Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Dawn of the Dead

(1978) ****1/2

Ah yes, the definitive zombie picture. The movie that's bold enough to admit the real American dream: driving a car around inside a mall, shooting the other shoppers.

What hit me this time wasn't as much the zombies and gore as it was Romero's pointed depiction of society unraveling. Before we've seen a single zombie, we see a TV news room that's rapidly coming to pieces. On the air are two guys arguing, and the ripples of their conflict extend out to everyone in the building. Meanwhile a SWAT team is barely holding down a tenement siege, dealing with gun-toting residents, fresh zombies, and the basic breakdown of everything. One officer goes on a murderous tear, another blows his own brains out after tussling with a zombie in the kitchen.

It's an excellent way to start it up. Not only are you faced with this immediate sense of doom and paranoia, it bypasses the crucial "zombies take over" stage. There's a published book called The Zombie Suvival Guide, and perhaps it or some similar book has taken on this question that's been dogging me for some time. I like zombie movies and all, but I have a hard time seeing how it works. Imagine, right now, you're doing whatever you're doing, and click! from now on, unburied dead bodies are on the move. So the mayhem starts in morgues, hospitals, ambulances? Maybe funeral homes? It's not like we tend to leave corpses just lying around, you know? It doesn't seem like a respectable zombie mob would ever manage to start up, let alone learn all those Michael Jackson dance moves. And even if their decay process is slowed, it must still happen, right? I know I'm completely missing the point, but I just don't see the beloved, slow Romero zombies really pulling off world domination.

Anyway, Romero is past all my geeky questioning and presents a real world in turmoil. I found the TV broadcasts very telling: there's always two guys arguing. In the later broadcasts, they're taking pulls off of flasks and people are yelling things from behind the shaky camera. It's a flavor of Armageddon familiar in the 70's: we'll be too busy arguing and placing blame to deal with the problem. The intellectuals were right, but they can't do anything about it. The commentary continues out in the sticks, with the ol' fashion redneck zombie hunt.

Then our heroes find the shopping mall, and the story and themes really have a chance to settle in. I remember the first time I saw those two SWAT guys are running and weaving through the pokey dead, and it got a chuckle out of me tonight. The great possibilities of the story all open up from that moment. Seeing the likeable group set up house in the zombie mall is a singular delight. And Romero's still there, snickering, as he shows us zombified Americans wandering around in the mall, the joys of looting everything you want -- and the empty feeling you get afterwards when you remember the world is still overrun with the walking dead. The shot of Francine and Flyboy lying in their bed despairing for the future could have come from any movie of the time, exploring the faded hope left behind in the wake of the 60's.

But screw social commentary, let's have some motorcycle gangs fighting zombies! Sigh. Dawn of the Dead rules.

I paid close attention this time to see if Dawn's dead only rise when bitten or if it's everybody. The answer: I don't know! The only people we see change are both bitten, but they never say it's the cause of the rising. Several dead folks start walking around after the SWAT raid, and they might be unbitten, but it's not clear at all.

I favor the "Hell is full" scenario. For me, it's much more creepy that the problem is something metaphysical, not physical. Instead of an earthly virus, there's something desperately wrong with the afterlife -- something we know nothing about. How could we ever fix it?


miko564 said...

"It's a flavor of Armageddon familiar in the 70's: we'll be too busy arguing and placing blame to deal with the problem. The intellectuals were right, but they can't do anything about it."

Not to put too serious a spin on the joy of "Horrorthon" (I've been silently watching and reading...creepy, huh?), but are you sure you aren't describing any given hour of current CNN broadcasting with this quote?

Jordan said...

LOL miko

Jordan said...

Does the officer who "blows his own brains out after tussling with a zombie in the kitchen" do so because he understands that he has been bitten and thus "zombified"?

I'm actually more familiar with rule-bending stuff like "28 Days Later" thank with the Romero classics. But this is whetting my appetite. What are the news guys arguing about? Is it intelligible?

Octopunk said...

Miko! Thanks for tuning in.

The reason all this End Days stuff works so well is that since...what, Sputnik? JFK getting shot? Since then each successive generation is convinced they're staring down the barrel of Armageddon. Dawn has a specific feeling of self-destruction attached to it, although it's never made clear how the returning dead is our fault.

What I found really funny is the notion that people would tune in to watch these guys with mustaches arguing. Maybe in 1978, they would. At one point a looting cycle thug picks up a TV, and his buddy says "what're yew gonna watch on that thing anyhow?" At least when the zombies overrun 21st century America, we'll have dvds.

The SWAT guy I mentioned doesn't get bit, he just doesn't feel like dealing any more.

Jordan said...

But what about the news guys? Why are they arguing? Huh, daddy?

("News guy wept and told us/Earth was really dying/Cried so much his face was wet/And we knew he was not lying")