George A. Romero | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA & Italy / English | 18 / NC-17
Dawn of the Dead is the Citizen Kane of zombie movies.* And yet, in the same way new viewers arrive at Kane laden with the baggage of its acclaim, and thus come away with a lesser opinion of it, it would seem from user reviews on various websites that Dawn is a less beloved proposition for many a modern zombie acolyte.
Thanks to a shifting timeline, it’s now the late ’70s, but only a few weeks have passed since the zombie outbreak we witnessed in Night of the Living Dead. Society is going to hell: the US public are sentimentally avoiding government orders to burn the dead and abandon their homes. The outbreak, apparently controllable, is getting worse. Four loose acquaintances — a TV producer, her weather ‘copter pilot boyfriend, and a pair of police SWAT officers — escape the madness in the chopper, setting up camp in a deserted mall. Deserted, that is, except for the hordes of undead, flocking to a place that used to be so important to them…
It used to be that people were Clever for spotting the subtext that Dawn is really a critique of mass consumerism. Romero expressed his surprise at this: he didn’t think that theme was subtle, he thought it was blatantly the point. Heck, he even has his characters all but say it two or three times. Today, it’s depressing to see the number of user reviews online that criticise such analysis for being “pretentious”. It’s not pretentious, it’s what the film is about. Those reviews, and so many more like them, focus on the gore and make-up being old-fashioned and unrealistic, or the film not being scary, or there being too little action. Point — thoroughly missed.
Romero has said he considers his zombie movies to be about the time they were made; a little snapshot of the world (or the US, at least) at the time. Thus consumerism is only one of Dawn’s targets, albeit the easiest to spot. Romero was ahead of his time here: gigantic out-of-town malls of this type were, apparently, new propositions at the time the film was made, and the one that stars here was amongst the country’s largest (it still exists, I believe, but now it’s considered a little’un). It’s not just the zombies who are critiqued either. Our protagonists choose to stay in the mall because it apparently has everything they could ever need, even though it also has the constant threat of the undead. On their first trip out for supplies, they’re as interested in expensive watches as food and tools. As time goes on it only gets worse: they turn their little attic apartment bit into a chic pad, with stylish chairs and all the mod-cons. In a world where the apocalypse has happened, they’re not fighting for their very survival, they’re living the high life. They even ‘rob’ the mall’s bank, “just in case” money is still worth something.
As with Romero’s previous zombie outing, characters are as important as anything, and its through them further social analysis is developed. For instance, there’s Fran, the only woman in the group. A deliberate counterpoint to criticisms of Night…, she’s a capable person, who insists on being involved when the men cut her out. She’s the only one who thinks setting up camp in a place overrun with zombies might be a bad idea; she’s the one who insists on learning to fly the helicopter in case something happens to the one other person who knows how. She doesn’t scream once, a touch added by actress Gaylen Ross: when Romero asked her to scream, she refused, and he never asked again.
The men, meanwhile, help shape a commentary on society’s desensitisation to violence. There’s disgust early on at having to shoot these human-like creatures in the head to get rid of them, but so unrelenting is such a task that it becomes everyday. This and the consumerism thread come together in the final act, when a gang of bikers invade the mall: declaring that the place is their possession, one of our ‘heroes’ has become so used to killing the living dead that he now has no trouble opening fire on the plain ol’ living.
The film is rich with such analogy and symbolism for them that wants it (there’s even more than I’ve gone into here, including perspectives on immigration and US intervention in overseas conflicts); what’s kind of depressing is that so many viewers today don’t. I’m a fan of a well-constructed largely-mindless action movie as much as the next Bloke, on the right occasion, but that’s not what Romero was purporting to construct. It’s not “pretentious” to see these themes, because that’s why he made the film. Romero didn’t set out to produce a shoot ’em up and accidentally created some social commentary for chin-stroking cineasts to pontificate over — the zombie action is what’s almost incidental; it’s a prism through which to discuss the world.
All that said, it’s not as if the film stints on action. But this is the ’70s — they didn’t build an entire film from back-to-back action sequences then as we do now. These scenes can be suitably tense and exciting when needed, though, as with almost all ‘old’ action movies, they aren’t going to deliver the same hyper-choreographed visceral thrill as their modern-day counterparts. But they are there, and they are what they are.
I also don’t hold much truck with that “the effects are bad” waffle. I mean, really, what do you expect? The film’s 35 years old! And y’know what, it’s not that bad. OK, the zombie’s skin tone is a little blatant — special effects maestro Tom Savini has said he was aiming for grey but it registered as rather blue on film. Then the blood is a vibrant red — well, loads of older films have that garish red blood, what of it? In fact, it was specifically requested by Romero, who wanted a comic-book-y colour to match what he saw as a comic-book tone to the violence. Then there’s all the flesh-eating gore, which is by turns heightened to the point of silliness and gorily realistic — the stuff with the guts towards the end… Savini was a war photographer in Vietnam and that in part inspired his effects work. You want to argue with a guy who’s seen the real thing that his work doesn’t look as ‘realistic’ as some post-millennial computer nerd’s hyper-CG version of things?
Aside from thematic weight and violent frivolity, Romero also crafts a character drama. Whereas Night put some archetypes in a situation and stressed them out, to sketch-like effect, Dawn takes its time to explore its characters. In some cases their arcs are clear — likeable but cocky copper Roger gets over-confident and pays for it — while others are barely noticeable. The burgeoning friendship/relationship between Fran and policeman Peter, the most level-headed of all the film’s male characters, is so subtle as to hardly register, but it’s there, in part created by the actors getting on well. They earn (spoilers!) the happy(-ish) ending, an alternate to the fatalistic double suicide Romero planned, tested, but ultimately didn’t even shoot.
I have to say, the more I think and write about Dawn, the more I come to like it. It’s not really perfect — the biker climax comes almost out of nowhere, and I’m not convinced they were the most effective way to explore an ending. Perhaps this is where the “snapshot of the times” idea begins to fall down: distanced from the time in question, how resonant are those themes? Is that why modern viewers, coming to the film for the first time, miss them? (That’s not to discount the fact that most modern genre film viewers aren’t looking for grown-up viewing, but kids’ movie-style brightly-coloured action — with added gore and swearing to prove it’s actually for adults, despite the lack of adult thought or consideration required. Ironically, these once-B-movie cheap horror/thrillers are now, thanks to their political undertones, more suited to the art house crowd. I see why so many venerate ’70s cinema.) But (to get back to this paragraph’s point) there’s so much in Dawn, so much more than either a zombie kill-fest or a criticism of consumerism, that thoughtful reflection — and, I’m sure, future re-watches — are only to its benefit.
With all these words spent, I’ve not even discussed the throbbing score from Goblin and Dario Argento; or the use of quirky funny stock music to highlight the Comedy of some sequences (including tunes from/also used by Monty Python, which only seems to emphasise the point); or the criticism of religion (which I somehow missed until reading Calum Waddell’s essay in the booklet of Arrow’s Blu-ray! How remiss of me); or the movie’s length — this is definitely an epic! And at times it feels it. Though the methodical way it goes about outlining how you’d set up a new life in a mall is, actually, exactly what I’d want to see from this storyline. You can’t just plonk yourself down there and live, can you? You’ve got to think about where you live, how you stock up, and, in the case of a zombie apocalypse, how you keep the undead at bay… and how you prepare for looters.
Immediately after viewing, I’d say I didn’t like Dawn as much as Night. Though it has many qualities I admire, it also felt a little less focused and more sprawling. The first I found tense and chilling — a Horror movie, albeit one with observable dramatic and thriller-ish elements. Dawn is, at heart, a Drama — it’s about the people in this situation, that situation happening to be an extreme horror one. But on reflection, the bits I was less sure of pale behind the things it does right.
One thing you can’t doubt is that this inspired the zombie genre even more than Night: the gore, the violence, and so on. It’s just a shame that the filmmakers who have followed in Romero’s footsteps concentrate on those aspects rather than the humour, characterisation, and social critique that are actually what make his films classics.
Part of Week of the Living Dead for Halloween 2013.
A quick note on versions: thanks to international cuts and whatnot, there are numerous variations on Dawn of the Dead. Three key ones are included on Arrow’s UK Blu-ray: the theatrical cut (the only one in HD), the longer Director’s Cut, and the shorter Argento cut. The latter, produced for the Italian market, apparently focuses on action, to the detriment of the dramatic elements. The Director’s Cut is reportedly more of an “initial director’s cut” — a longer version before Romero honed it down to his final, preferred version, which is the theatrical cut. Various people swear by various versions; I just went for the one in HD.