Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

If the zombies of director George Romero's Dead series can be summarized in one sentence, it would be this: "They're us." Undead, mindless, carnivorous walking corpses, for sure, but it's almost impossible to watch their behavior, as well as that of their intended human victims, and not observe some parallels with our society, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the second movie of the series, Dawn of the Dead (1978).

The dead are rising to attack the living, and society is in turmoil. The news media are functioning in a haphazard panic, and martial law has been declared by the government. The National Guard and Police are forcibly removing people from their homes and collecting bodies of the dead to dispose of, but the tide is turning as the number of zombies increases. In the middle of this chaos, SWAT officer Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger) link up with helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emgee) and his girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross) to flee north. Desperate and low on supplies, they stumble upon an intact shopping mall. Though crawling with the walking dead, the mall offers the survivors a chance to rest and resupply, but it isn't long before they decide they have a good thing going and hunker down to make the mall entirely theirs.

Though filmed a decade after the original Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead picks more or less immediately from its predecessor, depicting society's bloody, confused response to the new phenomena of reanimation. Moving beyond the confines of an isolated farmhouse, the film traverses through a number of different locations - news room, inner-city apartment building, police, small airport, a flyby over a massive National Guard operation supported by the local rednecks - that it has something of an epic feel to it and paints a disparaging picture of the world's response to the dead; everywhere they go, our heroes run into zombies, and for about the first twenty or thirty minutes, it feels like Dawn will play out as a despairing thriller like Night.

But then, the heroes find the mall, and everything changes and not just their plans of flying off to Canada. Suddenly, the film becomes a wild, fun, and sometimes slapstick adventure piece.  Early in the film, during the SWAT team assault on a zombie-infested apartment complex, we see a zombie with its leg gnawed off clawing after an officer, a woman's neck ripped out by her dead husband, a man's head blown off by a shotgun, and a basement full of tied up zombies executed, put down like rabid dogs. The violence here is grim and shocking. In the mall, the zombies become comical, shambling through store aisles as muzak blares on the PA system and trying to walk up the down escalators. Peter and Roger have sort of a boys-own good time, racing through the mall, taking all the supplies they need, and blasting away at the zombies.

Night of the Living Dead was filmed in black and white and is stark, grim, and nightmarish. Dawn of the Dead is brightly colored, the blood and gore more plentiful and a sharp contrast against the bland background of the mall. The tone resembles a comic book, and the editing is frantic and fast, transforming the movie into something of an action movie shoot-em up instead of a desperate fight for survival. It's even a bit too silly at times with zombies getting pied in the face near the end.

In Night, the zombies had an aura of mystery and were confined to the shadows, shown as mindless hordes and suggested with clawing hands forcing their way through barricaded doors and windows. Here, while still dangerous, they're out in the open and brightly lit under fluorescent lighting. We see zombie nuns, zombie baseball players, zombie nurses, zombie brides, and even a zombie Hare Krishna. Their skin has become bright blue and gray, the clothing they wore when they died is similarly bright and colorful (and hideously garish. It was the 70s). They get shot, blown up, thrown off balconies, run over by trucks, duped, and subject to any other forms of violence to the point they're like video game baddies, existing only to be killed (er, killed again).

Zombies, we're told, operate only base, motorized instinct, acting out only the activities that were important to them in their lives and knowing nothing else. These ghouls shuffle aimlessly through the mall, only alive in the sense that they're moving and occasionally eating, their malaise interrupted only by the presence of warm flesh to try to devour. Soon, the living protagonists are too shuffling through the motions of a previous existence. Once the mall is secured, they run wild, living out a consumer's dream, taking all the material possessions they could ever want. There's a cute montage of them taking now useless money from the bank, weighing purchases in the food mart, and obeying the signs to follow the lines to the front desk. Everything is so giddy and intoxicating until ...

Boredom sets. With the rest of the world crumbling outside the mall's walls and everything the heroes could ever want or need, they come to find the mall to be a prison, a tomb. They mindlessly go about any activity just to keep from going nuts, pretending this is still good living. When a gang of bikers shows up to loot the mall and let the zombies back in, our heroes resolve to defend what's theirs: the mall and it stock of TVs, money, jewelry, and other goods. The result is fighting between what's left of humanity over something meaningless while the real threat closes in on them. Zombies may be easy to kill, slow, and stupid, but they're constant and don't fight amongst themselves. One minute, bikers are spraying ghouls in the face with seltzer water and laughing, and the next, they've been shot off their motorcycles by Peter and are easy pickings for the hungry dead to rip to pieces.

Dawn of the Dead is probably the most fun of the Dead pictures, but I would say it's also the most dated. Night remains a terrifying motion picture to this day forty-plus years later, but here, the blood seems too fake, the zombie makeup mostly extras in simple face paint that's not as scary as Night's ghouls or Day and Land's decayed walkers, and the fashion, slang, and haircuts confine this to the disco decade. From a technical standpoint, the movie is rough around the edges, but the apocalyptic vision and social satire on display remain as vibrant and edgy today as they were in 1978. It's impossible to watch this and afterward walk through your local shopping mall and not think the anonymous shoppers gazing from window to window somehow look familiar.

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