its human dignity has been erased.
And I was reminded too of just how much cooler slow zombies are than the speed freaks of modern cinema. Firstly, there’s just the believability aspect, one expects an animated corpse to be a little less good at sprinting than it used to be (granted, many modern fast zombie films use the premise that the zoms are still alive, a concept most associated with 28 Days Later’s rage virus), but they are much more horrifying as well. One unsettling scene in Dawn of the Dead illustrates this nicely. The population of a tenement is being relocated by some civil defense guys during the initial outbreak, and two of our main characters, Peter and Roger, stumble upon an area in the basement where the building’s residents have been leaving their dead. In a fast zombie scenario this would have been a run and gun situation, maybe with some propane tank bombs going off for good measure. But in Dawn, the zombies in the basement are writhing around on the floor, some are eating the limbs and flesh of others, others can barely move, but they take little notice of the humans for the most part. Instead of an action scene we get an execution, and Peter and Roger have to off the zombies with their pistols. It’s a powerful scene, one that modern films don’t make the time for, but one that shows the transition between our normal world and one in which it is necessary to work extreme violence on vast numbers of what were once people in order to survive.
Dawn of the Dead was made for little over half a million dollars, which is stunningly low by any criteria. It is a b-movie, and indie movie in the truest sense, and one that essentially laid the foundation for one of our new modern myths. It no longer seems shockingly violent, indeed by today’s horror standards it’s practically tame. Nor does it present us with a wall-to-wall action film like many of the zombie apocalypse films to come after it have done. What it does is paint an unremittingly bleak picture of a world without a future that suggests that survival, even abundance, don’t count for anything when they are accounted the only thing. Locked inside a shopping mall stocked with every material desire while death pounds on the door to get in, this survivors’ tale can be seen as a parable for modern life — just so long as one doesn’t overlook that Dawn of the Dead is its own story and no allegory, it just happens to be one that lets us look at how we behave when the world is ending all around us.
- Nostalgia Rating: Undying
- Rewatch Potential: High
- Wilhelm Scream?: No
- Unexpected Cameo: None
- Verdict: The quintessential zombie apocalypse film.
What I Learned: The importance of head shots, and that “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
Top Marks: The cast. Four unknowns, who later achieved some small cult status by virtue of this movie but have rarely appeared in anything else of any consequence. But they do a hell of a job carrying this film with nary a false note, and give Dawn of the Dead a sense of reality not really felt in most films on the subject. The four play off each other well, and move the mostly character-driven story forward with real heart. Make-up artist Tom Savini’s later appearance as a crazed, saber-wielding biker leader was also a highlight, and heralded a long line of cameos in horror and monster films.
If (When) It’s Remade: It has been remade, or ‘rebooted’ in the modern parlance, back in 2004. Despite opting for fast zombies and creating an entirely new story only loosely based on the premise of the original, the reanimated Dawn of the Dead was quite well-done in all areas, and visually impressive. What it lacked was the original’s black humor and lingering sense of hopelessness, of the madness of trying to live when the entire world is dead.
Final Thoughts: There are some people that complain about the ubiquitousness of the zombie in modern pop culture. But zombies are here to stay, because zombies are the monster of the modern age. The zombie apocalypse combines our yearning for anarchy with our distrust of our fellow humans, our lust for consequence-free violence and our artificial relationship to death as a thing alien and antagonistic to the clean lives we live. Zombies are here to stay because zombies are us.
SEPTEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DAWN OF THE DEAD
The original Dawn of the Dead will forever have a place in my wormy heart. It is a socio-political film that examines a society based on consumption. It is the thinking fans zombie film. The zombies in it represent the consumer – people who devour in order to establish an identity.
The original Dawn of the Dead uses setting as symbol. In a helicopter flight from the fury of the dead the four main members land on top of a mall in order to try and gain a brief respite from the flesh eating hordes. It is no accident that the mall is a setting. Romero uses this symbolic setting to establish the one of the main themes of the movie – we are all looking to devour something. Once inside the mall the relative ease of gaining things – clothes, a television, vintage wines, and even money from a bank – takes the group from trying to simply provide to trying to live in luxury.
An important framing device comes in a quick flash of black and white as two characters walk through a labyrinth bank line to have their photos captured by a security cam as they exit with bundles of cash. Romero is showing us the pointlessness of material wealth and out desire, in the face of any disaster, to try and turn a buck. The only female character, who is pregnant, spends time in front of a mirror doing her makeup so as to appear as a femme fatale. Our desire to impose a fiction on the world becomes evident.
The zombies themselves are listless, and, much like us, spend a lot of time going after something they desire but cannot have. The main characters are nothing more than sustenance to the zombies – people are the ultimate in disposable imagery. They desire us to destroy us. The zombies are actually more human than the survivors. Character becomes symbol in this film. When Flyboy (the pilot) asks his pregnant girlfriend to marry him she simply replies that it would not be real. Relationships outside of item consumption have become meaningless.
It is telling that the characters represent the failing structures of modern society; two swat team members and two reporters. The police, within the context of a democracy, represent law and the desire for order through sanctioned violence. The news media represent an informed populace through mass media technology that is supposed to bind us together. The policemen are cold, brutal, and efficient in using their swat techniques on the undead. But their violence is meaningless – it changes nothing. When the mall is overrun by those symbols of anarchy – a motorcycle gang, violence becomes an absurd response – pies are thrown in the faces of the undead. Violence has lost all justification but as a species we still try to use force.
The media of course fail as they try to construct an alternate worldview that is inconsistent with the facts. Truth becomes pointless as they flee their television statement – the global village is no more and they are just voices in a zombie populated wilderness. The head of news tells his reporters to keep giving out old information – places for survivors to flee to – in order to keep ratings up. The news is identified as a faulty signifier – there is literally no truth in advertising.
When one of the characters is bitten he tells the others that he will try not to come back as one of the undead – a task doomed to failure. When the character dies, he is of course, reborn as one of the undead and is then re-killed – a victim of the violence that he one perpetrated on others.
The zombies are the proletariat masses attempting to justify their existence through devouring the material world. They congregate at the mall; the church of the consumer. They surround it and beg for substance just like the poor at a food shelter. They are the poor, the hungry, and those yearning to be free. We become the monsters – we are those who keep the wealth away from those who crave it. The only thing left that has any worth is our body – and that is wee are – sacks of meat. There is no God or spirit in us just as there is no God or spirit in a hamburger.
This film is multi-layered and uses symbol as a means for us to examine our selves and our worth. It is a brilliant satire on what it means to be human in modern society.