Review of the Dead - Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Don’t start in the middle! Be sure to check out the first in this series of reviews, Night of the Living Dead, HERE!
While most would agree that the first film of his ‘Blank of the Dead’ movies, Night of the Living Dead, is a classic, many more would tell you that it’s Dawn of the Dead that’s their favorite. I’ll be honest, comparing the two, I still prefer Night and the gut-punch of the ending, but Dawn’s social commentary is particularly biting, especially now…almost forty years later…in such a way that is both awesome and utterly frightening. So once again, we’re tasked with reviewing a classic…and like last time, I have some personal connection to the film…having attended my very first comic book convention at the very site where they filmed Dawn, the Monroeville Mall…where I attended my very first comic book convention. We’ll muck through all of this to get to an opinion of a film that has already be lauded by better men and women than I.
First, as always, is a little bit of a plot synopsis…although most already know the gist of it: a group of people hole up in a shopping mall in an attempt to wait out the zombie apocalypse. Sure, this is the broad strokes of it, but it overlooks so much. I’ll walk you through the first act, then we’ll move on to the meat and potatoes of both the film and this review…the social commentary and the deep existential depression that comes with pondering this 40-year-old message in a bottle. We open the film in a television station that is barely holding itself together. Granted, I’d expect that’s what would be happening during any sort of zombie apocalypse. What is being broadcast is a debate between a doctor trying to establish and relay the facts of this outbreak being countered by an interviewer who almost seems to insist that the facts that are being presented can’t be believed simply because they are unbelievable. Don’t worry, we’ll discuss that more in a bit once we get to analyzing the commentary. On top of that, we meet one of our lead characters, Francine (yeah, we’re calling her Fran after this), who is trying to get a correct list of rescue stations to run at the bottom of the screen when practically everyone around her is telling her to stick with the old list…even though more than half of those stations have shut down…putting anyone that’s seeing this out of date list in serious jeopardy. It’s during all of this that we meet our next main character, Steve…or Flyboy as he’ll become known, who is a traffic report helicopter pilot who’s got it in his mind to make a run for it…as so many others are. He tells Fran to meet him on the roof at 9 and NOT to be late. She’s hesitant to leave, feeling like she’s making a difference in saving lives at the TV station but, as one cameraman points out, “Go. We’re likely to be off the air by midnight anyway, the emergency network’s taking over.” Oh, I suppose it’s worth pointing out that our starting point here is the City of Brotherly Love – Philadelphia, PA. [Is there a WGON there? Or is Romero dropping another hint here? – Ed.] Our next stop is a slum apartment building, also in Philly, where a SWAT team is ready to come in through the roof to take down Martinez…although for what we’re never explicitly told. [Wiki says it’s for not properly turning over any and all dead bodies over to the authorities, and Wiki never lies! – Ed.] This, naturally, devolves into a gunfight and we’re shown that more than just a few of the cops are a touch racist using a fair amount of slurs…so that once everything goes to shit, many are aiming to shoot anyone and everyone that isn’t wearing blue…living or dead. On the roof, this is where we meet Roger talking with a rookie and we’re shown that Roger is one of the cooler heads in this scene. As this scene breaks down even further where there’s gunfire, living and now living dead (not to mention some tear gas for effect!), this is where we meet our final member of the team, Peter…one of the few brothers not to be the first person killed in a horror movie. Roger recognizes that Peter’s got his head on straight and extends to him an invitation. Turns out that Roger is in cahoots with Steve and wants to know if Peter wants to go with. The two travel to where they’re to meet Steve and Fran…but have a little run in with another group of cops who are making a run for it. While this new group first intends to steal the helicopter, they opt instead to take a boat instead…leaving our four characters to take to the skies where, after a long night’s flight, they decide to take temporary shelter in one of those new indoor shopping malls they spotted from above. Can they survive holed up in a place that likely contains everything they need to survive…but was built to allow and facilitate easy access?
As I alluded to in the opening, even just the first 15-30 minutes of this film still resonates today. Let’s start off with the TV station…and we’ve got two things in play here: the interview and the erroneous rescue station list. In the interview, we have a doctor trying to present the facts…albeit more than just a little riled and certainly under a pretty damn good amount of stress…and an interviewer questioning those facts who counters with “I’m not sure what to believe, since all we have to go on is what you tell us.” Taken in the context of its time, this could certainly be pointing out how the news media was manipulated by the US Government to put a much rosier spin on the situation in Vietnam during that conflict…but we can also fast forward and see this in play today: one side again presenting facts and pointing out a changing world while another side refutes it not with facts but simply with the reasoning that this isn’t what the people want to hear. But before it starts to sound like I’m picking a side in more modern conflicts, let’s turn our attention to the media as presented here…as they’re certainly not without fault. As one of the guys working the emergency radio states in the opening minutes of the film, “We’ve had old information on the air for the last 12 hours.” While Fran recognizes the responsibility that the Fourth Estate has and thus tries to track down an updated list…and, failing in that, turns off the list of stations entirely…she finds herself in an argument with the station manager who tells her to keep that list running so that people will continue to watch…otherwise, they’ll tune out. Again, given journalism in its current state…news agencies large and small rushing to be first with a headline or breaking news and not taking the necessary time to stop and verify…this seems either eerily prescient for a 40-year-old film…or profoundly disturbing that perhaps we haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think from then to now.
Next up, let’s take a look at our SWAT team. This one’s pretty easy. With all the news these days of police being charged with unnecessary fatal shootings of mostly minorities and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the officer spewing various racial slurs who finally just snaps and starts killing everyone that’s not a cop within the tenement building seems like he’d be just as at home as a modern character as he does here. The fact that it takes some ‘blue on blue’ violence to finally take him down…with the final, fatal shot coming from Ken Foree’s Peter ends up making the scene a little more powerful. Once more, here we are…40 years later. Is the mirror creepy? Or is it us? Not helping matters is a one-legged priest that wanders through this scene as though in his own haze. While most won’t remember this quote, I found it to be just as pertinent as those that everyone DOES remember. The priest, after informing Peter and Roger that there are undead being kept in the basement that he has administered the Last Rites to, says “When the dead walk the earth, we have to stop the killing. Otherwise, we lose the war!” Sure, it sums up the struggle when dealing with an undead enemy, but also feels like it could fit in with any commentary against…well, at that time we were in the wake of Vietnam…but any war in general would fit. Or the police killings occurring then and happening now. We may never have to deal with zombies, but this quote has a weight to it that ranks right up there with one that comes once we get into the main commentary of the film…which we’ll get to in a little bit, but first…
Along their flight path, our four main characters end up flying over a stretch of rural Pennsylvania where a vast swath of hunters as well as the National Guard appear to be having a field day. This, likely intentionally, lines up extremely well with the closing scenes of Night. In fact, this scene almost feels like a beer commercial for Iron City Beer placed within the film…and it brought two things to my mind. First was former President Obama’ side comment regarding those that cling to their religion and their guns. Yup, these are definitely those people we’re looking at here. Even Steve comments, “Those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing.” Likely so, given the second thing that came to my mind. You see, I have a cousin that would fit in smashingly well with that lot…and to be fair, they’d certainly have a much better chance of survival than most within cities, suburbs and other vast urban sprawls…but the reason I bring him up is that it’s come up many times in our assorted conversations where he’d tell me that he wanted to be around for the end times. Given that he’s Catholic, I never really understood his fixation because, you see, in the book of Revelations…the righteous are swept up pretty quickly during the Rapture and don’t really get to see the bulk of the events unfold. By the time any hypothetical zombies are pulling their undead butts out of the ground…well, if you’re still here to see it, then it’s pretty clear you were NOT one of the righteous. That ain’t a good sign for your chances of getting out of this mess. Steering this back to the film though, we even hear the music become more twangy and folksy as these people relish in the fact that everything their fears, founded and unfounded, have forced them to prepare for is unfolding…and that’s the contradiction worth pointing out: they’re reveling in the gunplay and hunting aspect all the while completely oblivious to just how fucked they are in terms of their very own religion (because they may not all be Catholic like my cousin…but I’d damn sure wager 98% of ‘em are Christian in some way, shape or form). It’d be interesting to revisit this group once the beer and the bullets were gone. [Who are we kidding, they’d just move on to moonshine and arrows. – Ed.]
Now, for the main attraction, the main commentary housed within the film and certainly the most obvious. On first blush, if you were to ask anyone if they think it’d be cool to wait out a zombie apocalypse in a mall, well…the first answer you get might be in the form of a question: “What’s a mall?” My analysis of the film couldn’t come at a weirder time as it comes during the downfall of mall culture. Shopping malls around the country are disappearing or have become dilapidated husks of their former selves. A YouTube search of abandoned malls will provide you hours of videos to watch…including two that I actually frequented as a child: Rolling Acres Mall in Akron and Randall Park Mall in the outskirts of Cleveland. However, if you were to change the wording to…say...would it be cool to wait out the zombie apocalypse in an Amazon Warehouse, then perhaps you end up hitting on the updated version of what Dawn is trying to convey: consumerism run amok. Romero neither sugar coats it nor flinches in showing us the road we as a society were just starting down back then and one that we’re many, MANY miles further along today. He takes the time to build up the false sense of security that envelopes his main characters as essential and less than essential items are so easily at hand while the world around them continues to crumble into pieces. He shows us how the materialism that springs forth from this puts a general malaise over this small group…and how the interpersonal relationships slowly deteriorate over time, especially in the relationship between Steve and Fran or in the overconfidence that overtakes Roger. Even in the zombies, Romero shows us a dark reflection of ourselves. Whether it’s as obvious as it is in the line “They’re us,” when discussing why so many of the undead seem to be congregating at their location or if it’s a little more subtle, such as when the zombies are clawing all over each other at the gates of closed stores to try and get to the goods contained within. The only difference between this an practically ANY department store on Black Friday going back at least twenty years now is that in this instance, the masses are after the living within…not the goods.
Speaking of the goods, they’re instrumental in bringing this story to a close as Romero shows us that even at the end of the world, there will be the struggle between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Nots’…embodied by the gang that invades the mall at the end of the film, breaking the main characters’ stagnantly ordered world and pushing the entire situation into unbridled chaos. In some ways, the characters bring this on themselves. At the start of their occupancy of the mall, they knew they’d have to keep a low profile but as they become desensitized to the situation around them, given their own relative comfort, in an attempt to teach Fran how to fly the helicopter they end up drawing attention to themselves. And Romero is just as realistic as any of us, in this type of situation, OF COURSE there are going to be looters and revelers…those that will bask in the fact that law and order are a thing of the past and it’s anything goes. Once you get to that point, the whole pie and seltzer water scene makes a little more sense. In some ways, it ends up being a type of zombie bacchanal…a carpe diem moment taken to an extreme…a purely hedonistic moment indulged in by people who aren’t even remotely thinking about tomorrow, they’re simply grabbing what they can in the moment…and all of that circles back to the materialism and consumerism at the root of the film and something that, again, we still haven’t really pulled ourselves away from…in fact, just the opposite.
I’ve gotten a little long winded here and, to be honest, I didn’t expect that I would. Sure, I’d seen Dawn a few times prior to this review, but it was looking at it under this sort of light that you can appreciate just everything that is piled into the movie. This is the work of a master storyteller and a profound observer of humanity. While I still feel that Night works better as a horror film…mainly because while most of Tom Savini’s special effects are fantastic as always, his choice to make the vast majority (but not all, strangely) of the zombies varying shades of blue, this coloration just pulls me out of it…Dawn is far more successful as a social commentary and works at a different level as existential horror. This movie won’t keep you up at night for weeks like Night will…but it will make you sit back and become depressed at how little progress we as a society and as human beings in general have made over the past 40 years. “They’re us. They’re us and we’re them.” Whether it’s Ken Foree’s Peter comparing himself and his fellow survivors to the zombie hoards or if it’s us as film watchers sitting back and realizing that we’re just as much like those survivors and thus just as much like those zombies, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead remains just as haunting a film now as when it was originally released. And that? THAT should keep you up at night.
Now, let’s get out of this mall and make our way underground…as the DAY marches on…