October 22, 2012

Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead (1979) is a garish, exuberant horror movie, one which still leaves me feeling giddy. It's such a half-serious kind of a scare picture that you forget how dark it is under the surface, and that dark nastiness can come up from behind and take a big bite out of you. Of course some will scoff that the special effects in Dawn of the Dead are outdated now, but for me, the comic book-red blood and the pasty-faced flesh-eating ghouls are still enchanting, almost more so because they're
so obviously unreal. Who on earth could enjoy a "serious" zombie movie anyway?

(George Romero, the director of Dawn, had made something more serious in his directorial debut, the cult classic Night of the Living Dead, but that film had the effect of a surreal nightmare and it worked for it. But I can't praise Romero's first three zombie pictures enough. They're woven into the tapestry of my movie-going history. I've seen them too many times to count, which has lessened their impact somewhat, and yet I continue to find new and intriguing things in them.)

In Dawn, the zombie crisis established in Night has escalated, and the film opens at a Pittsburgh television news station, where the commentators, technicians, and program managers are all in a tizzy. The world is ending but dammit if they aren't going to continue competing for ratings. Soon, two of the TV station employees flee the city in a company helicopter, along with two members of the National Guard. They eventually land on the roof of a shopping mall, which is overrun with the walking dead, and barricade themselves inside the materialist mecca, securing it from the ghoul invasion for a while.

Critics have beaten the consumerism theme into the ground, so I won't go into detail about that here. Instead I'd like to point out how Romero's visual sense of storytelling makes this movie work. He's admitted that his screenplays generally contain twice as many shots as most feature films, and one can imagine how difficult this becomes logistically for the director of photography, the lighting director, and anyone else involved in the mapping out of a given scene and its particular actions. But Romero's ability to imagine what he wants, which is tempered by the loosening powers of spontaneous input from his cast and crew, is what makes Dawn of the Dead such a visually arresting movie experience.

You don't really need dialogue to get this movie. You don't need deep characters. Indeed, these characters don't have much more of a backstory than those of Romero's first zombie installment. We're lucky if we even get last names. While I'm no opponent of richly detailed characters, I see the value in utilizing a more shallow representation of people in horror movies. They're functional to the plot, like just about everything else in these kinds of films. This has been used as a slur on the genre, and while it tends to work against your enjoyment of movies like Friday the 13th, it sometimes works out well. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to movies, and so there are no hard and fast rules about genre. What unites the film is a sense of menace and a sense of struggle against that menace. You root for these--sometimes idiotic--characters, even when they make silly mistakes. You jeer at the stupidity of the helicopter pilot who can't kill a zombie to save his life, and you look with derision at the token woman, who's only a cut above the catatonic leading lady of Night, who was so positively useless. (Romero later tried to atone for this by making the lead in Day of the Dead a strong female character a la Sigourney Weaver in Alien.)

But the shopping mall setting, the gaudy gore effects of Tom Savini, the histrionic synthesized score by the Italian band Goblin, and Romero's own sick view of America as the seat of self-consumerism, all conspire to make Dawn of the Dead the classic American horror movie experience. I'll even disagree with my movie critic icon Pauline on this one. Flaws and all, with every new development in movies technically that might threaten to render it less effective, it still works bloody well.

With David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, and Savini in a small role as a biker. 126 mins. (Extended edition, featuring mostly unimportant footage that was rightly excised from the theatrical cut, runs 140 mins, and the European cut, overseen by Italian horror master Dario Argento, runs about 118 mins.)

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