Saturday, October 22, 2016

31 Days of Horror: DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

Welcome horror fans, to Day 22 of the 31 DAYS OF HORROR! We are back with another film in our lead up to Halloween, and today we will be reviewing George Romero's second foray into the zombie apocalypse: 1978's DAWN OF THE DEAD.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Ten years after reimagining zombies for a modern audience with Night of the Living Dead, George Romero returned to his vision of hell on Earth with Dawn of the Dead, the second project in Romero's six-film Living Dead saga, and the first to be shot in color. This is also the first film in the series to feature the work of makeup-effects grand master Tom Savini, who would have worked on Night as well, had it not been for the Vietnam draft.

While a decade had passed in the real world, mere hours have passed in the world of the film, with the story opening with the zombie crisis still in its first 24 hours. While Night showed us tiny glimpses of the collapse of society brought about by the plague, Dawn drops us onto the front line of the meltdown. We begin in a TV station in Philadelphia, which is still trying to bring information and assistance to viewers, even as the world crumbles around it. It isn't going well. Inside, the TV studio is complete chaos, in the middle of which a scientist is attempting to disseminate for viewers what little is known about the zombies, and the radical steps that must be taken to deal with them. These steps include cutting the heads off corpses, in other words desecrating the dead, which offends the other people in the studio, along with the host, who acts as though he still thinks he's hosting a shock-talk show. Meanwhile the station is broadcasting a list of shelters where survivors can seek refuge, though we quickly learn that list is 12 hours out-of-date. With no new information, and science offering no solutions other than a complete abandonment of societal traditions, despair sets in among the crew and the people begin to seek shelter for themselves. Among these are main characters Francine (Gaylen Ross) and her lover Stephen (David Emge), who flies the traffic copter for the TV station. They plan to escape to safety in the helicopter, though they don't know where they're going.

Joined by Stephen's friend Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), they set off on their aimless flight. On their way they pass over a large civilian militia, organized to hunt the zombies down and exterminate them. Since all of Romero's Living Dead movies take place in the same universe, I like to think this is the same militia that was responsible for Night's tragic ending, but of course we'll never know for sure. After crossing most of Pennsylvania, and running short of fuel and options, they land on the roof of a shopping mall. After a short investigation, they discover an area of the mall that is more or less secure, and decide to hole up there.

If Night of the Living Dead established the template for the modern zombie (reanimated corpse instead of hypnotized person), Dawn of the Dead helped establish the template for the modern zombie story. Zombies have numbers and strength, but they aren't fast. Therefore, an effective survival strategy requires the survivor to have both the wits to stay ahead of the walkers and the stamina to stay the course for the long haul. Our heroes bring plenty of the former, quickly figuring out how to fortify their position inside the spare storage rooms on the upper floor of the mall. Later, they work out how to get into the stores for supplies without getting in the way of the dead swarming through the mall's main interior. It's a smart plan, but it works too well. It works so well that our survivors get careless. Carelessness brings mistakes, which lead to casualties. Casualties bring despair, which leads to more mistakes, and ultimately to the collapse of the plan.

It's in the execution of this pattern that Dawn really shines. While the group are fortifying the mall against the zombie hordes, the film is almost joyous. Their plan is working brilliantly, and the four go about the execution of it almost like children at play. Then the first mistake happens, and so the first casualty. And the joyousness ends. After this the remaining characters enter into a slow-burning psychological descent. It isn't like zombie movies today, where there's the one crazy character that's an obvious, immediate threat to the other survivors. Instead, all of the remaining group feels the weight of their situation.

The thing about being in the situation of the survivors in a zombie movie is that it's exactly like being under siege, and the reason siege has been such an effective war tactic for thousands of years is because all the invading army has to do is wait. Zombies are the ultimate siege army; they need no supplies, and they have nothing but time, and so our survivors' situation begins to deteriorate. To their credit, they recognize what's happening to them after a time, and decide to move on.

Before they can leave, however, the mall is attacked by raiders, among which is Tom Savini in a supporting role. This attack allows the zombies to finally overrun the mall, and also sets the stage for one more illustration of the psychological state of the survivors, contained in an act that ultimately compromises the survivors' shelter once and for all. Some of them live to escape the mall, but they leave in exactly the same situation they were in at the start: low fuel, and no plan. Their odds of continued survival are virtually nonexistent.

While all Night of the Living Dead had in terms of substance were suggestions of an unformed "message", which were due to the film being a product of the sixties as much as anything, Dawn of the Dead makes clear commentary about American consumerism. First is the imagery of the glittering, Capitalist Mecca that is a shopping mall in the late seventies, overrun by zombies, a classic metaphor for humans ruled by appetite. The resulting scene is almost exactly like a Wal-Mart on a weekend: a sprawling shopper's paradise beset by shambling, blank-eyed throngs. Throw in a few screaming toddlers and the picture would be a virtual match.

Second is the behavior of our survivors after they've grown comfortable in their situation, seeking out items to distract them from their despair instead of continuing to fortify their shelter. Where they previously focused on taking care of their needs (food and security), now that those needs are met, the survivors begin looting the mall for comparatively worthless luxuries. They stock up on alcohol, fancy clothes, and even go so far as to take cash from a bank. Dawn leaves very little room for debate on the question of where it stands on the issue of the desire for more.

For reasons of copyright as well as story, characters from previous Living Dead films do not appear in subsequent installments. One exception, though, occurs in 2005's Land of the Dead, which features Tom Savini's second appearance in a Living Dead movie, his appearance in Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn notwithstanding. In Land, Savini can be spotted among the zombie hordes during the story's climax. In a fun, if disposable nod to continuity, Savini is wearing the same costume he wore in Dawn of the Dead, indicating he is appearing as the same character.

With a somewhat lighter tone, at least in its first half, and a message that remains relevant almost forty years later, Dawn of the Dead is a must-see for every zombie fan.

Dawn of the Dead is not rated, but contains adult language, violence and gore.

Robert's Score: 8/10

Be sure to stay tuned throughout the rest of the month! We're posting a new horror review every day all throughout October, both old and new! Check back to see what movie we'll have you covering your eyes from next!

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