Dawn of the Dead is George Romero’s follow up to the classic Night of the Living Dead and as much as I love this movie they are very different animals leading me to argue that Dawn, although entertaining is a far inferior movie to Night.
Night of the Living Dead is a stark, black-and-white piece which redefined how zombies are viewed in popular culture. It’s full of overtones relative to popular culture at the time as well as the social change happening in the U.S. during the late 60’s.
Dawn of the Dead came out a full decade later and the world had become a very different place by then. Some of this is obvious in the styles of the clothes and cars in the movie but that’s set dressing so let’s set that aside and focus on the story telling and the filmmaking.
The big difference that jumps out at me and makes me feel differently about the movie is the fact that it’s in color. That’s not necessarily a positive point in this case. Here it makes the fake blood and makeup effects look all the worse. In context I’m sure they looked great in comparison to other films coming out back then but looking at it today the effects come across as cheap and fake. I hate to say that because I truly believe that they are impressive effects in context and as I understand it were groundbreaking. But the same images shown in black and white could be more powerful and compelling simply by reducing how laughably blue all the zombies are and how painfully red the blood looks. In black and white it would read more believably. The entire tone of the movie would be more bleak and less comedic.
The plot of Dawn is actually fairly similar to the first movie as a group of survivors hole up and hope for the best with the zombies outside and the everything else progressing in the same manner. In Dawn we see the story has moved beyond the initial outbreak and reaction to the undead and shows us the long term survivors, alive in a world that has fallen apart, where no one knows if anyone is doing anything about the zombie hoards or if anyone is even still out there. They are truly cut off.
This movie is also a bit more humorous than Night which I find annoying. The use of oddball zombies like the Harikrishna and some quirky moments with zombies bumbling about gets more of a laugh out of me than a sense of dread. That’s bad enough but when the bikers manage to get into the mall and start smacking the zombies in the face with pies I’d had enough. Not only isn’t it realistic but it’s just not entertaining. It kills the mood. And why are there pies laying around in the mall anyway?
There is one scene, which to be honest I absolutely love where one of the bikers, played by make up and special effects genius Tam Savini pulls out a switchblade that is actually a novelty comb to brush his hair with. He mentions it to his friend, “Ever seen one of these? Neat huh?” Maybe it’s just me but there’s something so disarmingly innocent and playful in that moment that made me feel the people like Savini who made the movie were having a hell of a good time doing it. And good on them.
Don’t go thinking that it’s all bad though. This movie wouldn’t still be here as highly regarded amongst horror fans if there wasn’t something worth watching.
In this film the zombies take a more active role in their own destiny. For the first time we truly see zombies thinking and reasoning. When the pilot turns and leads the zombies through the false wall he had helped construct when we was alive, he’s using his knowledge of the mall and where the survivors are. He knows. And he leads. It was used fairly well here but I’m not a fan of this sort of thing. That’s just a personal opinion though and I can understand how it makes sense in the context of the story. If the zombies’ legs and arms are working and their brains are intact enough to keep them moving around, I could also see them using their recent memory. And flyboy was pretty fresh after all. I’ll have a bit more to say about that sort of thing when I do a review of Day of the Dead though.
One of the overriding themes of the movie seems to be modern consumerism. With the survivors holed up in a mall they are surrounded by all the things they could possibly need or want. Plenty of food and water plus all the luxury goods they could possibly want. While locked up they make use of everything on display in the mall and live like kings.
The zombies are said to be coming to the mall because of some vestigial memories they have of the place, that all the things they could want would be there. It’s not just the zombies though.
When a gang of bikers who’ve been surviving on the road break into the mall they basically run around like little children grabbing all sorts of things in a mad free-for-all. These are people who have been surviving on the road the entire time suddenly let loose on a massive store of goodies. It’s understandable that they would revel in the chance to get their hands on some of all that loot. What’s key here though is the story tellers choice to focus on that element of survival. The sheer rampant wantonness. The bikers aren’t there to share or to co-exist, they are there to possess, to take, to acquire.
Another interesting reflection of the cultural shift that had taken place since the first movie is the integrated cast. In the original Night of the Living Dead the lead hero was African American and stood out from his white costars particularly because of the time the film was made. (For a bit more on that check out yesterday’s post about Night of the Living Dead.) By the time Dawn came out things had improved a bit for African Americans and we see here that the characters all seem to hold the same level of importance. There is no real tension or issue because of how they look.
In other words it’s a level playing field. Earlier I mentioned that I thought the Harikrishna zombie seemed comical. Upon first viewing one might also think the nun zombie is there for shock value. But another reading could be that the zombie plague has effected the whole world regardless of race, creed or color. This is not the Christian apocalypse, nor is it a cosmic rebirth. There is no god, only our interpretation of what we see around us.
The tagline for the movie: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,” is quoted in the movie and easily plays to the generally Judeo-Christian culture that the filmmakers came from. It’s even stated in the movie. So although the characters muse over their fate, there is no savior, no god or spirit to save the day, no guardian angel to make everything right and ultimately there is no hell. Only zombies. Zombies covering the face of the earth, relentlessly, without feeling, without purpose, without any grand design. The survivors are simply getting by in a dead world.
Check out the trailer here and I’m pretty sure if you cast around you can find the movie on Youtube as well though it might be broken into a lot of little pieces.
And have a look at that great poster!
How many times have you seen it? Take a minute and really look at it. The great graphic image of the bald head coming up over the dawn is fairly comical, but the totally expressionless face, the dead eyes, and that horrible mottled skin kill the humor. What is that skin? Is it a burn? Is it rot? Is it disease? It almost looks like a flock of birds. The very fact that it’s vague leads our imaginations down all sorts of paths. How did it happen? Who is he? What is it?!
The stark horizon line, with no sign of cities or civilization hints at the end of the human world already apparent as this is the start of a new world, the world of the dead.
The way the titles move out towards us, DEAD, right in our faces, the DEAD coming closest to us. This is a true horror.