Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)

(This is part of my series on horror films that tickle my fancy. As is the case with all of these entries, this contains spoilers.)

Coming out the same year as John Carpenter's Halloween, George A. Romero's sequel to his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is an entirely different beast. This is a film that, unlike Halloween, is incredibly bloody, has a great deal of social commentary and (interestingly enough) doesn't deliver on many scares at all (if any). In fact, I will agree with Romero's own assessment that Dawn of the Dead, although a brilliant movie, is more of a comedy than horror film.

Sure, it's violent, gruesome and features some depraved images - I know I couldn't pay my mother to watch this film - but when you consider the bulk of the gore is coming from characters you're deliberately made to not care about (mainly, the zombies and a few of the bikers), it's not entirely accurate to say that this imagery is "frightening."

In Romero's Living Dead series, kicked off by the aforementioned Night of, for some unknown reason (some suspect nuclear radiation, others think it's part of the Rapture), the dead rise from their graves to eat human flesh.

Dawn opens in a frenzied TV studio where broadcasters and commentators are delivering and screaming misinformation. Meanwhile, a SWAT team storms a housing project where zombies have been reported.

A group of survivors - two SWAT Team officers (Peter and Roger, played by Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger, respectively), a traffic reporting helicopter pilot (Stephen, a.k.a. "Flyboy," played by David Emgee), and Flyboy's television executive girlfriend (Francine, played by Gaylen Ross) - leave the city via a copter Flyboy steals to find a safe haven from the zombies and ultimately decide upon an abandoned shopping mall. At first, they think it's a good temporary port in the storm for them to regroup and get supplies.

But then, they realize living in a shopping mall is a dream come true.

Let's face it: Romero lays the social commentary on as thick as the intestines. We can't help but laugh and understand what we're seeing in those montages of the zombies shuffling through the mall while innocuous elevator music is playing overhead, nor when the survivors go on a hog-wild shopping spree in their newfound resting spot. In an interview, special effects and makeup artist Tom Savini mentioned that Dawn was ultimately about kids locking themselves in the candy store.

Romero portrays an environment where civilization has been stripped away and shows how the survivors deal with said environment. It's not about what happens to the characters so much as to how they pass their downtime and come to realize that they're in hog heaven. As critic Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film, "[T]here is nothing quite like a plague of zombies to wonderfully focus your attention on what really matters to you."

In this case, what's important to the survivors is simply stuff.

In his academic essay for Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture entitled Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Stephen Harper writes:

"Once the survivors in Dawn have exterminated the zombies in the mall and secured the doors, they indulge in a carnivalesque parody of rampant consumerism. Their delight is heightened by their awareness that they have not a safe enclave, but have skilfully [sic] taken the entire mall from the zombies and driven them out."

Romero's anti-consumerism message is far from subtle. After all, we are told that the reason why the zombies are congregating to the shopping mall in large numbers is because they're now creatures of pure habit.

"They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here," says Peter.

Here's more of what Ebert writes:

"George Romero deliberately intends to go too far in Dawn of the Dead. He's dealing very consciously with the ways in which images can affect us, and if we sit through the film (many people cannot) we make some curious discoveries.

One is that the fates of the zombies, who are destroyed wholesale in all sorts of terrible ways, don't affect us so much after awhile. They aren't being killed, after all: They're already dead. They're even a little comic, lurching about a shopping center and trying to plod up the down escalator.

Ebert's point is crucial: after a while, the zombies aren't seen as The Enemy. Their feeding frenzies, which are depicted as slow and compulsive, are not based on any sort of glee or malice. They have no "plan." They feel no pain when attacked (note the blank look on the face of one zombie when Tom Savini's biker character buries a machete in its skull). Simply put, they do what they do and are what they are.

Sure enough, the real enemies in Dawn are the survivors. Eventually, a motorbike gang discovers the mall and invades it, looting the stores (even ripping the jewelry off zombies themselves), trashing the place and messing with the zombies. (They even throw cream pies in their faces. Seriously.)

And, as much as we in the audience relate to the four survivors, how can we respond when Flyboy aims his rifle at the invading biker bang and growls, "We were here first. It's ours. We took it?" (They're literally ready to kill to keep their...well...stuff.)

I am a big fan of Romero's Living Dead series, even thoroughly enjoying his latest, Land of the Dead. My personal favorite of the series is the third one, Day of the Dead, to which 28 Days Later owes a huge debt. My mind keeps going to Romero's ever-expanding world created with the simple premise of how flesh-eating corpses being "the norm" for day-to-day living causes the evolution or disintegration of civilization.

I admire Romero's ability to provide both heavy and insightful social commentary, but also not skimp out on the gruesome bloodletting. These films succeed in providing both equally and thoroughly. No one going to see any of these films wanting to see a disgusting, blood-soaked drive-in style monster movie will feel gypped, likewise with cinephiles wanting more "meat" on their entertainment's bones.

Shooting anyone who comes near my stuff in the head,

James "Mindless Consumer" Comtois

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Blogger Ian Mackenzie said...

Nice post James. And this is a great idea for a series! I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

Aside from Evil Dead: The musical . . . are there many other theatrical works that capitalize on the zombie's rich metaphorical character?

I've often thought zombies would make great characters for a twisted middle class domestic drama . . . a la Edward Albee.


11:52 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks, Ian! Yeah, zombies have always had great metaphorical potential (especially since, let’s face it, as characters, they’re about as dull as you can get), especially with the ideas people like behind the “Us Versus Them” or “The Mindless Mob Versus the Individual Thinkers.”

In the theatre world, I’ve seen a few. Vampire Cowboys has a really fun play called Living Dead in Denmark about zombie hunters fighting zombies and toying with the idea of who’s right and wrong. Even Nosedive’s dabbled with the concept of zombies in The Adventures of Nervous-Boy.

Abacus Black Strikes NOW!: The Rampant Justice of Abacus Black by The National Theater of the United States of America deals with people escaping zombies and believing they’re the “chosen ones” is also another example.

And hell, let’s not forget (although in a different vein) that one of Richard Foreman’s last plays was called Zomboid!

I remember Mac Rogers said he wanted to work on a weird-ass Edward Albee-style drama (a la All Over) and turn it into a zombie chase play. Mac? How’s that coming along? Seriously, if you won’t write it, I will.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Ian Mackenzie said...

Wow. That's more examples than I thought there'd be. You and Mac gotta write that play!


1:37 PM  

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