Monday, October 29, 2007
No More Room in Hell: Dawn of the Dead
So here we come to it: the second film in Romero’s series and my choice for the finest horror film ever made. DAWN OF THE DEAD is, if anything, more innovative and daring than the original film, pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a horror movie, forgoing the traditional buildup of suspense and shocks to tell a sprawling epic of a story that just happens to involve undead flesheaters from Hell. It’s a commentary on consumerism, a harrowing survival drama, a two-fisted action picture and an apocalyptic thriller. More than anything, it’s an experience, strangely immersive and intimate despite its scope. It has a power to it unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’ll try to explain.
Taking place presumably not long after the events of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD starts at a TV station reporting on the undead situation, which has gotten substantially worse. Rescue stations are being overrun, the station is broadcasting outdated information, and people are apparently not cooperating with the whole “incinerate your departed loved ones in a giant bonfire” directive. Two employees, Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Steven (David Emge), make plans to try and get out of the city using the station’s helicopter, while Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), a friend of theirs on a SWAT team, witnesses a rescue operation at a run-down apartment block turn into a massacre, and decides to run with them and Peter (Ken Foree), a fellow member of the force. They get out of the city headed north to Canada (where the situation is not as bad, presumably), but they instantly run into a scarcity of fuel and other supplies. They land the ‘copter on the roof of a shopping mall that’s full of the zombies, holing up in a Civil Defense shelter on the second floor. Roger and Peter make a more or less successful supply run on one of the department stores, and when Steven finds a map of air ducts they can use to get around, they start to get the idea that this might be a good place to stay for a while. Fran is reluctant at first, but ends up joining them in their plan to drive out the zombies and secure the mall as their fortress in the wilderness.
There’s a lot of gore in this film, and a lot of humor, a rare but not unprecedented combination for the time (and of course, doing horror as near-comedy dates at least as far back as 1935’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.) Released unrated for violence (back when that was still a viable release strategy), the film uses a healthy amount of gore to sell the threat of what’s basically a bunch of slow-moving people in gray facepaint (some of the zombies have more elaborate makeup by Tom Savini, who did the gore effects and also acts in the movie, but obviously the budget didn’t allow for everyone to get such attention.) In some ways, of course, there’s something innately fantastic about the idea of a mob of people taking random bites out of whomever falls into their clutches, and it’s the sort of thing we actually need to see to believe. The gore also helps control the tone; when they’re wandering on their own, the zombies are pitiable, almost comical, but when they start to feed things get serious again. There’s a point in the film where the creatures actually move into the background, and our attitudes to them change frequently. They’re not really the villains of the piece, as they’re just doing what comes to them, and we see plenty of examples of worse brutality inflicted by humans on our own kind (indeed, the first scene of graphic violence in the picture is a shootout with no zombies involved.)
What was unprecedented, or nearly so, for the time was the blending of horror elements with the conventions of an action picture. The zombies can be disposed of rather simply- either by destroying or severing the brain, which basically means aiming for the head- and the protagonists are well armed for what seems like the first time ever, and so the conquest of the mall involves heavy firepower and good strategic thinking. The action sequences are remarkable, staged with remarkable clarity and edited to precision by Romero himself, who cuts between shots from mostly static cameras to create a sort of comic-panel effect. Steven and Fran are explicitly no good with guns, but they try, and the protagonists overall come across as capable and competent, not making the obvious “horror movie character” mistakes that need to be made to advance the plot.
What complicates things for the characters is much more subtle. The film is a satire of consumerism, as many critics before me have pointed out, but apart from the obvious symbolism of mindless zombies wandering through a mall, there’s something more complex. The characters see the mall as a shelter, and conquer it not only for the resources but for the chance at a safe and even luxurious life. The apparent security of the lifestyle it offers distracts them (and even us) from the threat posed by the monsters at the door, and they become almost trapped within their fortress. The safety offered by the mall is ultimately an illusion, one which threatens to destroy them. But the film doesn’t look down on the characters and their desire; this isn’t the kind of emotionally distant satire that invites us to laugh at the victims of consumer culture. We understand and empathize with their need to feel safe and secure, and who doesn’t want to live well? Don’t the survivors of a zombie apocalypse deserve something? The characters’ sin is simply in mistaking their environment for a safe one; the sheen of the consumer lifestyle covers up just how thin the barrier is between civilization and savagery. At the risk of getting political, I’d say this holds true today.
Of course, the use of the mall as a setting also makes this a horror film taking place right smack dab in Middle Class America, moreso even than the suburban slashers of the same period. There’s something very authentic about the world of this film, something so immediate that it may capture the Seventies better than any other film of the decade. The film even uses contemporary distrust of the government to explain why things are breaking apart- the scientists and advisors who go on TV to tell people what to do no longer have any credibility, and not even the journalists on air with them believe what they have to say, even if they happen to be right. This goes back to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s distinction between being right and actually getting something useful done, the latter requiring that you make yourself understood to others. This could be a whole essay in itself (as well as the recurrence of shelter as a theme in all the movies), so I’ll wrap up.
DAWN OF THE DEAD is many things at once- funny, thrilling, sad, and thought-provoking. More than anything, though, it gives us a connection with its central characters and makes the viewer a partner in their travails. There’s something inherently distancing about a lot of horror- we know the characters are there to be put through Hell and resist going there with them- and overcoming that is the central challenge of most films in the genre. DAWN OF THE DEAD, by eschewing the obvious trappings and feel of the genre to simply tell the story, becomes more real and more engrossing than any entry before or since. It’s a masterpiece both of its genre and of cinema in general, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
Written and Directed by George A. Romero