DAWN OF THE DEAD (’78, dir. George A. Romero)

(Source: I-MoviesGuide.com)

(Source: I-MoviesGuide.com)

Adolescence is the apocalypse of childhood.

This dramatic, psuedo-Nietzschean statement may not be entirely true, but I think it captures a feeling one has when s/he is an adolescent. Besides acts of God or growing old, becoming decrepit and dying, becoming a teenager is a natural but traumatic development that we have to accept as commonplace. It involves a biological and psychological transformation that upends a person’s existence, and, despite the youthful vigor and optimism that comes with it, there’s a whisper of mortality to the adolescent stage that only gets louder as you get older. For many if not most, it can feel like the beginning of the end.

Now why do I start on such a sunny note? Well, I first become acquainted with the original Dawn of the Dead when I was a healthy yet moody and melancholic fifteen-year old and I found it very appealing back then. While the film’s effect on me may just be attributable to a callow hunger for sensationalism, George A. Romero’s apocalyptic, excessive and gory vision of a world gone to the dogs as a result of a zombie epidemic spoke to me as I was stuck in a cataclysm brought on puberty. Hyperbolic, I know, but most things are blown out of proportion when you’re a teenager, so much so that getting romantically/sexually rejected will seem analogous to or “supersede” a real tragedy like the death of a classmate. Therefore, I have an almost preternatural and likely imagined memory of watching Dawn, seeing a roving herd of the living dead in a shopping mall parking lot and thinking that the image had captured what I had been feeling about existence.

But as I got older and the zombie movie become more codified and commercialized, I put aside Dawn. Not that I ever considered it as less than great. But it was very much a case of guilt by association, as Dawn is a special, prototypical movie that happened to beget many “children” who often became mediocre to awful people. But also, I wondered if I had matured out of the feelings that made the film appeal to me as a teen. Transpose “Do You Remember Walter?” by The Kinks into “Do You Remember, Dawn of the Dead?” and, if you get the reference, you’ll know what I mean.

But, as it is relevant to a writing project I’m working on, I recently rewatched the film and recognized that it’s still a monumental horror film that can change according to where one is at in life. If you’re a teenager or an eternal teenager (God help you), it’s a thrilling genre film that will deliver you some depraved jollies. But it has legs—shuffling, rotting legs—that can carry things into your adulthood.

(Source: Bloody Disgusting.)

(Source: Bloody Disgusting.)

A sequel to Romero’s epochal 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Dawn has seemed to make a bigger impact on the popular consciousness than its predecessor. This isn’t to say that Night was a lesser or less influential film, but its revisionist but bare bones depiction of zombie-dom was a MacGuffin within a chamber-piece horror scenario that reflected a rampant fear of social breakdown in late 60’s America. If anything, Night’s influence can be felt in the development of a) the notion of the independent horror film and b) a general, bleak and sometimes socially minded pessimism that has loomed large in the horror genre ever since the late 60’s.

Because it is an expansion of the zombie-dom that Romero introduced in Night, Dawn is influential in a different way: if the living dead were a means to end in the first film, the living dead are “the end” in the sequel. And with a more empathic expansion of zombie-dom comes more specificity to the nature of zombies and their effect on social structure.

Night demonstrated that zombies are the dead come back to life to feast on people and transmit some sort of zombie-causing virus through cannibalism. But there is no real suggestion of an overlap between what a zombie has become and who they once were in the first film. That’s provided in Dawn—it’s strongly suggested that in every zombie is an echo of the person that they use to be. This notion helps to increase Romero’s depiction of zombies with more uncanniness and metaphorical power.

But Dawn has had more (perhaps superficial) influence on pop culture than Night because of its depiction of what a zombie epidemic would be like on a widespread scale. For starters, the primary location is bigger: Night mostly takes place around an abandoned and barricaded farmhouse in a rural area; Dawn mostly takes place within and around an abandoned and barricaded shopping mall in a Pennsylvania suburb.

The protagonists of Dawn in the Monroeville Mall. (Source: HorrorHotel.blogspot.)

There’s also the lead-up or journey to the mall in Dawn that provides a sense of scope to the zombie epidemic (while also introducing the four main characters—Stephen (David Emge), Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Francine (Gaylen Ross.)) A TV studio crew squabbles endlessly as they try to stay to keep a news program on the air. A SWAT team raids a tenement building that is in desperate need of being quarantined but is held hostage by dirt-bag criminals. Rednecks in the sticks convene to have zombie-hunting parties. A ghostly gas station contains a family of zombies that sneak-up on the protagonists.

Considering that all of the settings in the film are found locations that have a verisimilitude to them, these vignettes add-up to portray a very recognizable society devolving into believable chaos. [1] If Night is more reflective of its time, Dawn extrapolates common fears of a large-scale, societal breakdown in a manner that still feels relevant to our postmodern, postindustrial way of life. And, for better or worse, this is what makes Dawn an index case of clichés, so much so that I wonder/worry if those who first became familiar with things like 28 Days or Months Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, World War Z, the Resident Evil franchise and The Walking Dead franchise would watch Dawn, considered it watered down and fail to see what’s the big deal. Romero’s zombie epic might just be a victim of its own influence.

What makes the macro-mayhem click on a micro level is the film’s editing, which is credited to Romero. Yes, there’s the elaborately gory make-up effects by Tom Savini, the story’s satirical edge and the effective/clever usage of real locations. But the piece de resistance or saving grace of many Romero films is their editing. As a young man Romero cut his teeth by shooting and editing industrial short films, commercials and even segments on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Despite any faults he may have as a director, the man has a well-honed understanding of montage. (See what I mean by watching the clip below.)

 

A part of this skill involves shooting enough coverage on set and, if they’re their own editor, a director has to be very good at knowing what to film so that things will come together properly in the editing room. Thus, it’s remarkable how Romero obviously wasn’t facile, indecisive or irresponsible in deciding what to shoot; almost every shot or edit is a well-timed piece in a mosaic. The movie really cooks as a result of the carefully thought-out footage and snappy cutting. There’s even expressionistic montage (i.e. the shooting of two zombie children near the beginning is conveyed pseudo-explicitly through rapid editing (similar to how a knife stabbing into flesh was conveyed in Psycho’s shower scene), not by crossing a line by actually showing children getting shot by an adult.)

Another notable aspect of Dawn is its mixture of tones. It’s violent, somber, suspenseful, fanciful (particularly in the sequences in which the protagonists go on a “shopping spree” a la Templeton at the fair in Charlotte’s Web), haunting (see the scene in which Roger finally transforms into zombie), deadpan, gung ho, legitimately epic, exciting and, yes, satirical. [2]

If there’s one major fault to Dawn, it’s that the acting is often amateurish, a problem that’s endemic to Romero’s body-of-work. I suspect that many of those who ghettoize his films are people who tend to hinge a film on the performances it features [3] as actors are almost always the audience’s primary source of connection. Fair enough. Yet, there have been notable performances in Romero films– see John Amplas’s work as the eponymous character in Martin—and I think that Foree and Reiniger’s performances in Dawn evokes a type of winking yet burdened machismo that would be at home in a Howard Hawks film. And who watches horror films expecting to see great acting anyway?

(Source: ThatFilmGuy.net)

(Source: ThatFilmGuy.net)

Nevertheless, Dawn can capture the imagination’s dark side and, like The Godfather Part II, it’s a sequel that builds upon and expands its precursor to the point of slightly overshadowing it. It’s a corpse-filled magnum opus that portrays the world becoming a darker, crueler and more complicated place. In other words, it’s reminiscent of adolescence, a stage of life in which blatant, adult truths reveal themselves to people who just got out of their prepubescent years as a result of hormones jump-starting.

Yet, Dawn can tell you something about life’s long-haul: even if you hole yourself up in a comfortable bubble that protects you from peril (i.e. an abandoned shopping mall), the chances that something will come along and displace your existence (i.e. a roving, pillaging motorcycle gang) are very high. And that’s okay, as a great thing about being a human either living or living-dead is that you can adapt and survive, and possibly with the help of a helicopter.

And if you die, you’ll be a meal. In that case, there’s nothing wrong with giving back.

 

[1] Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies covers much of the same pandemonic ground as Dawn. In fact ,it could be seen as a “dress rehearsal” film.

[2] Now I was reluctant to list “satirical” because I think the satire of Dawn—which is an ingenious commentary on things like gun culture, consumer culture and “culture wars”—is overemphasized by those who make a case for the movie’s greatness (i.e. horror fans who feel the need to un-malign the genre.) Yes, it’s a commendable aspect, but it isn’t easy to miss or in need of elucidation. It’s just one part of Dawn’s blunt, comic-book tapestry, and to highlight it just seems too cerebral and over-determined. This movie has brains, but it’s also based around creatures that consume them with gusto. (However, I will admit that Dawn’s satirization of consumer/mall culture did appeal to me as a faux-jaded teenager.)

[3] I doubly suspect that Danny Boyle, a very talented director of actors who disparaged Romero’s zombie films by deeming then as schlocky when promoting 28 Days Later, is one of these people.

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