Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Dawn of the Dead
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?