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Dawn of the Dead Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 16, 2007

    Dawn of the Dead Review
    “You know Macumba? Voodoo? My Granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to say When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.

    A good few years ago now, I had the pleasure of indulging myself in a massive review of Dawn Of The Dead - The Ultimate Edition for a site that is now defunct. At the time I considered that work to be my absolute final word on the subject of one of my all-time favourite movies ... and kind of believed (hoped, even) that I wouldn't have to do it all over again. The film is an unparalleled classic, with its legions of fans tantamount to the ratio of Romero's zombies as opposed to the few, quarrelsome survivors. It has been examined to an almost microscopic degree, with practically Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan (from Day Of The Dead) style relish by geeks, academics, social commentators, moral guardians, historians and other filmmakers ad infinitum, leaving one to presume that there just couldn't be anything left to say on the matter of these maligned-yet-so-loved shambling ghouls. The whole social satire angle of American consumerism-gone-mad has, inevitably, been done to death and I have no desire to regurgitate that particular subtext all over again. So, what exactly is there left to discuss within the gore-soaked parameters of George Romero's horrific, hysterical, hyperactive zombie opus?

    In the words of Peter, Dawn's crack-shot hero, “Who the hell cares? Let's go shopping first!” And there is certainly much fun and food for thought on the shelves of Romero's mall-cum-arena ... so, perhaps, “We'll just wait awhile ... and see,” as we peruse the grisly goods on offer in everybody's favourite gut-munching, shoot 'em up. Okay, that's the consumerism angle exploited. Be warned, as with all these classics surfacing at the moment, spoilers abound. So, in the highly unlikely event that you haven't seen the film, you'd best skip to the technical details.

    Horror-auteur George Romero had taken the genre by the scruff of the neck and then bitten a huge chunk out of it with his debut film, the gritty classic black-and-white super-shocker Night Of The Living Dead (1968 - the breakthrough year for movies from all genres), but after a trio of notable, but under-achieving movie - Season Of The Witch (aka Jack's Wife), The Crazies and Martin, the time seemed right to return to the story he had written a long time before. Called Anubis, after the Egyptian God of the Dead, and shamelessly influenced by Richard Matheson's cult bloodsucker novel I Am Legend, his epic tale was the template for what he now envisaged as a possible trilogy of films depicting the apparent end of the world after an unexplained virus reanimates the bodies of the recently deceased and turns them loose upon the living with an insatiable lust for human flesh. The events of the first film have escalated and these ravenous zombies are now everywhere in the United States, if not across the world. The authorities are in turmoil, the cities have become confused riot zones, beleaguered scientists struggle to convince a frightened population of the full danger and martial law exists. Romero sets up this panicked nationwide state via the jumbled chaos of an increasingly jittery TV station. The director, himself, along with his wife and co-producer Christine can be seen sitting at a vision-mixing desk barking orders at the unhinged and frightened staff around them. As things deteriorate before our very eyes, Fran (Gaylen Ross) is convinced by her boyfriend Stephen (David Emge) that it is best to flee the city in the helicopter that he pilots for the station. “Someone's got to survive!” he implores her, the full gravity of the disaster suddenly beginning to hit home.

    “Many have died, last week, on these streets. In the basement of this building, you will find them. I have given them the last rites. Now, you do what you will. You are stronger than us. But soon, I think they be stronger than you. When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing... or lose the war.”

    Across town, SWAT teams lay siege to ghetto tenements whose inhabitants have been hoarding the dead bodies of their loved ones against the rapidly enforced law that dictates they should be removed and destroyed. It is a grim affair, as seasoned professionals lose their cool and racist bigots find targets everywhere for their twitchy trigger fingers. Among them are Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree). Their alliance will become the foundation stone for the fleeing refugees as, after a disastrous bloodbath in the ghetto that ends up with more zombies going into town for lunch, they tag along with Fran and Stephen and take off for pastures new. “We got an idea maybe we can make it to the islands,” a cross-eyed cop at the docks tells them, indicating that organised defence has completely broken down. “What island?” asks a quizzical Stephen. “Any island,” he replies ... a literal description of the common man's futility in the face of Armageddon. “What about you? Where you headed?” he asks, his immediate search for cigarettes still taking precedence over his own physical safety. “Straight up,” Stephen replies as the chopper rises above the maelstrom, the lights of the city blinking out beneath them as a greater darkness closes in.

    “The people it kills get up and kill!

    A perilous cross-country journey reveals what the jumbled Emergency Broadcasts on TV and radio have been hinting all along. The epidemic is everywhere, and normal humans are fast becoming the minority. But destiny awaits the four in the shape of a vast indoor shopping mall. Landing on the roof and making a preliminary reconnaissance of the sprawling mecca is enough to convince them that there couldn't be a better place to hole up. Everything they need is there at their fingertips - food, guns, tools, home furnishings ... etc. All they have to do is clear the place of zombies and then fortify it so that can't get in again. Sounds too good to be true - and, of course, it is. But the snake in this newfound Garden of Eden is not so much the swelling ranks of the living dead, who swarm to the place because it meant so much to them in life, but the gang of motorcycle marauders whose own penchant for greed and violence far exceeds the base instincts of the zombies, themselves and will threaten to undo our heroes' last chance for survival.

    “You never point a gun at anybody! Scary, isn't it? Isn't it?”

    At the risk of sounding like the Ginger Jabba over on AICN, the cast have become like family members to me now, so often have I watched their bloody adventures. At first glance, none of them exhibit what you would call star power, and yet each has the talented tenacity to grow on you as the film progresses. And, naturally, with lots of repeat viewing over the years, their performances become as cosy and as right as can be. Ken Foree's super-trooper Peter is the stuff of legend - an absolutely no-nonsense, macho, tactical-minded combat supremo. As at home strutting through the ranks of the undead as he is taking out a rogue fellow trooper gone bloody-crazy, Peter is the indomitable backbone of the foursome. He's good with his hands too, knocking up extensions to their loft-space designer pad with a speed and finesse that would take the wind out of Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen's sleeves. And if you want an abortion, it's not too late ... and he knows how! Out of all the cast members, it is Ken Foree who went on to forge a career out of the horror genre in front of the cameras. A big, boldly featured man, he has graced the likes of Stuart Gordon's From Beyond, Texas Chainsaw III, Zack Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead remake and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects and even his Halloween remake, sitting, of all places, on the toilet. Romero's casting of Duane Jones in Night had caused ructions with one of the first incidents of a film having a black leading man - especially controversial in view of the racially turbulent era in which it was made. Already a friend of Jones, Foree was elated to virtually reprise the same ethnic prominence in the sequel. A much better actor, he was able to inject warmth and humour into the part as well as seriously gung-ho bravado. But check out the moment when he grabs a dangerously cavalier Roger and warns him, “Now you're not just playing with your life ... you're playing with mine,” to see how commanding he can be when the situation calls for it. There is even a brief glimpse into his own tortured state when he refuses to leave the mall, that little pistol hovering so teasingly before those big warm eyes that just don't want to see anymore carnage. Still, it's that commando roll on the balcony and that fist and foot flurry on the roof that people most fondly remember of Peter's antics.

    “I could run. I could run right tonight. Friend of mine's got this helicopter. Think it's right ... to run?

    Scott H. Reiniger purposely makes the diminutive Roger the comedy focus of the team. His physical build is used magnificently throughout the film. “You look my size when you're sitting in a truck!” laughs Peter as the pair begins their motorised assault on the undead with trucks. The way that he hops down through the mall skylight and does what now looks like a parody of Kate Beckinsale's celebrated casual landing from Underworld, and the manner in which he sits down to listen to Fran's justified ranting are purely novel touches from an actor who manages who sneak some theatrical idiosyncrasies under Gory George's nose. It is difficult not to go totally against the advice of the one-eyed boffin on the TV about remaining unemotional during the crisis when Roger succumbs to the zombie-virus. With his already gaunt features even more emaciated, his thinning hair spiking every which way and his pathetic resolve “not to come back” tugging at the heartstrings, look at how he strokes the sleeve of Peter, his comrade-in-arms, doing anything he can to cling to the warmth of humanity as the last vestiges of his own slip away. In a film that is over-the-top and incident-packed, Romero and Reiniger find an almost unbearably tragic heartbeat pulsing away beneath the squibs and the latex-flesh. It is a real testament to the class of Romero's direction and the actor's modulated performance in the role that we dread what is happening to him and really miss Roger when he's gone. There is something incredibly creepy about him when that blanket drops though, isn't there? The way his horribly red-ringed eyes take in his surroundings and then spot breakfast ...

    “I got GON I.D., so does Fran.”

    “Right, and we're out doing traffic reports! Wake up, sucker, we're thieves and we're bad guys ... that's exactly what we are!”

    Critics always like to slam David Emge for having zero charisma and being the Billy Bland of the quartet, but I have to disagree most strenuously with such off-the-mark observations. Emge is saddled with a very difficult role. He is introverted. His life has been spent up in the air, avoiding the confrontations and the stress of the TV studio that employs himself and Fran. When civilisation breaks down, he is quick-witted enough to sense that their only hope is to take off into the sky. But even though he trusts his friend Roger, and certainly understands the need for trained shooters on their journey, his attitude towards new-guy Peter is naturally stand-offish and wary. But gradually, he begins to feel that horrible sense of uselessness once sanctuary has been found, his attempts to take manly control of situations misplaced, foolhardy and believably inept. “Stephen, don't go down there!” Fran implores him when he takes off on his own little recon mission of the mall, clutching weaponry that he seriously doesn't know how to use. But check out his delight at being accepted by the genuine Men of the operation, especially so when he smugly reveals that he found the plans for the overhead duct-work that they can use to scamper around the mall unmolested by the zombies. I like the way he is constantly upstaged in front of the tough SWAT guys - missing zombies' with wildly inaccurate shooting; slamming his rifle and ammo down when Fran demands them off him; sheepishly snuggling into her when he realises that she has overheard their talk of the pregnancy and their refusal to move away from the mall; the look on his glum-cum-dumb face when she vents her frustration at their ritualistic domesticity of turning the TV off and on again; and his reserved consternation at her thoughtful refusal of his marriage proposal. But there is possibly a reason for Stephen's perpetual blankness - he is like a living zombie, unable to find the proper emotions once the proverbial hits the fan, unable to communicate except in the most rudimentary manner - to wit the sequence when he is virtually impotent with regards to warning Roger of the danger that is creeping up on him in the haulage yard. The only time he finds his real personality and actually acts on impulse is when he inadvertently causes World War III in the mall. He's just the unluckiest dude there is.

    But, man, when those elevator doors slide back and Stephen makes that unbelievably doddery final walk, revolver swinging crazily from his crooked finger, unearthly groan issuing from deep down inside a neck that is so convincingly ripped-into that you just have to freeze the image to study that gaping hole ... David Emge's entry into the Horrordom's Hallowed Hall Of Fame is justifiably ensured.

    “I would have made you all breakfast, but I forgot my pots and pans.”

    Gaylen Ross was initially a sticking point for me as a kid watching all this macho, gun-toting fantasy being played out. Why's there have to be a woman in there? She's only going to slow things down, went my juvenile thinking. But, of course, Fran is a totally necessary and fine, though often overlooked, member of the team as well. Remarkably, she actually starts out as a strong-willed character instead of gradually being forced to rise to the occasion like so many other scream-queens of the horror-cycle that was about to begin in Dawn's wake. Actually, if you watch the film, Fran doesn't scream at all, unless it is at Stephen. Unusually for such a role, Fran actually goes through several swings back and forth as her arc is drawn throughout the story, which, if you think about it, is actually a spot-on depiction considering that she is supposed to be pregnant. At the beginning, she is one of the few people in control at a TV station descending into pandemonium, sticking to her guns about not relaying false information to the public and, a little later on, even making friends with Peter when Stephen is being a sulky and unsociable pest. As the story moves along, she may have a few false and vulnerable turns - falling prey to the zombified Hara Krishna and standing by uselessly as Stephen wrestles with the undead at the airfield - but she is the one who thinks of using the car in the mall, she is the one who realises the necessity of being able to pilot the helicopter in case Stephen doesn't make it. And she is the one who makes the most empathy with the zombies - freeing the nun from the gate, suffering in silence as the “Bach's Arco Pitcairn” baseball player sits and smiles at her, imbecilically, from behind the glass (a perversely touching moment, this), turning away from the scene of mass murder that she and her friends have perpetrated in order to clean up their new home. It is a remarkably assured performance from a woman who was virtually making her screen debut in Dawn Of The Dead.

    “Say goodbye, creep!”

    The other star of the movie is, inarguably, Tom Savini, who not only designed and executed the gory stuff, but also played the moustache-combing biker, Blades, and took on the role of stuntman for several special zombie-deaths. His makeup effects were startling in their day and still pack a visceral punch even now, although the high definition process has not been conducive to their realism, I'm afraid. The extra clarity and additional resolution now reveals more bits of normal skin that the airbrushing of zombie-blue/green paint had not reached. In particular it is astonishing how many times a ghoul's eyelids and ears are shown up as ...well, pretty normal looking - something that was nowhere near as apparent on the SD versions. But, hey, who cares? This is the Cecil B. De Mille of gore - extravagant, wild, and anarchic and as liberally splashed around as if a fire-truck had loaded up with fresh blood and then just turned the hoses loose. Yes, it is still the wrong colour as Savini, himself, still rues. But the vivid scarlet and day-glow reds running down faces and exploding out of the backs of skulls have that unique cartoonic look that has now passed into legend. With Tom Savini recently getting quartered in Robert Rodriquez's vastly superior Grindhouse instalment, Planet Terror, it is wonderful to see his own now-primitive methods of dismemberment and disembowelling. Taso Stavrakis' tongue-squealing biker “Sledge” getting virtually unwrapped by clutching zombie hands (watch for his marvellous “bowling-ball” head-removal in Day Of The Dead, as well) and the grisly tenement basement banquet are a gore-hound's delight. Giblets, barbequed chicken and sausage-meat they may be, but the sundry intestinal props employed by the movie have a bizarre place of affection in the hearts of horror fans the world over. But it is the extraordinary bullet-hits that really make Dawn stand out. A condom-and-apple-core filled dummy head blown apart by a shotgun; Peter's cranial sharp-shooting with his high-powered hunting rifle; gaggles of ghouls strafed by a biker sporting a Tommy-gun; wall-splattering exit-wounds that leave patterns like modern art; fish-line yanked shards of head-bone whistling away as hand-pumped blood tubing spouts welters of claret - it's joke-shop depravity on an impossibly huge scale. Sam Peckinpah may have championed the use of explosive bullet-squibs before anybody else, but without Savini's groundbreaking achievements in charting full-on projectile-trajectory through flesh - living or dead - Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan would not have been so mind-numbingly authentic. But Savini doesn't stop there. After George Romero tipped him off with the proviso to dream up as many imaginative ways of killing people as he could, the ex-Vietnam battlefield photographer cooked up some pure one-off classic dispatchings. There's the screwdriver over-tightening a zombie's cochlea (it's in his ear, folks), a noggin-splatting windscreen smash that Savini, himself, undergoes in the guise of a ghoul, the machete-ventilation of a skull, and, perhaps most fondly recalled, the top of a head sliced off like a boiled egg by an animated helicopter rotor blade. This amazing coup-de-grace always did look a little daft, if I'm totally honest. The zombie's built-up head makes him resemble not so much Boris Karloff's flat-topped Frankenstein monster as it does the freaky creations Odd-Bod and Junior from the infamous Carry On Screaming.

    But with such an enormous workload - for there surely cannot have been a movie before or since that matches the sheer volume of individual makeups and effects that Dawn amasses, except maybe for The Lord of The Rings - we can forgive some of Savini's less-convincing efforts.

    Dawn has an eclectic soundtrack, too. Utilising Dario Argento's scoring group of choice from the seventies, Italian rockers Goblin, Romero's movie makes a lot of very strange musical choices. One part Euro-rock, one part mood-enhancing ode to the last of mankind's loneliness and despair, a whole lot of gloriously daft mall-muzak - the Zombie Polka is indelibly etched in my brain forevermore - and some glaringly obvious library tracks (one of which used to be a regular cue in Armchair Thriller), it is immediately individual and unique. But there are some great little motifs in there amidst the weirdness. The rising crescendo and then synthesised heartbeat echo as Roger and Peter discover the zombie basement and then proceed about their mercy killings is eerie and memorable. Goblin's pounding action cue as our heroes commandeer one of the mall cars and go on a drive-by shooting-spree mixes high-speed excitement with a surprisingly upbeat flavour to counterpoint the massacre. This cue then segues into one of the best and most powerfully atmospheric pieces of the film - when the four stand upon the balcony outside J.C. Penny's, poor crippled Roger trying to climb the railings for a better view, to survey the aftermath of the hunting trip they've just been on to clear the mall. Pounding ethnic drums beat out the slow slide to the four's realisation of just how barbaric they have become in order to survive, tying in with Peter's earlier reference to voodoo. This one scene, combining the music, the images of the dead sprawled out in pools of blood and the forlorn and somewhat guilty expressions on our heroes' faces becomes one of Dawn's lasting and most haunting vision of Hell on Earth. If Night Of The Living Dead came across as the raw anger towards America's involvement in Vietnam and the escalating racial violence taking place on its home ground, then Dawn, in its less wildly vulgar moments encapsulates, with stark honesty, the sad extremity of man's fundamental inhumanity towards his fellow man. I've killed you once, it seems to say with cruel glee, but that won't stop me killing you again. As that eye-patch-wearing scientist bleats out at one stage, “One wonders what is worth saving.” He is no stranger to the scepticism and ridicule of the great un-scrubbed, himself, having portrayed the egghead who discovers the antidote to the virus in Romero's similarly-themed “The Crazies”, in which he is also veritably dismissed when chaos in a crowded building leads to his own death.

    “Ain't it a crime? The only person who could ever miss with this gun ... would be the sucker with the bread to buy it!”

    The M16's that the film so lovingly sports are a bit of a gaff that anyone who knows guns may cringe at a little bit. You see, if you look closely at where the magazines go, you will notice that the weapons Romero managed to procure for the film are actually using little tiny mini-mags for the miniscule .22 “lady-bullets” of the Jaeger AR-15 home market version of the rifle. Hardly the assault rifle of choice for super SWAT guys. I know it is only a movie, but considering that one memorable scene actually takes place inside a gun shop in the mall, with all manner of proper weaponry on display and the production had access to the National Guard Barracks just down the road, this seems like a strange oversight. Mind you, when I was a teenager, I was actually made up with this because I owned a fully licensed Jaeger, myself. Don't worry, it was all legal and above board - this was pre-Hungerford and gun clubs were still very popular in the UK and there was nothing better than blasting a few diddy-little bullets through man-sized targets down at the range and pretending they were either zombies or bikers! Actually I preferred them as bikers - not quite sure what that says about me, though!

    “We'll get it all locked off, then we're going on a hunt.”

    The concept of being the last, or one of the last few, on Earth is actually quite a popular fantasy ... especially amongst survivalist-types who would simply relish the notion of holding out against a tide of cross-hair fodder zombies. But the appeal is more wide-ranging than that. Having all those shops and cars and luxuries at your disposal and the ability to live like a King or a Queen with no-one to give you any orders remains at the root of Romero's and, especially Matheson's, original ideas. Both creators find time for their protagonists to enjoy the trappings of such freedom, with Romero's really able to lord-it-up amid the glitz and never-ending glamour of a mall full of nearly inexhaustible supplies. With pathetically clutching hands, the zombies become the impoverished and downtrodden masses - almost the visual imagery of Depeche Mode's classic 80's track “Everything Counts” (especially lines like, “the grabbing hands grab all they can” etc - the song, itself, a broadside against capitalism that Romero's grand opera of slaughter would approve of.) But, equally, both Matheson and Romero find the bleakness and despair of the situation acutely as well, but in opposite directions to one another. For Matheson, the last normal man on Earth becomes the monster simply because he is different from the vastly outnumbering vampires that besiege him. They actually fear and loathe him and he becomes the one stumbling block in the way of their new society. For Romero, things are not that simple and his Anubis tale goes off on a tangent that is possibly more realistic. Matheson figures that civilisation will always rebuild itself, although its new guises might be a horrific alternative to our own codes and ethics. Romero, on the other hand, has a difficult time believing that humanity would actually being able to hold it together in the first place. Plague or no plague, he seems to be intimating that the society of man is prone to tear itself apart eventually anyway. When it all comes down to it, even the last few cannot live together, choosing greed and tribal animosity over the solidarity that would lead to survival. The invading horde of barbarian bikers is the obvious reference but, throughout the film, our heroes do everything they can to make sure that no other interlopers can disrupt their comparative harmony. Even at the end, when things could resolve themselves without bloodshed among the “living”, Stephen cannot allow their veritable paradise to be spoiled in such a way. “It's ours,” he breathes, taking careful aim. “We took it. It's ours.” In this way, Romero has the zombies themselves actually appearing as the more sympathetic race out of the whole lot, subtly evolving and possibly becoming the best-suited of a bad bunch to running the planet. Yet, even here, he makes the point that their aggressive nature would also evolve - check out one of Romero's famed Lead Zombies who has an interest in guns, a concept that Romero would take to greater levels in both Day Of The Dead, with the awesome Bub, and then in the lacklustre Land Of The Dead. Romero's take is the bleakest in this manner, because it establishes a kind of vicious cycle taking place - what goes around, comes around. Whereas Matheson, albeit obliquely and painfully, asserts that his new civilisation would perhaps be free of the self-destructive shackles of those that went before them. Yet, conversely, Romero's more desperate story actually ends on a weirdly positive note, whilst Matheson's novel, and its most faithful adaptation, the always sidelined (yet actually quite brilliant) Vincent Price-starring “The Last Man On Earth” end on a complete downer.

    “With those loading bays open ... there's gonna be a thousand zombies in here ...”

    Romero was never quite so audacious in his career after Dawn Of The Dead. The film feels epic in a way that Day and Land never could, actually making you wish that this had been the entry to close the series, rather than simply a middle-act stepping stone. Michael Gornick's photography is crisp but workmanlike, and it is Romero's own excellent editing that brings the film to life - the swift zombie-head/rifle-butt interaction as Roger and Peter turn the corner; Peter's serious glare as his kamikaze buddy opens the door of the truck; the accidental pushing of the elevator button as the zombies paw at the doors; the view down the sights of Peter's supergun as heads erupt left, right and centre. The choreography and sheer adrenalin of some truly extraordinary battle sequences - cavalry charges with motorbikes down shopping aisles; a staggeringly lunatic custard-pie fight; a rooftop skirmish with gun-toting tenement defenders; and the wounded Roger hurtling around the mall in a wheelbarrow and blasting merrily away at the gathering zombies - it is a non-stop, lurid EC Comics extravaganza of disintegrating heads, splashy guts, bodies flung over balconies or crushed under the wheels of trucks, and a wild dissertation of the savage idiocy of mankind when confronted with something that it cannot control or understand. It is an encyclopaedia of bodily destruction and dark humour that I, for one, cold never tire of watching, whichever cut of the film it happens to be, though I do prefer the extended 139-minute cut, which Romero used to premiere at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. Wish that had been on this disc, too.

    With such a strong and devoted cult following, extremely high and worthy praise from critics and film essayists alike and a sheer, go-for-broke attitude that would spectacularly raise the bar for low budget independent pictures and create one of the most influential and enduring sub-genres in the history of cinema, it is perhaps obligatory to award Dawn Of The Dead the full 10 out of 10. A film of this magnitude, power and awareness is impossible to ignore, sideline or play down. Romero's vision may have been influenced by Richard Matheson's seminal “I Am Legend”, but he took the same premise and looked at it with a sharper eye, a wittier mind and a stronger stomach. The Apocalypse has always been, and always will be, a profound and weighty topic upon which to hang all types of stories and writers, filmmakers and audiences the world over will never be exhausted of ways and metaphors with which to conjure it up. Romero somehow did the unthinkable with his depiction of Doomsday, however. He made it downright entertaining as well as terrifying.

    Long Live Dawn Of The Dead.