Day 9: Classics Revisited – Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I was planning on waiting until the next day to start watching Dawn of the Dead… but, my anticipation got the better of me, and I ended up watching it yesterday afternoon… followed by the first half-an-hour of Day of the Dead. I don’t think I was aware of how much I needed this respite from random movie watching.

I’m not sure where to begin with Dawn of the Dead… it is as much a masterpiece as its predecessor (Night of the Living Dead), but Romero is able to make something wholly of its time and detached from what came before. In fact, that’s something I’ve always appreciated about the original trilogy… each movie is a funhouse reflection of the time from which it came. The fact that Romero waited nearly a decade between each installment, helps to shape the unique elements of each (maybe that’s why the second trilogy doesn’t hold up… Survival of the Dead feels, at nearly every turn, rushed and uninspired… but forget that, we’re here to talk about a masterpiece).

Romero doubles down on nearly everything he introduced in the last movie. More importantly in nearly every case he is able to elevate each of these elements. My only complaint (and that is really too strong of a word… maybe misgiving… no, that’s not quite right either… how about qualm) is that the handling of racial tensions comes at the beginning of the film and feels a bit hurried and too on-the-nose. I’m not sure if this is a reaction to the perhaps too subtle handling of the theme e in NotLD, of if it’s again just more of a reflection of the late 70s. What plays a more central role in this film is the true horror of humanity. Even before we see the first zombie, Romero establishes that humans are the real problem. Zombies are just a force of nature that brings out the worst in humanity (for my fellow sociology nerds out there, think anomie theory). He also increases the focus on the struggle to survive. In many ways, this is more of a survival movie than the first. There are large chunks of the story that deal with logical problem solving. This gives it a more realistic feel… plus, my inner process-nerd loves it. There is also plenty of social commentary. Though, this time Romero sets his sites on consumerism and moves away from the media (though sprinkled throughout, there are some unsettling scenes of an ongoing talk-show that is commenting on and analyzing the down-fall of society). There has been so much written about Dawn of the Dead’s portrayal and examination of U.S. consumerism in the 1970s written by people far smarter and more informed than I (seriously just google the phrase “Dawn of the Dead and consumerism” and see how many articles come up), so I’m going to leave it to them.

There are also new elements that Romero adds. The character moments and interactions are more flushed out. There’s also a huge subplot that deals with Stephen’s masculinity anxiety around Peter and Roger. This is a frustrating but earned and logical part of the plot. Also, I hinted at this yesterday, but Romero’s portrayal of women in this movie is much more nuanced and thoughtful. During the first half of the film it is easy to worry that Frannie, the only woman in this movie (apart from some of the zombies), is just going to be another Barbara, or at best an amalgam of the three female characters from NotLD. At times she passive, weak, near hysterical, and defined by one particular trait (I won’t say what it is in case you haven’t seen the movie). Thankfully, though, this film has something NotLD doesn’t, character development. In many ways, the driving force of the film is Frannie’s adjustment to the new world and her discovery of an inner strength. She is the most fleshed-out character and really the viewer’s way in.  There’s also an element of fun and excitement in this movie. In fact, at times it almost feels more like an adventure film than a horror movie. These scenes serve two purposes. First, it’s a pallet cleanser after the unflinching sense of dread that accompanies the first hour of the movie. Second, it provides the audience with a false sense of security and comfort that mirrors what the characters are feeling. This really sets the viewer (and the characters) up when things go wrong. For example, no matter how many times I see this movie I can’t remember when a certain character gets bitten by a zombie (I would warn that that’s a spoiler, but come on, it’s a zombie movie… one of the main characters always gets bitten… it’s a rule). It makes a certain 15-minute stretch of the film especially nerve-wracking for me. Finally, Romero was having trouble getting financing for the film, so he ended up working with Dairo Argento, who was a fan of the first installment. Readers of this blog and horror movies fans in general will hopefully recognize that name. He is the Italian filmmaker behind the amazing Suspiria (check out my write-up of this one in a previous post). You can see his welcomed influences all over this film (not only in the music which he and his frequent collaborators, the aptly named band Goblin).

That’s pretty much it, but here are some random, less organized or well-developed thoughts I had during this viewing:

  • This is definitely more of a predecessor to The Walking Dead than NotLD. Nearly every story element and idea in that comic and show was introduced in this movie. That’s not a knock on TWD it has done a great job expanded and elevate these ideas… just an observation.
  • Oddly enough, at times I think this movie actually suffers from being in color. I still can’t get over the weird coloring of the zombie. It really distracts from the scares. And, don’t even get me started on the color of the blood. It makes me think that the budgetary constraints that forced Romero to shoot NotLD in black-and-white was blessing in disguise.
  • Without Dawn of the Dead we probably never would have gotten the unauthorized Italian sequel Zombi II, and therefore would have never been treated to a scene of a shark fighting a zombie. A literal dream come true for me.
  • The helicopter gag is still pretty amazing.
  • Also, while writing this up and checking some of my facts, I learned that there was an alternate ending planned for the film. I won’t discuss it here, as it would ruin the filmed ending, but, man, that would have completely changed the tone of the film. Not sure how I feel about it. Look it up and let me know what you think.
  • Peter might be my favorite character in the Romero universe.

Alright… on to Day of the Dead!

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