Romero Retrospective: Dawn of the Dead

I hope that everyone was able to spend a peaceful and pleasant Ostara this past weekend during the time of the Vernal Equinox, and enjoy the rare “supermoon” that was visible as well.  More than a week has passed since the tragic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated the northern regions of Japan’s main island, and the death toll continues to rise.  While the path toward recovery will be a long and slow one, I would venture to say that things have been improving slowly but steadily, and I would like to thank all of those who expressed concern for my wellbeing amidst fears of aftershocks and the worsening situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  I am safe and sound, and working to do my own small part in supporting my current country of residence in this time of crisis. 

In more pleasant news, my review of Yoshihiro Nishimura‘s zombie opus, Helldriver, has been featured on La Carmina’s blog!  Also noteworthy is her sneak peek at one the latest horror flicks to come crawling out of Korea, I Saw the Devil.  Check it out here!

And now, it is time to move on to the second part of my blood-soaked stroll down memory lane with the zombie master himself, George A. Romero.  This time I look back on what is, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, quite possibly the greatest zombie film of all time: Dawn of the Dead (1978).  Like Night of the Living Dead before it, Dawn is a giant among genre films, holding its ground in lists of all-time great classics of cinema, both horror and otherwise.  For anyone who has only seen the subpar remake, this is where the ghoulish greatness began.  This is where Romero truly came into his own as a filmmaker and the movie stands gangrenous head and bloody shoulders above the competition.

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth…

The Good

This section is difficult for me to approach, considering that nearly everything about this film is either generally praiseworthy, or somehow raised the standard for nearly every movie to follow it in the genre.  As such, I’ll simply start out on a more personal note.  Dawn of the Dead weaves the tale of a ragtag band of survivors who attempt to escape the mayhem of a zombie apocalypse by seeking shelter in what is the very epitome of the decadent consumerist culture that has collapsed around them: a shopping mall.  And not merely any shopping mall, but the Monroeville Mall, located right outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Having spent my childhood in central Pennsylvania and my college years at the University of Pittsburgh (rival school to Romero’s alma mater, Carnegie Mellon), looking back at Romero’s earlier films is always an exercise in nostalgia.  While the filming was conducted almost entirely in the environs of Pittsburgh, the story follows the four survivors from a news station in Philadelphia all the way to the Steel City, with a brief interlude to observe a group of redneck zombie hunters and military personnel outside of Johnstown treating the entire invasion of living dead as a big lark. 

But back to the shopping center.  The Monroeville Mall was always one of my favorite haunts in my student days for many reasons, not the least of which is its history as the site of Romero’s landmark film.  While little of the interior remains unchanged, there are still locations that you can attach to particular scenes, and it is the site of a regular zombie walk that has challenged (and broken) Guinness World Records for most zombies in a single place.  The mall is essentially a character in and of itself, simultaneously representing both the excess of a consumer society and the crushing emptiness of gratuitous materialism.  What Stephen (David Emge), Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott Reiniger), and Fran (Gaylen Ross) initially see as a utopian cornucopia of consumer delights, ultimately proves to be a dismal prison and, for half of their number, a tomb.  If Night of the Living Dead was an exposition of the anger and rebellion of the late sixties in the face of the Vietnam War, Dawn of the Dead sinks its satirical teeth into the mindless materialism of the late seventies. 

However, departing from the general atmosphere of its predecessor, Dawn is not a portrait of stark realism from start to finish.  The characters are lively and often humorous, and no matter how many times I watch this film, I find myself falling in love with them all over again.  Strong characterization is something that Romero is often credited for, and I believe that much of this owes to the fact that the man has always been known to be an “actor’s director.”  George often writes parts with the strengths of particular friends or acquaintances in mind, and he has always been open to suggestions from his cast and crew.  Ad libs and from-the-hip dialogue spice up the film and make each of its characters real and interesting.  I find myself smiling and sometimes moved nearly to tears in spite of myself every time I watch this film.  The bond between Peter and Roger grows, and is cut tragically short; “Flyboy” Stephen begins as an unreliable yet well-meaning pilot, who eventually develops as a person too, but falls victim to self-complacency and raw emotions in the end.  Fran, the only woman of the group, gives a poignant portrayal of a woman struggling to be seen as an equal, stalwartly bearing the hope for humanity’s future in her womb.

Aside from the sympathetic characters, a very blatant amount of silliness pervades certain portions of the film.  The comic effect of zombies lumbering about the corridors of the shopping center in vain imitation of their previous lives is enhanced in some scenes by a lilting polka-style score that echoes from the mall’s speakers.  When the motorcycle-riding gang of raiders finally breaks into the idyllic manmade paradise, the slapstick goes into full swing as some of the bikers grab pies and smash them into the faces of the walking dead, later spraying them down with seltzer water for good measure.  Such humor is certainly needed, and serves as a balancing counterpoint in a film that is brimming with decapitations, torn flesh, spraying blood, gory entrails, and exploding heads.

I mentioned the music above, and it is worth noting again.  While Romero’s US theatrical cut featured a great deal of stock music that, while effective, was not nearly as impressive as the European version.  When Italian director Dario Argento (Suspiria, Phenomena) heard about Romero’s plan for a sequel to NOTLD, he was on board from the get-go, inviting Romero to Rome to write the film and serving as script consultant as well.  Among his vast contributions to the film, it was his nearly limitless rights to edit the film for international audiences that brought about the cut that is most often referred to as the “European Version” (under the title Zombi).  By using excellent music from Italian band Goblin and his own compositions for a larger portion of the film, and also cutting down on some extraneous scenes to tighten up the pacing, Argento created what I believe to be a version of the film that is superior to the US theatrical cut or extended versions.   Each take has its own particular charm however, and I recommend viewing all of them for the full experience of this masterpiece.  The three most common versions of the film were collected about seven years ago in the Saturn Award-winning Ultimate Edition DVD box set.

The Bad(?)

Once again I find myself rather stymied to produce any negative things to say about this film.  While not commonly leveled against this particular work, one often finds criticism of horror movies with “happy endings.”  In fact, George A. Romero initially had a different ending in mind.  With the raiders gone but the zombies closing in fast, Peter puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger.  Meanwhile Fran, about to escape via helicopter from the rooftop, finally despairs of life in the face of the ghoulish horde and pushes her own head into the whirling propeller blades.  The credits were to feature the sound of the propellers losing power and eventually stopping entirely, cluing the audience in to the fact that their plight was hopeless from the start. 

This ending apparently existed fairly far into the production stage, as a cast was made of Fran’s head for the effect, but was eventually remodeled and blasted with a shotgun slug for one of the film’s more shocking sequences earlier on.  Personally, I don’t count this decision as a negative one, but I place it here as one of the aspects of the film that may be subject to criticism as a horror film.

Another slightly controversial issue is that of the zombies who, while certainly an improvement from the previous film, still left something to be desired in terms of realism and their “fright factor.”

The Undead

What’s…blue…with your faaace!?!  Okay, let me begin by saying that Dawn has some of the most memorable ghouls in zombie history.  Who could forget the lovable antics of the bespectacled Hare Krishna Zombie?   Or the delightfully mindless ambulation of the Nurse Zombie?  Or the heartfelt, doleful expression of the…Bach’s Arco Pitcairn Zombie?  Special effects makeup artist Tom Savini (who was initially called in for Night before being drafted for Vietnam) truly deserves a lot of credit for creating truly unique ghouls and upping the ante for grotesque effects at the time.  Savini even appears in the film as a biker fond of his machete, a role he later reprised in revivified form in Land of the Dead (2005).

The sheer number of zombies, however, must have contributed to a general spreading out of the makeup used on them, with many ending up as simple gray- or blue-tinted faces with some superficial wounds.  In particular, these “blue zombies” (no relation to the Blue Man Group) were outspokenly criticized by the cast and crew of Zombi 2 (Lucio Fulci, 1979), who are often very quick to quell any suggestions that the film was a rip-off and hint that theirs was a more “genuine” zombie film.  Also, the Technicolor blood (which looks like it came from a child’s finger-painting set) was originally rejected by Savini, but embraced by Romero as adding a more “comic book” feel to the film.  The best makeup effects in Dawn were probably used for the dramatic resurrection of Roger, and his particularly look became more of the norm for ghouls in Day of the Dead (1985).

Despite such minor complaints, the general appearance of the living dead and gore lend what has been called a “dreamlike” atmosphere to the film, and I certainly agree.  Those effects have become an integral part of Romero’s epic, and serve to set it apart from other releases of the time.

And so, in conclusion, all I can say is: Watch this film.  If you’ve only seen one of the three major versions, check out the other cuts.  It will be like discovering new rooms in a familiar old house, and I guarantee that the experience will be rewarding.  If you have only seen the remake, then get thee to Netflix or other viewing mode of choice, as the “reimagining” loses out to the original in every aspect except for its overinflated budget.  If you have seen it, you might think about giving it another view, or sharing it with that friend who liked Shaun of the Dead but never saw any other zombie flicks.  The film still looks fantastic today, and its social commentary was ahead of its time, going to show you that sometimes you simply can’t keep a good zombie down.

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