Dawn of the Dead (1978)

In 1968, George A Romero changed the way that zombie movies would be made forever when he made Night of the Living Dead, a horror movie that transformed the walking dead into mindless ghouls who feast on the living. There is discussion in the sequel about whether the zombies are cannibals since they only devour the living, and not the dead, but we will let that point pass.

Night of the Living Dead spawned an endless series of zombie movies that cannibalised (if you will forgive the word) the essential concept of this first movie. The zombies were shambling, dazed and barely human, operating out of “Pure motorised instinct” to quote from the movie I am about to review. They were slow and stupid, but they were persistent, and the living would eventually be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Not least among the people who sought to utilise this idea was George A Romero himself, who returned to the subject on a number of occasions. He made and re-made The Crazies, where the infected victims behave similarly to the zombies in his earlier film. Romero also made a number of sequels to his original movie.

These sequels contained no returning characters except the zombies themselves, always sharing the same basic characteristics I outlined above, although Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead show signs that some of the undead are beginning to develop a degree of intelligence which will make them even more dangerous in the future.

However it is fair to say that only one of Romero’s zombie movies came close to equalling (some would say surpassing) Night of the Living Dead, and this was Dawn of the Dead, his first sequel made ten years later. This movie was itself highly influential, and is more appealing to modern horror movie fans.

For one thing, Dawn of the Dead is made in colour in an age where people seem unable to enjoy black-and-white movies anymore. For another, it steps up the level of violence and gore, something which appeals to today’s horror lovers. The movie contains brutal violence from start to finish, and ends in a bloodbath. The effects were arranged by Tom Savini, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, and he claimed that the gore was influenced by his experiences there.

A director’s cut and extended version have added further scenes of carnage for those who like that sort of thing. Personally I don’t mind the gory scenes, but I do not feel that they are the ingredient that makes Dawn of the Dead a great movie.

In many ways, Dawn of the Dead is more pessimistic than its predecessor. At the end of Night of the Living Dead, it looked as if the problem had been resolved after one terrible night. In the sequel we see that the problem has spiralled out of control. The zombies are around during the daytime as well, and when our heroes ride across the country in a helicopter, they are appalled to see that the zombies are everywhere.

There is a fight to contain the numbers of zombies, but it is now a losing battle, and houses and centres are recognised to be unsafe places for people to go. At the end of the last movie, there was anguish to be had in seeing all the characters die. Now it seems that they were the lucky ones, dying on the first night of a catastrophic situation. The first film was about zombie attacks, but this is Romero’s first zombie apocalypse film.

The story follows four characters. Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross) works for a television company, and is unhappy that they are still issuing bulletins filled with misinformation that is costing lives. Her partner is Stephen Andrews. He pilots the company’s helicopter.

Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger) and Peter Washington (Ken Foree) are SWAT members who are trying to control the urban zombie problem without much success. They carry out a raid on a housing block where the residents insist on keeping the bodies of people who have deceased because they still have respect for the dead. The situation is exacerbated by racist dislike of the residents, and the situation ends in bloodshed. One traumatised SWAT member is unable to cope with his work and commits suicide. Roger and Peter too are appalled by their work.

The four decide to steal the TV studio’s helicopter and try to find a safe place to go, but this does not prove easy. The zombies are across the countryside, and stopping to refuel is a dangerous task. Finally they land on the roof of a giant shopping mall. The four fugitives intend this to be a temporary stopping point. Then they decide to use the mall’s resources to stock up. Finally they realise that the mall would be a good place to stay, as it has a large supply of food and other supplies.

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They decide to drive large trucks across the entrance to keep the zombie out and destroy those who are already there. Sadly this mission is not without one casualty. Roger is bitten by a zombie and dies. The remaining characters live in the mall, enjoying its luxuries and anxiously watching television broadcasts, vainly hoping for good news.

Eventually the mall is invaded by an army of motorcyclists who wish to loot the stores. The zombies get back into the mall. Stephen is bitten and turns into a zombie, and Fran and Peter escape in the helicopter.

This ending is happier than Night of the Living Dead. This time two characters make it out of the movie alive. It has been said that another ending was filmed which had Peter shooting himself and Fran committing suicide by letting the helicopter rotors decapitate her. The blades of the helicopter then abruptly stop, showing that they would not have got far anyway.

Personally I am glad that Romero went with this ending instead. The other ending would have been too similar to the last film. This ending is more ambiguous. As they fly away, Fran indicates that there is not much fuel left, meaning that their prospects are bleak. The survivors were struggling to stay alive before when there was four of them. Now there are two, one is heavily pregnant, and it seems unlikely that supplies of gasoline for the helicopter will be easy to come by.

However our heroes have shown themselves to be resilient and adaptable up until now, and it is possible that they will find a way. At any rate, there is something stirring in the decision of Fran and Peter to choose life, even in these straitened circumstances.

The four heroes of Dawn of the Dead are not shining examples of human selflessness and honour. They choose to run away, rather than stay to the last and help their fellow men. “We’re thieves and we’re bad guys,” Peter comments. However they are facing an unprecedented situation, and it is clear that the authorities can no longer be counted on to resolve the problem.

Often the characters look like the victims of combat fatigue. Their faces are tense and unsmiling. The movie opens with Fran leaning against a red plush wall (an appropriate colour for the subject of the movie) and looking tired and alone after having a nightmare. The four runaways feel guilt about leaving their everyone behind, but realise that they have got to survive.

To begin with, they take no pleasure in killing even the zombies, and their faces look pained. After a while, they become gun-happy, and take pleasure in outwitting and destroying their slow-witted enemies. One or two of them lose their sense of perspective, and this costs them their lives. Roger grows reckless and slightly crazy, and is bitten by a zombie.

Stephen angers Peter early on when he points a gun in his direction while targeting a zombie. At the end of the movie, he becomes enflamed against the invading bikers. “It’s ours,” he insists, though the mall is not his by right any more than it is theirs. He opens fire on the bikers, and he is wounded, rendering him helpless to prevent the zombies biting him.

Whatever the faults of the four lead characters, there is much to admire in them too. They are courageous, resourceful, adaptable and intelligent. Unfortunately this is not enough to save them. Two die during the movie, and the remaining two may struggle to survive too. This is a world in which strength of character only buys you more time.

The four survivors are fighting the armies of the undead, and also the living too. The zombie problem is straightforward, but overwhelming. The dead people are driven by urges over which they have no control. The zombies may wear army fatigues or expensive jewellery. They may include children, a nun and a Hare Krishna.

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A peaceful or virtuous life is no protection against the bestial urges that they develop after death. Roger promises to try not to come back when he dies, but it makes no difference. Stephen leads the other zombies to his former friends and his pregnant wife.

However the zombies are blameless in themselves, driven on by irrepressible impulses. The living characters have no such excuse. From the movie’s beginning until its end, the humans are unable to protect one another due to internal fighting.

At the television station, the staff bicker and argue. A doctor tries to offer a coldly logical and rational approach to the problem, but he is booed down. When we see him later in the movie, he has an eyepatch. It is not explained how he got it, but it seems likely that it was an injury inflicted by an irate person who disagreed with him, rather than the result of a zombie attack.

The SWAT invasion shows humans motivated on the one side by cultural beliefs that no longer have a place in the world, and on the other side by racism that causes the SWAT members to be trigger-happy. Out in the countryside, rednecks enjoy the act of shooting zombies, drinking beer, listening to music and posing for photos. At the movie’s end, the last refuge of safety  is destroyed during a fight for resources with a rival gang.

Dawn of the Dead is also a satire on consumerism. The zombies continue to wander mindlessly around the shops in much the same way that they did while they were alive. When the puzzled Fran asks, “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” Peter answers, “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” Even after the doors have been closed, the zombies still assemble outside the mall:

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.

It seems that death has not changed much, and on a few occasions the camera cuts between the zombies and the shop mannequins that they now resemble. Incidentally the film was shot in a real mall, and Romero had to carry out his work during the hours when it was closed. This would be a much harder task nowadays.

However the living characters are just as consumed by the consumer goods on offer as the zombies. After taking over the mall, they indulge in the luxuries on offer – clothing, good food, wine, skating, games, money etc. In one scene Fran applies make-up whilst holding a gun. After she has finished, she too resembles the mannequin next to her. At the movie’s end people fight and kill for possession of the commodities of the mall.

These goods provide a brief comforting semblance of the life that they had before the zombie apocalypse, and which is now lost. However they do not bring happiness. In one unusual camera shot, we see Fran and Stephen lying in bed together. The camera angle is filmed from above, and it zooms out showing the couple looking lonely and depressed. The four heroes mark off days on the wall as if they are in prison, and refuse to switch off the television in hope of seeing another broadcast. They have become trapped in the mall and it is no substitute for life.

No explanation is offered for why the zombies have risen from the dead. The nearest explanation is strangely closest to the voodoo explanations of earlier pre-Romero zombie movies. It is offered of course by Peter, the black character:

Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Vodou. 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.”

In many respects, Peter is similar to Ben, the hero of Night of the Living Dead, in that race is not an issue here, save for a brief mention of his brothers. There is one way in which the movie represents an advance on Night of the Living Dead, and that is in its depiction of its female lead.

In the first movie, there is no strong female lead. Our initial focus is on Barbra, but she relapses into shock, and plays little part in the action from this point. Dawn of the Dead offers a different heroine in Fran. At the opening of the story, Fran is another helpless heroine. She is left upstairs on her own while the men venture out into the mall to fight zombies, and she needs to be rescued when one of the undead threatens her.

From this point, Fran puts her foot down. She insists on knowing what is going on, and on having an equal say in what they are doing. She learns how to use a gun, and also asks to be taught how to fly the helicopter. This proves useful to their getaway after Stephen is killed, although ironically it is her flying lessons that alert the bikers to their presence in the mall.

The decision to make Fran a stronger character was at the insistence of the actress, Gaylen Ross. Ross also insisted that her character should never scream. This challenge to stereotypical gender roles was taken on board by Romero, and he offered better parts for his actresses in subsequent sequels.

One unusual aspect of Dawn of the Dead that has been imitated since is its blending of extreme horror and humour. Romero recognised that much amusement can be gleaned from the inhuman zombies since we do not care about them as people.

In the course of the film, we see zombies in a variety of absurd clothes, and suffering from the indignities of being hit in the face with custard pies, squirted with water, having the top of their head sliced off by a helicopter, falling into the pool at the mall and stumbling on escalators.

The absurd mall music also adds further hilarity to the sight of the zombies shuffling around the shops. Even the killings can be funny, and one biker is eaten while having his blood pressure tested. This humour helps to give the movie a comic book look, and this can be seen in the movie’s garish colours, for example the bright red blood or the blue-skinned zombies.

However ultimately it is horror and pessimism that prevails. Whether or not Fran and Peter find a place where they can survive, there is no miracle ending where the zombies are despatched, and the land is returned to the living. The end credits show the zombies once more in control of the mall. The last sound we hear is the tolling of a bell like a death-knell.

 

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