Written and Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."
Dawn of the Dead boasts one of the most iconic posters ever made. Bearing a bloodied zombie head set against an evocative purple backdrop and that immortal, evocative tagline, it’s an image that’s been seared into any horror hound’s brain. And yet, it’s not what graced the Thorn-EMI VHS that haunted video stores for a good decade, as it traded out that iconic image for a spoiler-filled still from the film itself, dropping both the tagline and any association to Night of the Living Dead in the process. In hindsight, it’s a wonder I ever plucked it from the shelf—I assume it must have been because the title would have surely popped up in Fango in whatnot, plus I’d like to give my younger self some benefit of the doubt in terms of putting two and two together and figuring out this was a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Plus, you know, fucking zombies, man—never underestimate the power of the living dead (and gore) on a pre-teen mind.
Of course, like all of Romero’s Dead films, Dawn would have been much more impressive than my younger self could fully comprehend, even if it did deliver more than enough zombies and gore. I wouldn’t have really understood it, but it was hardly considered a disappointment since, at its most base level, it functions as the best zombie movie of all-time. Forgetting for a moment the potent social commentary and its nihilist streak, Dawn of the Dead feels something like an adaptation of a long-lost zombie comic book, what with its garish, painterly splatter and its action movie sensibilities. As a follow-up, it’s the platonic ideal of a sequel, as it escalates its predecessor into something more epic without betraying it in the slightest. One of the best compliments I can pay Dawn of the Dead is that it’s a perfect complement to Romero’s groundbreaking original: we can debate all day about which is “better,” but the fact that compelling arguments can be made either way speaks volumes.
Not that there’s much room for debate when it comes to Dawn of the Dead. Rightfully hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, it resonates at any age, whether you’re craving mindless gore or incisive social commentary. When I was younger, I was naturally drawn to Tom Savini’s radical gore, perpetrated here by screwdrivers, shotguns, machetes, and even helicopter propellers. A wicked assortment of the undead shambles throughout the eerily emptied out husk of the Monroeville Mall, some of them sporting indelible, iconic designs that are inseparable from the film itself. In keeping with the comic book aesthetic, they’re a colorful bunch, drained of life but not so much so that they don’t retain some sense of four-color vibrancy—it’s a far cry from the spooky ghouls from Night, but it just feels right, especially to a kid that was just looking for a cool zombie movie. Dawn was not the first splatter film to unfold on my ratty 13-inch TV, but it may have been the first do so with some sense of artistry, paving the way for my appreciation for the likes of Argento in Fulci later on.
By the time I revisited Dawn during those teenage years—via Anchor Bay’s Divimax DVD release, the one that preceded the legendary 4-disc ultimate edition by about 4 months*--I started to recognize just what Romero had accomplished with this “cool zombie movie.” Suddenly, its mall setting felt less like an indulgent fantasy and more like a vehicle for Romero to smuggle in his satirical observations about human nature. Here were these mindless creatures descending on a mall, drawn by their latent desire to consume: even in death, we can’t help but to succumb to a herd mentality, a notion that prompts the audience to consider just how far removed we are from this soulless horde. Likewise, revisiting both this and other Dead films made it difficult to miss Romero’s searing nihilist streak: while the characters in Dawn don’t spend the majority of the runtime squabbling with each other, they’re nonetheless undone by their fellow humans when a band of bikers descends upon the mall, ushering in total chaos to what was some semblance of an existence.
But what kind of existence is it, really? Upon my most recent revisit—unfortunately prompted by Romero’s passing—it occurred to me that Dawn of the Dead is even more bleak and complex than I recalled. For years, I’ve considered Day to be the most pessimistic of the original Dead trilogy, but those seeds were surely planted in Dawn, a film that sees a group of survivors eking out a sham of an existence, pushing on in spite of the apocalypse unfolding around them. Long stretches of the film feel utterly futile, as this quartet shacks up in the mall, trying to convince themselves that life can go on even as hell opens up around them. Fran (Gaylen Ross) marks the days off on her calendar, a visual Romero would return to in Day to further reinforce how absurd it is to carry on in such a way. Romero certainly points to that direction here: at times, you can’t help but note the irony of these four commenting on the undead’s inexplicable urge to return to the mall. After all, here they are indulging consumerist desires themselves by looting the place and even swiping cash that’s surely useless now. Perhaps they understand that impulse to return to the mall far better than they let on when judging their undead counterparts.
In many ways, this is what Dawn of the Dead seems to really be “about” now that I’m older: a group of frantic people working their way through the apocalypse, hitting every stage of grief along the way. It starts with denial, as Fran and Stephen (David Emge) work on a news production trying to document this unfathomable event and account for it in some way. Both frantic explanations and ominous warnings are being sent out to the airwaves—none of this can really be happening, can it? Of course the natural impulse is to turn to the god in the machine and put it on television, as if it could somehow make sense of it all. This opening scene might be the most frightening vision of the apocalypse ever put on film, as Romero’s frantic cutting creates an agitated busyness, giving the impression that we’re watching a world fall apart before our eyes, and everyone’s helpless to stop it. “Our responsibility here is done,” one camera operator insists, essentially speaking for an entire civilization on the brink.
Something resembling anger guides the next scene, which introduces Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), a couple members of a SWAT team assigned to evacuate a housing project whose tenants have refused to leave. One of their colleagues has clearly lost his mind, his rage having boiled over to a palpable, wild-eyed insistence on blowing the place to hell since it’s only crawling with minorities anyway. Certainly, Romero’s own anger is obvious here, as he expounds upon the bleak climax of Night, where a vigilante posse gunned down a black man and callously tossed him onto a pile of the undead. Here, an entire building of brown people is ruthlessly assaulted in a sequence that feels all too relevant. One just needs to watch this vile, unflinching scene and consider the headlines of police brutality that continue to unfold in order to realize Romero had his finger right on the pulse of a racial unrest that still haunt us today.
Those opening two sequences seem to signal an unrelentingly desolate descent into this crumbling hellscape, and the first fifty minutes or so thrive on a frantic, nervous energy as the characters search for some sense of direction. One might argue that Romero’s screenplay is in search of the same, but I love the free-flowing naturalism of Dawn, a film where the apocalypse doesn’t follow a tight script. When they take off in a news helicopter, these characters have no plan in mind other than procuring enough gas so that they can stay on the move. Stopping at the mall only becomes a consideration when they happen to fly over it and decide it would be the ideal place to ride out whatever the hell is happening around them. Something about that just feels right, and it might be Romero’s most unsettling insinuation: deep down, none of us would really know what to do, leaving us to the whims of happenstance.
However, Romero also realizes mankind has a certain defense mechanism that enables them to soldier on, no matter how absurd it might be. In Dawn, that manifests itself during the stretch that finds the characters settling into the mall, essentially bargaining with fate for a chance at having some kind of decent existence. For a while, fate obliges, and Romero’s bleak tone lifts in favor of something remarkably lighter, if not sillier: even as these four have to scavenge for items, their encounters with the undead feel more like an inconvenience than the end of the world. You almost begin to believe that these four will make it out unscathed as they gamble and have candlelight dinners. Romero essentially disarms the audience here, setting them up for the inevitable realization that none of this can possibly last.
That realization—which ushers in the depression phase—arrives with a slow sense of dread. Days, weeks, and possibly even months pass, with the four doing what they can to fend off the encroaching catastrophe. It proves to be futile: first, Roger succumbs to a zombie bite and has to have his brains blown out upon his brief introduction. If that weren’t enough, it also becomes increasingly clear that the world at large is also disintegrating even further. In one of the film’s more somber, poignant moments, Fran realizes it’s all really over once the television ceases any broadcasts, effectively closing the loop started in the film’s opening scene. All the denial, anger, and bargaining in the world won’t save them now, especially once the biker gang assaults this gilded, consumerist fortress. What remains is depression and despair, particularly for Peter, who briefly contemplates suicide as the undead swarm around him.
In a rare triumphant moment for this trilogy, Peter refuses to let the apocalypse win. While he has no idea where he and Fran will possibly go, what’s important is that they do go. Having finally accepted their fate, they endure in spite of a catastrophic, undead plague. The climactic moment here stands in dark contrast to that grim ending in Night, hinting that Romero has the tiniest bit of optimism after all, even if he would all but snuff that out with the suffocating nihilism of Day. After watching this film for the first time in a few years, it strikes me that Romero captures the gamut of the human experience here. I would hesitate to call it an allegory, but Dawn of the Dead is (perhaps ironically) one of the great human films in its observations on how we process and push through moments of crisis. Even if we don’t always do it with grace, we do endure.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really had that takeaway with Dawn of the Dead before, and it speaks to the power of Romero’s genius that a comfort food film like this continues to challenge and reveal new layers of complexity. At this point, it’s not exactly a grand statement to insist that this is more than just a zombie movie; however, what’s really astounding is that all of us have different stories and experiences with this (and other) Romero films. That was what so remarkable about his genius: one person might highlight the ahead-of-its-time representation in his films, which often featured women and people-of-color at the forefront (Dawn has both, and Fran notably refuses to “play den mother”). Another person might point to the dark, wry wit that often turned these genre films into biting satires on the human condition. Yet another could rightfully delight in just how entertaining these films are, and Dawn of the Dead is arguably the pinnacle of this triumph. Not only is it one of Romero’s most perceptive films about human nature, but I’m pretty sure it’s the only one where you can watch someone’s arm get ripped right off in a blood pressure machine.
*Obviously, there’s a twisted irony to a company coaxing me into buying multiple copies (I’m up to 4) of a movie that doubles as a wry takedown of consumerism.
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