In the late 60’s, an ambitious group of film aficionados put their collective heads together and unleashed a new breed of horror on an unsuspecting public. These filmmakers reanimated an old trope and blended a fresh, cannibalistic ingredient into the mix. They corralled the classic zombie, and these aficionados turned typical pawns of witches and warlocks into flesh-eating abominations, giving birth, in 1968, to what would become a subgenre of horror films that would ever increase in popularity.
One of these young filmmakers was Director George A. Romero. After unleashing Night of the Living Dead with his dedicated crew of history-makers, he would go on to build a career redefining zombies and how the audience viewed them, using the idea of a zombie as an apparatus for social commentary.
“You Ain’t Just Playing With Your Life; You’re Playing With Mine.”
Ten years after the original Night of the Living Dead hit theaters, Romero returned to the human-munching, reanimated cadaver scene with arguably one of the greatest zombie flicks of all time – Dawn of the Dead. In this sequel, four people hold out in a shopping mall as chaos descends in the world around them. Bureaucracies crumble. Social groups are pitted against each other in a war of ideology. And these four leads find safety in the heart of consumerism.
What’s interesting about this film is that it delivers on multiple levels. With regard to the horror scene, this film pushed the boundaries of theatrical decency. Upon release, it was distributed without a rating, avoiding the dreaded “X” rating of the time, and depending on who you read/speak to, you may hear reports of people abruptly leaving the theater, disgusted with Dawn of the Dead’s colorful display of heads exploding and humans torn into shreds while the camera rolled. Within the first 15 minutes, this gory display is front and center as Romero submerges viewers into a chaotic fray between police forces, a well-armed group of humans with ideological differences on how to approach the zombie crisis, and an army of hungry corpses. This penultimate discord, beginning the film, is reminiscent of the carnage that ended Night of the Living Dead, and it serves to start us where Romero last left us, so he can go on to systematically destroy a horror icon he created.
And destroy the threat of zombies Romero does. As our heroes fight to escape a city ravaged by apocalyptic mayhem, they take refuge in a shopping mall. Here, they build society anew. This group, representing different demographic backgrounds, lays down the foundations of a community, working together to construct an idealistic living condition, given the circumstances, almost utopian in nature. And as this progression takes shape, the zombies trudge to the background, reverting to minor, environmental threats – akin to predators in the wild. A natural hazard; nothing more, nothing less.
But what then takes their place? Humans. The self. The man in the mirror. Not only are our heroes plagued by motorcycle gangs intent on looting and pillaging, but the group of four succumb to the banal, lifeless demeanor rampant consumerism has afforded them. Everything they need, as one member jokingly proclaims near the first half of the film, is “right at [their] fingertips.” This malaise weighs on them heavily near the film’s climax. We, the audience, see sequences of our once fearful, struggling heroes squabbling over whether a television set remains on or off. We see them moping around in a life of luxury, unsure of what to do. Whereas they were once playful in exploring the treasures the mall had to offer, bit by bit, it has eaten away at them, decaying them into creatures seemingly dead inside, almost to the brink of becoming the shambling corpses they were once battling against (before finally clearing the mall of the monsters once and for all).
And as this living death fixes itself to our heroes’ bones, a biker gang awakens us from our overindulgent shopping coma. This fragile society crumbles before our eyes, and as the film draws to a close, the zombies reclaim what was once theirs – to a zany, upbeat, and comical tune, no less.
“The Normal Question. The First Question Is. Are These Cannibals?”
And what of the zombies in Dawn of the Dead? What makes them stand out in comparison to other genre films? Romero has a use for them. Throughout various moments in the film, the director gives us a break from the carnage to layer his not-so-subtle commentary. There are sequences in this film that serve no purpose than to jab at a joke the director felt necessary to convey. On numerous occasions, we’ll see these zombies aimlessly wandering around stores. They’ll bump into display stands, stumble over products, tumble up escalators, or stare lifelessly into a mannequin. As much as it is humorous, it’s a sick reflection of a growing trend in mass marketing and the shopping excursion. And as the movie carries on, these once haunting monsters become nothing more than a joke, wandering scenery to be sprayed with seltzer water or pied in the face – quite literally. This is a far cry from the formidable threat they posed at the film’s opening, and it’s how the director systematically destroys a horror icon – lampooning it until it becomes a morbid reflection of the world he sees around him.
When Dawn of the Dead hit theaters in the late 70’s, as much as it had its tough critics, there were plenty of others who saw it for the gem it was. It grew to become a film that has risen above its horror compatriots, something with soul, heart, and thought. As much as it’s a piece of entertainment, it’s also a battle cry to wake up, to look inward, and to stave off that which devours one’s humanity. It is the quintessential horror film. After all, what’s more horrifying than losing that individuality? What’s more paralyzing than losing one’s self to meaningless luxury, traipsing about on nothing more than “pure, motorized instinct?”
George Romero’s second zombie apocalypse film, Dawn of the Dead, is easily one of the most iconic and influential horror films ever shot. This is not a matter of opinion: Since Romero, almost every zombie is the creation of viral infection. The weapons and defense measures characters take and procure for protection from the deadite onslaught have been fetishized in pop culture, discussed as plainly as ballplayers’ batting averages were in the fifties. Nowadays you can throw a brick and hit a piece of zombie media that employs a shopping mall or a helicopter. And Tom Savini, the gore savant himself, has his special effects fingerprints all over this film.
But just because something is the genesis of a given pop culture vocabulary doesn't mean that it’s particularly good at what it does. The first fifteen minutes of this film are discordant, disorienting, obnoxious, and lacking any semblance of form. What’s possibly social commentary on how news media functions segues into a Frankenstein’s monster of horror gore stitched to urban exploitation stock schlock. Once the characters reach the mall, the film improves drastically; we’re allowed to know what’s actually going on, what the purpose of what we’re watching is, who these characters are to some degree, etc. And while I’m glad to finally have these things, none of them are particularly enticing. It might be the fledgling Austrian economist in me, but I find attacks on “mindless” consumerism to be rather sophomoric and impotent. Who is to say how someone should spend the income they've earned? Who is to decide what the dividing lines are between needs, creature comforts, and opulence? I suppose this aspect of the film might have been more profound had I watched it before I graduated from high school, but as I hurtle towards thirty, it plays as grotesquely base allegory.
I’m was not blown away by the use of music in this film; the obnoxious carnival tunes flooding the mall serve only to remind the viewer of the ‘Commerce is Bad’ message it’s struggling to get off the ground. Call me old fashioned, but if I’m supposed to be scared or shocked by something, the accompanying music better have some minor key tonality on deck. While Savini’s special effects are truly impressive for the era and budget, they don’t really show up until his character does, towards the end of the film; the majority of the monsters are extras with purple pigment slathered on their mugs. One particularly irksome segment of the film shows poor rural whites treating the entire undead uprising like a high school football tailgating event. Is this the demographic Romero feels is engaging too freely in abject materialism? Or is it a lazy sideswipe?
While the unmitigated badassery of Ken Foree is a silver lining to this film, the larger tapestry was a dud for me. Romero generates only fleeting, disconnected moments of tension, injects comedy where boilerplate terror should be, and generally drops everything he tries to juggle. I respect this film for the cinematic movement that it helped launch, and understand the historical and financial limitations in place when it was made. But that doesn't mean I have to actually like it. C.
I have two perspectives on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead: one from when I was 17, and one from my most recent, “adult” viewing. I still vividly remember the first night I saw it. At the time, it contained everything I wanted out of a zombie movie: it was scary, the special effects were disgusting, it contained serious character development, and it attempted to provide insightful social commentary. Romero’s passion for the zombie genre was both evident and infectious. This version of the film will always live in my mind as one of my favorite cinematic experiences—and I wish it could stay that way.
When watching it again as an adult, however, it’s hard to ignore Dawn of the Dead’s flaws. Perhaps its most distracting feature is the music by horror aficionado Dario Argento and Goblin. They do the horror parts of the soundtrack well, but the comedic score they use to contrast the zombies ambling around the shopping mall is so over-the-top obvious at times that it dispels your ability to take the movie seriously (I can’t imagine any shopping mall in America imagining this music would serve as suitable background noise). Similarly, the triumphant action music Romero occasionally employs reduces otherwise exciting sequences into slapstick.
The film’s choppy editing sometimes makes individual scenes hard to follow. Again, this is something I didn’t mind when I was younger—I actually may have found it endearing—but while watching it this time I noticed how hard it sometimes is to even follow what’s happening in a scene because the way the shots are spliced together. A lot of the angles seem impossible and the blocking often doesn’t make sense.
Most damning, though, are the film’s attempts at social and political commentary. I was all on board the anti-consumerist bandwagon when I was younger, but I think I began to have serious doubts about Romero’s credibility as a social critic while watching his 2005 turd Land of the Dead, what with its insinuation that Americans are stupid “sheeple” because they like fireworks, its literal depiction of the “trickle-down” economics, and its embarrassing zombies-as-guerrilla-revolutionaries metaphor. Romero’s political commentary has all the grace and sophistication of an addictinginfo blogger, something that has made me revisit my initial thoughts on his commentary in Dawn of the Dead.
By having his zombies gravitate toward a shopping mall and mindlessly mill about its interior, Romero makes the point that Americans are mindless consumers who find meaning in their lives by buying stuff they don’t need. Unfortunately, Romero’s analysis completely overlooks that individuals have unique values and goals, some of which occasionally require them to visit places that sell them goods. Labeling their complex commercial activities “consumerism” is just a juvenile, anti-pluralistic, dehumanizing analysis that says more about the observer than the people being observed. On an individual level, a person might not spend that much time in the shopping mall, using it as only a means to an end to accomplish something else (or indulge in something nice for themselves or their families after working to earn it). The mall might always appear to be full, but it’s always filled with different people at different times. Romero chooses to see its transient occupants not as individuals, but as some mindless mob that lacks a unified behavior he can understand. He overlooks that they have meaningful lives outside of the shopping mall, something he refuses to grant his protagonists in this film.
Anyway, even though it was Land of the Dead that made it clear to me Romero is at his best when he’s actually trying to tell a horror story, Dawn of the Dead supports this conclusion, albeit retroactively. It works wonderfully as a horror film, in particular with its strong focus on its small cast of characters. The movie is genuinely shocking at times at disturbing at others, but where it excels is in how it gets you to actually care about the people onscreen by developing their relationships. This makes it all the more upsetting when their nigh-inescapable fates catch up with them; there’s something genuinely disturbing when you see the look on one of the protagonist’s faces as he returns from the dead. Underneath his expression of confusion, you can almost see the despair he feels upon discovering what he has become.
Because I enjoy moments like these so much, I can still say I like the movie despite Romero’s baseless swipes at consumerism and redneck culture. There are just so many moments and shots in this film that I love and find memorable: the Hare Krishna zombie’s slow shuffle into Francine’s sanctuary, the bikers being torn apart after their botched mall invasion, the dude who just HAS to get his blood pressure checked before he dies, and Flyboy’s Revolver Ocelot-style duel* with a zombie in the boiler room, just to name a few. Dawn of the Dead isn't the perfect film I remember from my youth, but even this latest viewing hasn't neutralized the grotesque fascination it stirs within me.
*Secret Metal Gear Solid Reference!
Next: Get Carter. Get Psyched!
Next: Get Carter. Get Psyched!