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Non-Review Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

It’s strange. For all the huge cultural impact that George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead had (and it had quite a bit), people tend to focus quite a bit on the sequel, Dawn of the Dead. Perhaps it’s because the film is in colour, or because it features a far broader tapestry than Romero’s original zombie effort, or maybe it’s simply a better film, but the sequel is arguably every bit as well known (even to those who haven’t seen it) as the original – the idea of surviving a zombie apocalypse in an American shopping mall is one now etched on public consciousness (so much so that anywhere any survivor in any film ever seeks shelter is compared in some way to that mall) and even the damn elevator music has become famous in its own way. While I will concede the film is far more ambitious than its direct predecessor (and probably contributes more to the zombie mythos), I think it can also be argued that the film has far greater weaknesses as well.

Hope he's a dead shot...

To be honest, I regard this film as a classic of the genre. However, that comes with a caveat. I remember convincing the better half to see it with me at the annual “Horrorfest” at the Irish Film Institute some years ago – thinking perhaps the film would help her appreciate my affinity for cult films. It backfired spectacularly. While I had grown to love the film so much that I could see past the cheesy effects and the occasionally ropy acting to the wonderful indie filmmaking sensibilities at the core of the movie, she had a much harder time seeing past blood that was so red you could paint a fire truck with it, or corny lines delivered in a somewhat awkward style.

I argued that the relative simplicity of The Night of the Living Dead worked in its favour, and to some extent the ambition of this particular film works against it. I think Romero has some wonderfully potent things to say – both in addressing the social undertones implied by the ending of the first film (“those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing,” one character remarks of the local hunting parties who played a role in the climax of the first film) and carrying that over to the start of this one (we open on a raid on a ghetto). I’ll concede that sometimes Romero over-eggs his pudding (for example the racist-to-the-point-of-absurdity SWAT team member during the ghetto raid), but sometimes he hits the nail on the head (as in most of the commentary surrounding the shopping mall).

Most discussion on the film tends to be somewhat reductive, focusing on Romero’s commentary on unchecked consumerism, but that doesn’t do his work justice. Many overlook the film’s fairly vicious skewering of commercial television, which populates the first ten minutes or so (and recurs throughout the film). “All we get is what you people tell us,” one anchor insists to an ‘expert’. When it turns out that the station has “had old information up for twelve hours”, directing people to shelters that have already been overrun, the executive insists that they keep the data on the air. “People won’t watch us,” he explains – willing to sacrifice countless lives for ratings. 

And yet, despite the film’s lengthy prologue, what people always remember about the film is the shopping mall. Romero offers a fairly strong condemnation of consumer America. When asked to suggest why so many zombies are wandering and shuffling around a mall that doesn’t seem to have too much food for them, one character speculates, “Memory… Instinct… This was an important place in their lives.” Indeed, the zombies, traditionally capable of only rudimentary skills like bludgeoning, are able to pull off extraordinary complex examples of “remembered behaviour” within the shopping centre. 

The survivors themselves are little better. When faced with the task of clearing the mall and fortifying it, one declares, “Who cares? Let’s go shopping first!” Even after the fall of civilisation, it’s amazing how much of the routine of shopping remains for the survivors – they still follow the line barriers at the bank, even though there are no staff or patrons; they still filter beans and other goods through the device that charges for them, even though they will never have to pay for it. At one stage later in the film, a character is spotted attempting to rob a wallet from a zombies, even though there’s nothing left to buy or sell; another checks his blood pressure when surrounded by hordes of flesh-eating monsters (in a moment which seems more cheesy than relevant).

Dead excited...

As such, it’s a fascinating portrayal of what humanity keeps with us even as we come “down to the line”, and even if it’s not something we would consciously make an effort to keep. The mall is something of a paradise – it has everything they will ever need – and yet it’s still a prison. Despite the farce of attempting to live out a normal life, pretending that material goods still have value and that a display provides a fitting resting place for an undead colleague, the mall is still ultimately a prison. Here these characters may as well be dead – which almost begs the question of how much they were really “alive” before this apocalypse began.

Romero also takes the opportunity to broaden and deepen his undead mythology here. Though his original film seemed to endorse the idea that mysterious space radiation was responsible for the dead rising, here any number of possibilities are mooted – some rational and some not-so-rational. Everything from viral outbreaks to spiritual ideas are suggested. Indeed, the movie actually uses the word “zombie”, although in its original voodoo context. Discussing his grandmother’s spiritual beliefs, a character suggests (in a quote that would become the movie’s tagline – and perhaps the most iconic line of the series of films) that “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

The cheesier aspects of the production undermine it somewhat. Although the work of Tom Savani (who pops up here as a biker) was groundbreaking at the time, the make-up and practical effects have aged terribly. Sometimes it’s hard to take what’s unfolding on-screen seriously, and I can see why some film fans favour Zack Snyder’s remake – it feels like a much more serious film and one that is less likely to provoke awkward giggles from the audience. I acknowledge that perhaps Snyder’s film boasts far stronger production values and is more readily accessible to a wider audience, but I think Romero’s original deserves a great deal of respect from genuine genre fans (and I also believe that it repays that respect). I think it’s stupid to try to recommend one over the other – there’s enough time in life for a horror fan to see both.

Dawn of the Dead is (deservedly) a cult classic. I honestly don’t believe it holds up as well as its predecessor has, but I think the movie is smart enough to remain a consistently entertaining film regardless. Although The Night of the Living Dead created the zombie genre, Dawn of the Dead defined it – you can spot many of the gimmicks that would become the staple of the genre as they develop.

2 Responses

  1. I’m in the “This is the best zombie movie” camp for Dawn. Think the original’s nothing short of zombie perfection, but it also spawned arguably one of the best re-makes (zombie or not) in the balls-to-the-wall 2004 re-make.

    I think it’s success is in that it works as either a zombie film, or a social critique. Best of all, it works as both!

    • Yep. Do you know I can’t fing a R2 bluray of the remake? I wanted this to fill my Saturday or Sunday slot last week and couldn’t find it anywhere.

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