After directing Night of the Living Dead for release in 1968, George Romero spent the better part of the next decade in and around Pittsburgh making independent films that dead with quirky horror plots. In the mid 70s, Romero started work on his next zombie movie after being given a behind the scenes tour of the state-of-the-art Monroeville Mall. Not a bad place to survive a zombie apocalypse, he must have thought. With financing (about $2.2 million in current dollars) secured from Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, production began on Dawn of the Dead -- largely on weekends, when the same Monroeville Mall could be closed for shooting.
Much of the storytelling strength of Dawn of the Dead lies in the sure-handed development of its core question: What's the most likely way to survive if there are thousands of flesh-eating undead walking the earth. The short answer: Get yourself a great big fortified storehouse, hunker down, and keep quiet. If only things were so simple. . .
The plot begins with two pairs of characters. There's Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross); he's a chopper pilot for the local television station, and she's a news producer. Romero's opening scenes focus mostly on Fran as she attempts to maintain journalistic standards amid the growing social chaos of the zombie crisis. It's clear from the way the reporters and production staff are arguing with each other that, in the end, the media may be the last place to turn in a real crisis. Stephen finds Fran -- they're a couple, apparently -- amid all the hubbub and suggests they chopper it out of town as soon as possible.
The other pair of characters is more interesting, two friends on the police force -- the confident, intelligent, and strong Peter (Ken Foree), and the nervous, somewhat shrimpy Roger (Scott Reiniger). We meet them in the middle of a zombie-sweep at a low-income apartment building, where Peter does what needs to be done, Roger hesitates, and a few of the other fascists on the force are more than happy to kill anything that moves. In the end, as well, law enforcement may be one of the last places to turn. Roger, who knows Stephen, suggests that he and Peter say fuck the police and skip town. Sounds good.
The four make their escape at night, refuel with a little zombie harassment, and eventually land on the roof of a relatively rural shopping mall. Breaking in through a skylight, the find the service complex behind the scenes in the mall to be zombie free. They lock and barricade the doors, engage in some gruesome zombie housekeeping, and disguise their hideaway just in case someone comes looking. Roger is bitten during this process, which makes for a sad moment later when Peter has to decommission his zombified friend, but survival comes at a cost.
Everything in the mall, of course, comes at no cost. As the months pass, Peter, Stephen, and Fran eat the finest (preserved) food, booze it up, wear mink coats, sleep on satin sheets, listen to classical music on a top-of-the-line stereo system, and make the most of the hundreds of retail outlets providing their every need and want. As you might imagine, it's not all it's cracked up to be. Peter, a leader and a man of action, ends up trapped and bored because of the success of his survival plan. Francine gets tired of being treated like a girly-girl, even though she's pregnant. Stephen, who's really kind of a putz, agrees to teach Fran to fly the chopper, but one still doesn't manage to like him much. A fine, quiet scene comes about two-thirds of the way through the film when, after another delicious meal amid the luxuries, Fran asks, sadly, "What have we done?"
What they've done, of course, is survive. Survival in a true crisis often requires a real and antisocial selfishness, a cold ruthless approach to addressing immediately threats, and, in the long term, a radically proscribed existence to keep the dangers at bay. It's an almost inhuman way to live -- an insight granted by The Last Man On Earth and I Am Legend. But the problem, usually, is people. They get bored, they get lazy, they get reckless, or they just get mean. Remember those helicopter lessons Stephen was giving to Fran? Well, that reckless act attracts the attention of a roving gang of meanies in the form of bikers. Harleys, not Schwinns.
And here's where Romero shows that he understands how to make an entertaining film. In Act One, set up your premise and get the plot ball rolling with a good dose of action and a generous glimpse of the monsters. In Act Two, slow it down a bit and let the characters deepen the narrative in a thoughtful manner. In Act Three, close with a rip-roaring finish that messes with the heart and the head.
The bikers break in to the mall, suspecting there's someone hiding in there, but really just to do some good-natured looting. Of course, in all the ruckus, they bring a fair number of zombies behind them. And Peter and Stephen can help but sneak out of their hideout to check out the scene, leading Stephen to deliver my favorite line in the film: "Hey, that's our stuff!" Then Stephen (the putz) starts firing his gun at the bikers. Now it's Stephen and Peter against the biker gang against the zombies. Stephen is overwhelmed by zombies, Peter makes it back to safety, temporarily, and the bikers retreat with their armloads of summer sausages and aromatic soaps. In the end, Peter and Fran attempt to flee in the helicopter, but let's not give away the ending, shall we?
Aside from the fine, fundamental storytelling in Dawn of the Dead, special recognition should go to Tom Savini for his makeup work. Savini, a Vietnam vet who strove for a gruesome realism in his work, developed the blueish hue for the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, as well as a whole range of mangling, dangling, and gnawed fleshy parts. One of the great visual contrasts in the film is the outright pretty artificiality of the mall and the ugly, deformed presence of all those zombies. The effect is somehow subtle at first, almost unnoticed, which probably says much about how even normal people can shamble through the mall at times.
I won't be the first to write it, but Dawn of the Dead is an excellent zombie film, horror film, just plain film, that holds up well after all these years. With a great concept that is well-executed and outstanding effects, George Romero's return to the land of zombies sets the standard in terms of balanced tone, entertainment value, and social satire that most other zombie movies should strive for.
NOTE: This review is cross-posted at Mort-Vivant, my blog about zombies (and science fiction and comics). These cross-postings will continue until Halloween 2011, when Mort-Vivant finally walks alone!
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