Movies – Dawn of the Dead

Something E has expressed interest in, and something I suddenly feel obliged to write:

In No Particular Order My 15 All-Time Favorite Films and Brief Explanation Why

Dawn of the Dead (1978) – My love for zombie films was born after a late-night Halloween viewing of this movie after getting off work from my job at Blowout Video. Despite the fact that Blowout (now Movie Gallery) was one of the interior businesses you find in Wal-Mart these days, I was rarely busy and when not people-watching through the glass partition, scanned the fronts of the VHS tapes for something I hadn’t heard of and would maybe like. You might expect such a gig to be right up my alley, but if you’re as unhappy with today’s Movie Gallery’s selections, you’d be positively miserable with the catalog of one of their Wal-Mart outlets. Halloween Night of 1995, knowing I’d be alone in my dorm while my roommate was away, I rented several low-brow horror movies to watch while I snacked on Twizzlers. One of the movies I took home was the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead.

Now, I didn’t know there had even be a remake. I was familiar with the title in the on-the-periphery pop-culture sense, but had never actually seen it. The horror movies I had grown up on were of the crazed-slasher sub-genre that started in the late ’70’s with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the first (and great) Friday the 13th but had exhausted itself by the late 80’s with such retread garbage as Dr. Giggles. Night (as it’s referred to), I knew, was the first of a trilogy of zombie films that began in the 1960’s. [Side note: Night of the Living Dead was one of the first independent movies ever released and, until the Miramax-led indie craze of the 90’s, was also one of the most successful] I thought a black-and-white zombie film might be fun. I can’t remember anything else I rented that Halloween (most likely John Carpenter’s Halloween and I remember vaguely The People Under the Stairs), but it was Night that stayed with me.

I know this is taking some time, but bear with me.

Night, or at least the one I brought home, wasn’t in black in white. Like I said, I unknowing brought home the remake. I was disappointed, but I was home alone on Halloween, right? The only other thing to do might be a kegger at Sigma Tau house and both of you know the likelihood I’d go that route. I was glad I did. I was mesmerized. Though the opening, a word-for-word, shot-for-shot recreation of the original, was dull, dimwitted and dopey, I was soon thrown into a deserted (or is it?) farmhouse with one of the all-time great B-list actors, Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman and a host of nobodies as they struggled for a survival as hordes of mindless zombies threatened to wash over them. The movie was fun if not smart, most of the joy coming from Todd’s earnest attempt to bring pathos to his situation and Tallman’s heart-breaking scream of frustration at the end of the pic. Still, I was taken to their predicament and sought out the original film.

Despite the fact that the original Night is in the public domain (which I still find surprising), there wasn’t a copy that hadn’t be re-cut or colorized to be found in Hattiesburg. Figuring I had the gist of the story (and guys, if you’re still with me this far, bless your patience– I doubt any other entry will be so long-winded or roundabout), I found the sequel. This I watched in my childhood home while on a weekend visit with my mother. I waited all day to watch the movie, figuring it might be more polite to wait til everyone went to bed before I watched “one of those things” while other people might want to watch, I don’t know, Friends.

I’m fascinated by the zombie-apocalypse subgenre (and, strangely, there is enough literature to comprise one) for one simple reason: there can be no victory. Subgenres within subgenres, “zombie apocalypse” falls under “survival horror” where the story isn’t how one wall-flower virgin can stave off some supernatural being bent on killing her but instead whether or not she can get away. Defeat is inevitable. You can’t beat zombies any more than you can “beat” a hurricane. They never stop. The tension is always high and only varies depending on the level of your always temporary shelter. They swarm.

The movie centers on the survival of two deserter SWAT members, a television news anchor and her chopper-pilot boyfriend. The four, reluctant to trust each other while the rest of America tears itself apart in desperation, find a mall in rural Pennsylvania and decide to land for supplies. The mall has been overrun by the undead, but our four survivors find inside possible shelter. Clothing, food, a security system, entertainment, guns, a building that serves even today’s culture as a place of refuge (storms, bomb shelter, etc.), they thought they had found a home. After eventually clearing it out, monotony creeps in and despite their every desire being sated, the world they want is the world outside. Disillusioned and their numbers cut to three, they prepare to leave the mall, a long flight out to some hopefully uncontaminated island where they might live like normal people. Before they can, however, the mall is overrun and they struggle to escape.

The effects were silly, the zombie makeup often nothing more than green face-paint (Dawn was made for half a million, a ridiculously low budget even in the 70’s), but what makes this a classic is its biting satire of consumerism and the disparity of this country’s wealth (survivors hole up in an indoor shopping mall– living off of the food court and dressing in expensive clothing off specialty store racks– while the hordes bang on the walls, demanding to be let in) AND Romero’s surprisingly successful creation of tension (he’s not exactly known for his deft touch). In none of the other movies which comprise his zombie-apocalypse epic is there ever the same sense of danger to the characters and between characters as found in this movie. I mean, I understood that I was watching a twenty-year old movie on my couch while my mother snored in the next room over but— brrrr . Despite the obvious age of the piece, it’s no movie for the squeamish or the claustrophobic.Three years ago, I met Ken Foree, who played the SWAT character Peter, at the San Diego Comic-Con. Foree has become a frequent direct-to-video horror actor and, though he charged me for a signed autograph of the Dawn cast and didn’t care to speak about the movie at all, it was a treat to shake his hand.

The special effects show their age in a day where computers create hordes of zombies on the fly and copious amounts of blood are lazily used to create horror, but Dawn remains vital for its message.

Apologies for the length and the lack of grace with the above.


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