Wednesday, 25 July 2012

CULT CLASSIC: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

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Dawn of the Dead (USA, 1978)
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross 

Having created the modern zombie movie almost singled-handedly, George A. Romero spent the years after Night of the Living Dead diversifying his portfolio. His efforts ranged from cult hits like The Crazies and Martin to the choppy Season of the Witch and There's Always Vanilla, which he has all but disowned. After Martin failed to find an audience, Romero continued his Zombie Trilogy with Dawn of the Dead, an engrossing and just plain gross sequel which has many of his trademarks but doesn't quite live up to the first instalment.
While there is no direct character continuity between the first and second films, there is some thematic continuity in the first ten minutes. Dawn of the Dead continues with the zombies representing racism by having a group of Puerto Rican or Hispanic zombies being mown down by the National Guard. Like the previous film, our main protagonist is black, the main female character is blonde, and there is a couple within the small group of survivors (who are with child, rather than with a child).
There are other thematic continuities too, albeit ones which are not dwelt upon as the film gathers pace. During the opening credits there is a comment on media sensationalism, as the various executives want to keep the station on the air, even if it means misleading people. While the sensible people, like the presenters and camera operators, are packing up and leaving, the bigwigs run with outdated material in the hope of keeping whatever audience is out there. The film does drift into sillier B-movie territory, with one of the scientific experts wearing an eye-patch, but that's emphasised no more than the radio broadcasts about alien radiation in the first film.
After the first ten minutes, Dawn of the Dead's main theme comes to the fore, as the zombies shift from being the spectre of racism to the spectre of consumerism and material greed. While its predecessor reflected an America reeling from both the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Dawn of the Dead reflects a country laid low by the OPEC crisis, high inflation and sluggish growth. It depicts the institutions of developed capitalism as hollow shells, to which we mindlessly flock out of habit or memory of what we once had.
There are two interesting consequences of this central conceit. The first is that the film becomes more relativistic than its predecessor, arguing that the human survivors who take refuge in the mall are no better in terms of morals or motivations than the zombies laying siege to it. Both groups are drawn to the mall through a mixture of necessity and habit: both groups need fuel (whether petrol or human flesh), and both find comfort in gravitating to what they know, rather than taking their chances and starting anew in the wilderness.
The second is the way in which consumerism takes over the survivors, and they become reckless merely through being surrounded by convenience. Having killed all the zombies inside the mall and barricaded themselves in, we see them swanning around in a lengthy montage, having fun and building up their possessions to the point of pure decadence. Having watched society crumble around them, they have recreated their middle-class, property-based idyll which gives them comfort and familiarity, and it is only when their lives are truly threatened that they sum up the courage to leave material comforts behind.
All three instalments of Romero's Zombie Trilogy could be put into the category of siege films, since they are constructed around characters inside a building or location seeking to keep out a malevolent force. But where Night of the Living Dead put a greater emphasis on the ordinary nature of said force (i.e. the zombies look exactly like us), Dawn of the Dead concentrates more on the siege mentality itself - in other words, how you would keep the zombies out, rather than what the zombies are like. There is a further tie-in with the theme of bourgeois life being recreated through consumerism when the bikers (including make-up artist Tom Savini) break into the mall and take everything in sight. These scenes reflect both the bourgeois fear of outsiders and the film's on-going relativism: the bikers are doing what the other survivors and zombies are doing, only more quickly and with more weapons.
 
The invasion of the mall by the bikers also demonstrates the influence of Italian horror on Dawn on the Dead. There is a screenwriting credit for the master of giallo Dario Argento, who was in his prime having made Suspiria the year before. The blood that Savini uses in the gory battles between bikers and zombies is the same, day-glo, shimmering red that Argento has made his trademark - as Eli Roth puts it, "putting the gore in gorgeous". And like Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead benefits from a soundtrack by the progressive rock group Goblin, who build threat through unusual yet effective instrumentation.
 
The soundtrack to Dawn of the Dead plays a considerable part in cultivating threat from creatures which, in speed at least, are relatively unthreatening. One of the tensest moments in the whole film comes when a Hari Khrishna zombie has managed to find the entrance to the survivors' den, where the pregnant Fran has been left behind while her male comrades fight the zombies off. As the zombie approaches, the soundtrack throws up a strange jangly sound, like a demonic tambourine, which makes the whole scene more unsettling. Romero also plays on the upbeat muzak of the mall itself to drench the situation in yet more irony.
Much like its predecessor, the real emotional weight of Dawn of the Dead lies in the characters, which feel more layered and complex than many other horror movies of the time. Gaylen Ross gives a great performance as Francine, who gradually moves from the role of damsel in distress to a genuine force to be reckoned with. Scott Reiniger and Ken Foree have good camaraderie as Roger and Peter respectively, with the truck scenes providing some much-needed comic relief. And David Emge rounds the cast out nicely as Stephen, attempting to make sense of the chaos that surrounds him.
For all the good things going for it, Dawn of the Dead has a number of problems which ultimately make it a poor relation to its predecessor. It was always going to be hard to top the chilling terror of Night, and in fairness to Romero, widening the scale of the action was probably the only way he could have gone. But because he has more space to play with, the natural feeling of claustrophobia is not as strong or as effective as in the first film. When you've got characters closed off in one room, it's naturally unsettling, but when they have several floors at their disposal, it's not so much.
The film also suffers from poor pacing, particularly in its second act. After an efficient and exciting opening, the film unfolds at an all-too-leisurely pace once the immediate threat has been dealt with. Had John Carpenter helmed the film, he would have being working overtime to sustain the terror to breaking point, just as he did in Hallowe'en or The Thing four years later. As it is, Romero begins well, then drops the ball, and only truly recovers in the last 20 minutes when the proverbial really hits the fan.
 
The final problem or debate concerns the ending. The original ending involved Stephen and Francine making it to the roof and committing suicide rather than face being turned into zombies. The current ending, in which they escape and fly off into an unknown future, feels like an uneasy compromise thrown together at the last minute. There's no way of knowing how the original ending would have worked, but it would at least have reinforced the film's nihilistic mood, and provided further continuity with its predecessor, which ends with the main character being shot. 
 
Dawn of the Dead is a weighty and interesting sequel to what is arguably Romero's finest achievement (though Martin comes very close). Although its ideas are perhaps more fleshed-out than its predecessor, its mechanical and narrative shortcomings prevent it from delivering any kind of knock-out punch. But it has aged very well indeed, and remains a very fine film with plenty to say about our culture and society. Whatever the merits of Zac Snyder's remake, this remains the version you must see. 

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Bloody and brooding but not quite brilliant

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