So, here we are yet again, scare addicts! It's that time of year when I talk about a movie that took a sizable chunk outta my sanity as an impressionable yoot!
In past chapters I've talked about some of the scariest fright flicks ever made, including An American Werewolf in London, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead and The Shining.
"Mr. Romero now has color, and blood is gorier in color. Mr. Romero has never been one to eschew physical grue. Characters have the tops of their heads blown off in graphic closeup. Bolstered by larger budgets, Mr. Romero doesn't always resist the temptation to indulge himself, and is danger of overstatement as far as his moral message is concerned."
After pressing "PLAY", I watched with dread as the movie began with a television station in turmoil. Nothing directly ties Dawn to its predecessor, but I like to think that this flick continues the story started in Night of the Living Dead...and the zombie plague has gotten a helluva lot worse.
Something else worth noting at this point is the film's production design, or lack thereof. Dawn of the Dead wasn't shot on some hermetically-sealed, pre-constructed back-lot set that was made to look grungy. Nope, Romero went out, found the gnarliest, most dilapidated, run down, filthy apartment building he could find and then just started crankin' the camera. Between the vile setting and Michael Gornick's sickly-looking cinematography, Dawn of the Dead actually looks like it smells bad. In fact, to paraphrase my recent review of Terrifier, this movie looks like it was shot in "Smell-O-Vision" and the knob got permanently stuck on the "Devil's Anus" setting.
As Flyboy aimed his rifle at the encroaching ghoul, I knew that he'd never owned a Daisy air rifle as a kid since he'd clearly never been exposed to even the most basic gun safety rules. His shot missed the zombie and nearly hit Peter, requiring a timely intervention from crack shot Roger.
Roger: It looks like a shopping center, one of those big, indoor malls
Fran: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.
Fun fact: after you watch Dawn of the Dead you'll never look at shoppers in a mall around the Christmas season the same way again.
As the characters first ventured inside, I was really impressed by how well the movie used the mall as a location. Sometimes it felt as if Romero was shooting the flick in real time as the actors explored their surroundings. At one point the lights, animated displays and the incongruous muzak got turned on, leading to yet another funny tonal shift. I even found myself chuckling as Romero juxtaposed more over-the-top gore with scenes of zombies bumping into one another on the escalators and tumbling over the railing and into the fountain.
Between shooting in color, the on-set lighting, the film stock used, and the sheer number of zombies that were needed, Savini's plan to shellac the background performers in a flat grey hue kinda backfired since it ended up photographing blueish-green. But considering the film's budget and time constraints, I find it easy to suspend disbelief and just go with it.
I also noticed that the blood in the film didn't really look like blood at all. I didn't know it at the time, but the egg tempera candy apple red gore used on-set was actually mass-produced by the 3M corporation. When the dailies started to come in, Tom told George that he hated the color of the blood, but George thought it was reminiscent of the EC Comics of his childhood and they decided to just roll with it.
After Peter and Roger took off to look for supplies, I felt a rush of anger as Stephen charged after them, effectively leaving Fran to her own devices. With everyone running riot around the mall, a Hari Krishna zombie slipped into the stairwell, leading to a legitimately creepy scene where he menaces Fran. Mercifully she managed to hold the l'il undead bastard at bay long enough for the guys to get back and help her.
Wow, and you though Hari Krishna's were pushy in real life!
This brings me to actress Gaylen Ross and the character of Fran. Compared to the shell-shocked Barbra in Night of the Living Dead, Fran is practically Ellen freakin' Ripley. Sadly, she's also kinda useless at the start of the film, leaving Stephen to fend for himself during the airport attack and then retreating from the Hari Krishna zombie quicker than if it was alive. But the good news is, Fran does have an arc. She starts out about as valuable as a screen door on a submarine but by the end of it, she can handle herself quite well.
Nowadays you'd probably get criticized for showing a female character experience any sort of courage or competency struggle *cough, cough* Rey in Star Wars *cough, cough* but, in my humble opinion, that isn't realistic either. Hey, I'm big enough to admit that, if I was faced with what Fran had to deal with in Dawn of the Dead, I'd probably be the first one to go "full Barbra" on my fellow survivors.
It's then revealed that Fran isn't at the top of her game because she's got a bun in the oven, prompting this bizarre exchange between Peter and Stephen:
Peter: Do you want to get rid of it?
Peter: Do you want to abort it? It's not too late...and I know how.
When I heard this I thought to myself: 'How the hell does Peter know how to abort a baby?!? Is he just gonna boot her in the stomach?!?' As a good Catlick boy, hearing this casually-thrown-out line was more shocking than some of the gore effects. This leads me to another point: sometimes George Romero's dialogue is pretty tin-eared.
Anyhoo, back to what was happening on screen. I was really enjoying how every part of the plan to seal off and then secure the mall was being documented in loving detail. It was almost as if Romero and company were providing a real zombie apocalypse visual survival guide. But every time Peter and Roger haphazardly tore-ass through the parking lot with another set of trucks, I couldn't help but wince. To this day, I'm stunned that no one was killed while making the film.
I felt myself growing increasingly nervous as Roger's overconfidence started to get the best of him. He let his guard down at one point and got chomped on both the arm and the leg. Now, you gotta understand the context here. This was very likely only the second or third movie I'd ever seen that featured zombies. The concept of a dead body being reanimated, walking around and spreading its infection by biting other people was nebulous, mysterious and decidedly vile.
Notwithstanding the compelling visual evidence that at least a baker's dozen aspiring stuntmen were maimed or killed during this scene, the chaos was palpable. A lot of the gore is incidental; such as the throwaway moment where a zombie gets run over, stands back up, ripping his own arm off in the process, and then continued to attack the truck. Again, going back to the golden zombie rule: these things weren't dropped until the creature's nexus of animation, the brain, was destroyed. Needless to say, the implications for this rule is a gore hound's wet dream.
Eventually Peter, Roger, Stephen and Fran managed to put all of the zombies down and life slowly started to return to some semblance of normalcy. For one brief shining moment we got a chance to breathe a sigh of relief. But even then, the ever-present sound of the zombies pawing away at the mall's entrance doors was a constant reminder that a tsunami of death and chaos was lurking just outside, seeking to find and exploit a single crack in their defenses.
This led to the movie's most iconic scene where our Fantastic Four are standing together up on the top floor of the mall, looking down and listening to the slathering horde pounding and clawing away outside. Even though Romero's dialogue can falter at times, it's bone-chillingly effective in this sequence:
Fran: They're still here.
Stephen: They're after us. They know we're still in here.
Peter: They're after the place. They don't know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.
Francine Parker: What the hell are they?
Peter: They're us, that's all, when there's no more room in hell.
Peter: Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Voodoo? My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth."
Like all the best campfire tales, Ken Foree's accomplished delivery sent chills down my spine and prompted me to seek comfort in a...well, a comforter that was lying on the couch. I bundled myself up, steeled my nerves and kept watching.
This dire speech was immediately re-enforced by poor Roger finally succumbing to his zombie bites. Between Scott Reiniger's stirring performance and the eerie musical cues, it was really, really hard to watch. Especially as Roger's corpse started to stir under the sheet and sit up, eventually revealing yet another classic Tom Savini makeup job.
But no, here we get Richard France, yet another gloriously-distinctive weirdo that Romero loves to cast in his movies. I immediately fell in love with this guy. Thanks to his deep, baritone voice, matter-of-fact delivery, strange mannerisms and absolute certainty in delivering the script's whack-a-do lines, he effortlessly commanded every single scene that he was featured in. Plus, I admired his penchant for screaming "DUMMIES!!! DUMMIES!!! DUMMIES!!!" over and over again.
What followed over the next thirty minutes could only be described as an orgy of blood and mayhem. After getting past the barriers, the invaders drove their bikes en masse right through the mall and then started to pillage everything. Witnessing the looters snatch up property that he thought now belonged to them, Stephen snapped and started sniping away at them.
During the ensuing chaos, I was witness to approximately one-hojillion explosive blood squibs, a multitude of hacked-off limbs, decapitations and at least one nauseatingly-realistic disembowelment. Presiding over this insanity was a gleefully-anarchic Tom Savini, providing the gore effects behind the scene and inhabiting the role of lead-biker Blades. Witness the scene where he buries a machete in the head of one of the zombies, resulting in the iconic third still at the beginning of this entry.
Re-watching the film, I'm stunned that they managed to make the place presentable every day, what with cars and motorcycles ripping around, mannequins being run over and gore flying everywhere. I've always wondered if any casual shoppers ever slipped in an errant patch of blood in the sporting goods section of JC Penny or noticed a random ear stuck to the inside of the photo booth.
Whereas the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake featured the fast-moving zombies which were de rigueur at the time, I still maintain that Romero's shambling ghouls are much more interesting. Eschewing the fantasy logic that re-animated dead bodies shouldn't even be physically capable of sprinting around like Usain Bolt, the shufflers really lull you into a false sense of security. They may be clumsy and inherently pathetic, but if you aren't paying attention and they come at you in a clutch you can find yourself proper fucked without much ado.
By the time the pie scene rolled around, I really didn't know what to think. I remember having a really hard time reconciling the violence with the humor. Towards the end, Dawn of the Dead is like a live-action Road Runner cartoon where Wild E. Coyote's resulting wounds are realistically and clinically depicted by a crazy former Vietnam combat photographer cum supremely-talented makeup artist. I didn't know if I should laugh, scream, cry or projectile-vomit onto the television screen.
As the zombies began to overwhelm the bikers, something happened that made absolutely no sense to me. With the ghouls closing in all around, one of the raiders inexplicably strapped himself into a heart monitor machine and gamely followed through with the test, even as the creatures fell upon him like a living luau. I sat there in stunned silence, listening to the monitor's readings screech as they literally tore him limb from limb right before my disbelieving eyes.
This necessitated another pause. As gross as the visuals were, even I knew that Romero was clearly fucking with me at this point. The thing that surprised me the most is that I hadn't stopped the movie in quite awhile. So, either I was becoming numb to the cavalcade of gore or the film's humor had de-fanged any cruelty inherent in the act.
And with that, the living dead reclaimed the mall. As if to reinforce the whole "zombies gravitate to places that are familiar" angle, Zombie-Stephen instinctively staggered his way back through the mall, tore through the wall and incrementally made his way back to the hero's secret safe-room. Unfortunately his new squad of undead bros came along with him.
This led to an absolutely insane climax. With a tidal wave of ghouls now streaming past their barricade, Peter told Fran to escape in the helicopter while he held off the horde. But, then, right at the last second, instead if Peter shooting himself in the head, he jumped up, battled his way through the slavering undead and fought his way towards the helicopter. The musical accompaniment for this sequence, by the way, sounds like it might have inspired the opening title score for the A-Team.
Years later I found out that Romero's original ending was crazy-bleak. Peter shoots himself in the head and Fran decapitates herself by sticking her l'il blonde noggin' into the helicopter's rotor blades.¡Ay, caramba! I'm super-glad Romero jettisoned this downer ending. Between the pie fight and the death of Stephen, I don't think my poor brain could have coped with yet another whiplash-style tonal shift.
As the orchestral strings swelled and the helicopter flew away, I breathed a palpable sense of relief and felt kinda proud of myself. I'd managed to make it all the way to the end without tossing my cookies or pausing every five seconds to dry-heave into a beef bucket. If anything, Dawn of the Dead truly reinforced the artistry of horror films for me. Even if they weren't made for a lot of money, they could still be epic, tackle big themes and resonate with you long after the credits rolled.
I'd also finally come to the conclusion that cinema gore was illusory. Convincing and gross, sure, but an illusion nonetheless. From that point forward, whenever I saw a practical effect, my first question was "Wow...how did they do that?" instead of "Oh gawd...can I reach the terlet in time?"
Whenever I re-watch Dawn of the Dead, my respect for the movie continues to grow. To me, it's more than just an iconic horror flick. I see it as a direct response to film critics and the moral majority who continue to complain that movie violence begets real violence.
To me, it's the other way around. Compared to news footage of kids coming home from Vietnam in body bags or students getting shot in cold blood by National Guard at Kent State, movies like Dawn of the Dead were just a reflection of the turbulent times that the creators lived through. In fact, by combining extreme gore with black comedy, Romero was telling us not to get bent out of shape over the fake stuff but to pay attention to the real horrors inherent in our reality.
So, this Halloween season, avoid Zack Snyder's serviceable but vapid remake and check out the one and only Gone With The Wind of zombie flicks, Dawn of the Dead.
EPIC: Recent documentary about the making of the film, included in Anchor Bay's marvelous DVD boxed set from 2004. WARNING: SPOILERS AND NOT EVEN VAGUELY SUITABLE FOR WORK!