This is part of my effort to write about my 100 favorite films in two pages or less. Due to the nature of this film, the essay is also available on Honors Zombie. The others that follow will be decidedly less campy, but I love it just as much as any art film I've ever seen, so here it is.
Dawn of the Dead
by George A. Romero
Dawn of the Dead? Oh yes, friends. Why this, of so many bad post-exploitation era zombie films? Why this at all? Dawn of the Dead and I have something of a history together. I saw this movie in the fourth grade as part of my dad’s attempt to both catch up on horror films he had missed out on as a teenager and to show me what horror cinema really is. And he was spot on really; what film represents the vanguard of 1970s horror cinema better? Director, writer, performer, and producer George A. Romero (Ed Wood and Orson Welles weren't the only ones) had gained renown for directing Night of the Living Dead, it’s indie predecessor, the godfather of budget horror, but it was with Dawn that he let the world know Night wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately Romero never quite lived up to the standard set by Dawn; the supersaturated gore, the not-so-subtle critique of consumerism, the better-than-average performances pulled from the many non-actors filling the screen. Dawn is the action horror masterwork by which all should be judged, it features accurate representations of the culture and zeitgeist of 1978, features the height of 1970s shoe-string make-up effects and embodies the spirit of a true B-movie.
The film starts with the fevered dreams of Fran, a technician at a television station preparing an emergency broadcast, one gets the impression, for the last time. The story follows Fran, her helicopter pilot boyfriend Stephen and two cops, one black, Peter and one white, Roger. Zombies are overrunning western Pennsylvania, a surrogate for the rest of the world, and these four may be the last of civilization by the time the credits role. The film proper takes place mainly in a then-new indoor shopping mall, the potential for laughs, social criticism and discomforting violence of which never runs dry. Having grown up a few hours away from the places shown in the helicopter flight to the mall, I found these scenes particularly eerie. The forest where the zombies are killed by the dozens of hunters and soldiers looked not unlike the type I saw everyday. In this regard (as well as many others) Dawn is the movie that first led me to believe I could make movies. If Romero could put action in my backyard, why couldn’t I? I saw the same potential lying in wait in the everyday world that he did.
The handling of the crisis in the woods and the TV studio could be footage from a forgotten Maysles Brothers’ documentary; dozens of people in plain clothes interacting fanatically with one another in a believable yet alien fashion. The screaming pundits do an neat job with the exposition: “They get up and kill! The people they kill get up and KILL!” Next we see the way the authorities are handling the crisis; not well. The men in blue are holed up outside an urban tenement building that refuses to be evacuated. It’s here we see what it is everyone’s so terrified of. The scene in the basement is one that no gore-fan will ever forget. The conflict that permeates the film is whether to abandon everything and survive or to keep up the façade of normalcy and soldier on. The theme is not uncommon in war films and it’s handled with acumen uncommon to many budget horror films, especially when after weeks of living a life of relative solitude, our survivors question whether they’re doing the right thing. In a scene cut from the original theatrical run, our heroes go through the motions of life, try to prepare for the birth of Fran and Stephen’s child, their martial discord, exploring all the clever ways to while away the hours, while slowly it dawns on them that the mall has become a prison from which they might never escape.
Technically, Romero’s no Antonioni but he’s capable. In fact his blue collar working methods and mannerisms make his films seem like the filmic equivalent of Romero and his friends; a lovable, working class shaggy dog. Where he shines is in his character portrayals; the complete, believable people stuck inside this world. As anyone would if stuck in a claustrophobic nightmare such as this Romero slowly unpacks every facet of the four personalities; the neurosis, the need for control, tenderness, sorrow. The best of Romero’s characters for me is Ken Foree’s Peter, the tall black hero of the story. He looms over the crisis like a kind of detached father figure. He suffers the most when Roger succumbs to his wounds and wakes up one of the living dead; he tries in vain to patch up Stephen and Fran’s relationship, with some difficulty he is the first to admit defeat to the outside world without giving in to the hopelessness that overtakes Fran. He stays withdrawn enough to care when things go wrong, but not to let it overtake his psyche. His eyes say it all when Fran and Stephen passively battle over whether to keep the television on which has stopped all broadcasts days ago. Stephen wants to believe there’s a reason to stay and protect the mall, Fran sees that there is none and wants to leave it; Peter watches them both, undecided about what to do, but smart enough to either not have a side or just not to let on what he really believes.
It’s a competent character study, but it is much beside the point; which is of course zombies. Romero essentially picks up where he left off with the make-up. Night of the Living Dead showed you the dead freshly risen from the dead and their appearance reflected this. Now, several weeks into the crisis, livor mortis has set in. The blue corpses of the dead are much more troubling a sight then the average looking people who menaced the heroes in Night. With the crisis now extended to much larger portions of the world then just a Butler County farmhouse. With the bigger environment for the humans comes a much larger number of the living dead. Hundreds of the creatures wait hungrily outside for the doors to open and when they finally get in, Tom Savini was there with improved make-up effects. It’s tough to think of a film’s make-up that has so inspired the makers of movies than Savini’s work here. The graphic images of the invading biker gang being salvaged for meat have been copied more times than the opening shot of Jaws and with good reason. This is what people came to see and it’s what they take away from the film more than anything else. What really got me was watching the screaming victims continue struggling even as they were dismembered.
The denouement, while optimistic by definition, is complicated. The survivors, having sworn off the mall and its excesses, traps, and allure, escape in the helicopter they rode in on from the immediate threat of the zombies. What waits for them beyond the sunset is not hard to predict. They may escape the dawn of the dead, but there’s a day in front of them that can’t be any better than what they left. Romero has a penchant for never leaving a story completely told, realizing that if we don’t see the bitter end, the imagination gets to fill in the rest. He uses this trick in nearly everyone of his movies; we see enough to know how the problems at hand were dealt with, but the bigger problems lie in wait over the next hill. This kind of story telling is the kind that has had the biggest impact on me. Bring your characters in or out of the fire, but never extinguish it. There’s so much more imagination in never closing the doors you’ve spent your time and energy opening. To me, Dawn of the Dead is a perfect film (even with the over-the-top musical cues, budget constraints, limitations of many of the actors) thoughtful, never excessive, naturally performed and will be at the top of my list until the day I die. With any luck I’ll stay dead when that day comes.