"When the dead walk, Señores; we must stop the killing, or lose the war."
Much has been written about George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and how it was a commentary on the times. For years in interview after interview, George would listen to many a dreamy-eyed critic: who would wax on about the myriad subtle nuances of social commentary that they read into NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, only to have George burst their bubble by saying, "Nope, I just wanted to make a monster movie with zombies and cannibals."
By 1978, however, George was willing to change his tune. Now he really did want to make both a gross-out monster movie and one with social commentary. This was due to George finding himself hero worshipped by a lather of Italian Horror and Splatter directors. Those dang ol' Italians were going apeshit with making Zombie / Cannibal movies. At least one even got arrested and jailed for it! Italian Director, Dario Argento, was brought on board with his hero George (Hey, Dario's family and friends were largely responsible for getting the movie made!) to get together and make Romero's screenplay for DAWN OF THE DEAD a reality.
DAWN OF THE DEAD begins with a television station. The worst run
TV station you ever saw. During an very confrontational interview by apparent
teevee personality, Mr. Berman (David Early: CREEPSHOW, MONKEY SHINES, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, INNOCENT BLOOD, THE DARK HALF), there is no discipline, no concern for the FCC, and no worry if anything anyone does could make them lose
their job. In short, the TV station is our microcosm for what's happening
to the world at large. Society is unraveling because, as the scientist
being interviewed, Dr. Foster (David Crawford :
LADY BEWARE) says,
The movie picks up where NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD left off. It is now the dawn. The living dead are everywhere and no one knows why. Scientific rationality, prevalent for trying to explain the living dead in the first movie (it may have been a satellite that crashed to earth, bringing something with it), is abandoned with the breakdown of morality - for religious superstition.
At one point, Swat cop Peter says,
In all three movies, the living dead are never explained beyond various theories, none of which are meant to stick. This insanely horrible thing is just happening and the living will have to adjust to survive.
Its easy to see how the dead over-run us. When, in your grief, you see your beloved husband, wife, or child get back up and walk, you are willing to accept it. You want to believe that, with their body mobile, some trace of the person you loved is still within. But the zombies are as indifferent to us as the Pod People from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.
Worse in fact, since the zombies appear to have lost all intellect, all personality; they are relegated to their most basic of functions, which is to eat. The heat of living people attracts them and the cannibalism is blatant. They are slow and weak, but like ants, they overwhelm us in sheer numbers. We as a society are unwilling to accept that. As a whole, the majority of the population cannot bring themselves to decapitate or put a bullet in the head of a beloved come back to life.
Even worse, there are many who are trying to protect their dead relatives and friends from those who would exterminate them. They lock the living dead away in basements and tie them up, as if the living dead will somehow get over their cannibalism and rot like a person would get over a cold.
Scientists have the answer, "These things are nothing more than motorized instinct." "They must be exterminated!", but it's nothing that people want to hear.
Panic stricken with terror and grief, everyone is coming apart at the seams and the world is dissolving into chaos.
When the movie opens we see Fran (Gaylen Ross: CREEPSHOW) waking from a nightmare. She works in a television station. The station manager is so wrapped up in his work he can think of nothing but ratings, the rest of his staff are abandoning their posts even as their local talk show host is interviewing a guest scientist.
Fran's boyfriend, Steven (David Emge: HELLMASTER), is the station's traffic chopper pilot. He is going to steal the chopper and get Fran and him away from the main centers of population. Fran, still refusing to accept the situation, refuses him. But Stephen's insistence, coupled with the information that the government will soon be shutting down the station and going over to National Emergency Broadcast, breaks her will.
For us, the world is brought down to four survivors: The naive Fran, her naive but wannabe tough guy fiancé Stephen, his best friend, the realistic Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), who is a SWAT cop, and the hard-nosed Peter (Ken Foree: FROM BEYOND, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) - a fellow SWAT member and friend Roger made while popping zombies in a housing project.
With such a depressing, nihilistic doomsday movie, George felt obliged to play a lot of scenes for laughs. You know, the kind of human foibles we all have and go through while exterminating - and being hunted by - zombies. In fact, DAWN OF THE DEAD is the funniest of the three DEAD movies and Romero shows his talent for wry morbid humor the same way he did with MARTIN.
In this movie George satirically pokes fun at the American obsession of buy, buy, buy consumerism. Even the mindless zombies come to the mall every day, though there are no humans there. As Stephen puts it "This was a very important part of their lives."
In one of the many pieces of commentary in the film, Cops, soldiers, and "Rednecks" wind up being the only ones upon whom we can pin the hopes of our future. Gun owners and hunters in general are the only ones willing to exterminate the dead, even making a jolly community gathering out of it. Only they are willing to stand and fight: to carve out and maintain a pocket of human society capable of surviving the Horror while the rest of us run. Yet in one scene, Stephen, looking down on them from the helicopter as he flees, sneers, "Those rednecks are probably enjoying this." Not long after, Stephen is also enjoying the extermination of the zombies. But unlike the "rednecks" and cops, who are ever aware of the consequences of their actions, Stephen is like a kid, doing it purely for fun, unmindful of the risk until its too late.
Though I watched an excellent print on Anchor Bay Entertainment's "Anniversary Edition", the DVD - sadly - is bereft of much in the way of features. The best is a very ironic old television advertisement that was actually used for the Monroeville mall where the movie was largely shot. The advertisement, if nothing else, shows just how dead-on Romero was in his portrayal of American consumerism. Romero wasn't so jolly with DAY OF THE DEAD.
DAWN OF THE DEAD never loses track of just how serious the situation is. Humor is balanced nearly perfect with scenes of violence, gore, and horror - and as always, the on the mark human dialogue and interaction. These movies would utterly fail without it. The actors, mostly unknowns, are incredibly realistic in their characterizations, making their lives and deaths all the more involving and tragic. This is not your cutesy wink and nod insipid plastic acting and too utterly hip dialogue that you get from many of Hollywood's forgettable slasher flicks. These are not high strung kid actors with flip soap opera emotions. These are characters you are, meet, and with whom you can identify.
I give DAWN OF THE DEAD 5 Shriek Girls. This is a classic.
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