by Mel Valentin
"Dawn of the Dead," the middle film in George A. Romero’s back-from-the-dead-hungry-for-human flesh/undead trilogy (correction, trilogy plus one, with the recent release of the moderately disappointing "Land of the Dead"), is the rare horror film acknowledged as a "classic" of a much-maligned genre by horror fans, critics, and even academics. With his stark, uncompromising, ultimately bleak, reimagining of the undead mythos in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead," George A. Romero created a benchmark of the undead sub-genre, one that's heavily influenced or inspired almost every other undead film that followed (quite an accomplishment for a little-known, Pittsburgh-area filmmaker who cut his teeth on instructional films).Night of the Living Dead’s origins can be traced back to Richard Matheson’s 1954 post-apocalyptic science fiction/horror novel, I Am Legend. In I Am Legend, the world has been decimated by a bacterial plague. Those who manage to survive the plague are turned into semi-catatonic vampires, with the central character, barricaded inside his fortified, the only non-infected survivor struggling to survive in a vastly changed world. As a side note, I Am Legend has been filmed twice, first faithfully as The Last Man on Earth in 1964 with a hammy Vincent Price as the protagonist and more loosely as The Omega Man in 1971 with an overacting Charlton Heston in the central role. As of this writing, a third adaptation is in development (and has been for several years).
"Seminal horror by an underappreciated master of the genre."
Like Matheson’s vampires, Romero’s undead hordes are motivated by blind instinct to feed on the living. Filmed in black-and-white on a shoestring budget with a non-professional or inexperienced cast, Night of the Living Dead reflected Romero’s profound skepticism and cynicism toward American culture and society, circa 1968. Under duress from the hordes of undead ravaging the countryside, a handful of survivors hole up inside a Pennsylvania farmhouse only to splinter into warring camps. Without cooperation, survival seems unlikely. And even when a glimmer of hope resurfaces, Romero cruelly snuffs out that hope in a casual act of racially motivated violence that’s as disturbing today as it was in 1968. The undead may have descended to the level of blind instinct, but the real threat is closer to home.
Less than ten years later, Romero returned to the sub-genre he helped shape in large part at the behest of his producers (and the disappointing box office returns for his post-Night of the Living Dead films). Romero could have easily delivered a gore-filled, context- and subtext-free sequel to audiences eager for a return of the undead, this time in color. Instead, Romero, armed with a modest budget that limited sets, set ups, and production crew (which resulted in a noticeable amount of continuity errors and gaffes), delivered a subtext-filled horror film that reflects the paranoia, fears, and anxieties of a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, an America Romero saw critically, as progressive movements faded into obsolescence and mass consumerism replaced political and social engagement.
Like Night of the Living Dead, Romero puts multiple characters under extreme duress, but before Romero takes his audience to the single-set location, a shopping mall where most of the film’s action takes place, he carefully establishes a rapidly deteriorating world, with the undead in the ascendancy, and an almost complete breakdown in the social order or the social contract. Social Darwinism becomes the norm, survival, if not of the fittest, then of those with the most firepower. As Dawn of the Dead opens, the camera tracks back from a thick red carpet, tilting on its side to reveal a sleeping woman. The carpet is actually soundproofing, and the woman, Francine (Gaylen Ross), is a local television producer pondering the end of her world. Her boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge), is a helicopter pilot who suggests they flee the city to the countryside, where, presumably, the ratio of living to undead is more favorable.
Dawn of the Dead then segues into introducing the two other central characters, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), members of a SWAT team tasked with taking a recalcitrant apartment building. Echoing Vietnam and the destruction of Vietnamese villages, the SWAT team descends on the apartment building, firing haphazardly, killing both the human occupants (all minorities) and their undead counterparts. Rather than destroying their undead family members or friends, the apartment dwellers keep the undead caged in the building’s cellar. What follows is predictable, if nonetheless harrowing, a bloodbath. The end result leaves both Peter and Roger shaken. Both men decide to go AWOL. As it turns out, Roger has a friend, a helicopter pilot, who might be of help.
The four characters meet up, and leave the ravaged city (presumably Philadelphia) for the Pennsylvania. From the sky, they spot a group of rednecks, hunting the undead for sport (a scene that connects Dawn of the Dead with the final scene in its predecessor). The group discovers an abandoned shopping mall, empty of human inhabitants, but full of the undead. As Stephen informs his friends, a fragment of memory draws the undead to the shopping mall, due to the importance of the shopping mall to their lives. Deciding to stay for an unspecified amount of time, the characters decide to clean out the shopping mall, which requires placing themselves in direct danger. The zombies might be slow, but they travel in large groups, and acting as a collective, are extremely powerful.
What follows, of course, is the execution of their plan to take over the mall, followed by one significant reversal for one character, a giddy sense of excitement at their accomplishment (tinged with sadness at the impending loss of one of their own), and, despite the film’s reputation for violence, one of the most harrowing films in a horror film, as one of the characters is faced with executing his newly resurrected friend. Tellingly, Romero cuts away at the last second, leaving viewers to create the visual image to accompany a single gunshot. But the survivors have paid a higher price, one of their own making: they’ve created a prison for themselves. Escape elsewhere seems futile, pointless, but remaining at the mall indefinitely leads to ennui, strain, and eventually, hopelessness. The hungry undead, milling outside, waiting for their chance to reenter the mall, the self-imprisoned survivors inside. This impasse, of course, is broken by the arrival of another, unexpected group or force, leading to a second bloodbath that bookends Dawn of the Dead.
Much has been and will continue to be made about the gore-filled, blood-drenched violence in Dawn of the Dead, an overabundance of undead-on-human, human-on-undead, and human-on-human violence. Romero’s refusal to trim the violence from his film resulted in the then unprecedented step of releasing Dawn of the Dead in an unrated version. Contemporary audiences, however, might raise a quizzical eyebrow or two. Certainly, Dawn of the Dead has multiple scenes of violence, including decapitations, dismemberments, and disembowelment, but the makeup effects (by Tom Savini, a Vietnam veteran/medic who brought real-world expertise to his makeup effects work) is risibly dated, undermining, at least to some extent, the emotional charge that once “realistic” gore brought to viewers in the late 70s. Then there's the wildly off-kilter score, partly scored by Dario Argento, an Italian horror director and close friend of Romero's, and partly lifted from library music (there's an A-Team-like snippet of music used several times that, when heard, will take most viewers out of the film).For viewers who saw "Dawn of the Dead" during its initial theatrical run or soon thereafter on home video, Romero’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by the undead had a visceral, long-lasting impact found in few horror films then or since (and essentially made any sequels or similarly set films all but redundant). As for George A. Romero, the next film in the series, "Day of the Dead," proved that you can only return to the same source material and ideas so many times before the quality of your work suffers.
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originally posted: 07/16/05 09:15:37