“WE WHIPPED ‘EM AND WE GOT IT ALL!”
How do you write a review of DAWN OF THE DEAD at this point? I’ve discussed it to death with a million people over the years, and I figure we’ve all gone over it all before, right? It’s kind of presumptuous to think you’ve got something semi-new to say about a movie that’s been discussed this much. In a way I’ve already reviewed it in bits and pieces over the years, talking about it in my review of the remake and probly other places. But this year I sat down and watched it again and I thought it was a shame it’s not in my reviews archive, because it’s one of my very favorite movies. Look – I can prove it by going on about it for a while! Let’s discuss how great this movie is.
But first, let’s acknowledge that this mostly-worn-out modern entertainment genre called “zombies” comes almost entirely from DAWN OF THE DEAD. Sure, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD introduced Romero’s idea of people trying to get along while the dead are coming back to life, and certainly plenty of the ideas specific to DAY OF THE DEAD have been ripped off left and right and up and down and then back from right to left and then starting over. But it was DAWN that first illustrated what was going on in the world during a zombie apocalypse. When somebody says “zombie movie” they don’t just mean a shambling, rotting person trying to take a bite out of you. They also mean the disaster as a whole, the methods of survival. The people going around scavenging for usable items, holing up in standard buildings that can be turned into fortresses, learning how to kill zombies by shooting them in the head, becoming desensitized to killing zombies by shooting them in the head, strategizing about how to keep them out of living areas, also dealing with the dangers of other survivors who can’t be trusted, and facing the world without much hope that society can be rebuilt or that the source of the epidemic can be discovered.
These all originated as zombie tropes in DAWN and are the prime subject matter of The Walking Dead, the 28 TIME UNITS LATER movies, ZOMBIELAND and by my count over four hundred thousand eight hundred sixty two unwatchable DTV movies released since the DAWN remake.
DAWN is also the first to begin and end mid-disaster. I always loved Romero’s conviction that the status quo cannot be restored. But after 35 years of zombie survival entertainment now it seems kind of novel the way Romero depicts the early days: the opening scenes of the TV studio in chaos, society crumbling live on air. No one wants to listen to the bad news from the scientists. The director still cares about ratings (adorable!) so he keeps info onscreen that he knows is no longer valid. Meanwhile, police are still going after criminals, and by their own admission “going ape shit” in the projects. Rednecks are having a big party hunting zombies out in the boonies.
I always forget about this, but there’s an indication that somewhere in the country somebody is still trying to do something. Some TV stations are still broadcasting, and a news report claims “The President today has sent the Congress a package of initiatives…” I wonder what they tried to do? I mean, besides what we see in DAY OF THE DEAD. Whatever the president’s plan was I guess it didn’t work. If he came up with something good I’m sure the opposing party filibustered.
Everywhere we see, though, people talk in hushed tones about “running,” abandoning their jobs, homes and duties to become scavengers, like we see in other zombie entertainment. You don’t really think about it that at one point there had to be a decision to leave civilization behind, or at least a realization that there was no other choice. There had to be a switchover from “man, I can’t wait until this is all over and things go back to normal” to “this is what my life is now.” And I guess that moment is the dawn of the dead.
Watching it this time I had the realization that this probly doesn’t seem cool anymore to most kids. Sometimes “old” equals “funny” to a younger generation. And admittedly this does have the misstep of MARTIN’s John Amplas in obvious brownface at the beginning, as if they couldn’t find a real Hispanic man to play “Martinez” or couldn’t change the character to a white guy. I’m okay with kids laughing at that. But otherwise it makes me sad because I don’t think I saw it until it was pretty old either, and it still seemed like an amazing discovery. For years it was a special unique movie, and its datedness was honestly one of its strengths. It’s such a good time capsule of the ’70s without the usual crazy bellbottoms and afros and stuff. It’s so full of ordinary home furnishings of the time – a whole lot of brown, beige and orange. And that drab realism contrasts with the comic booky touches of the blue-tinted zombies and bright orange paint-like blood splatters. And the Goblin music, I couldn’t believe it existed when I first heard it.
I like the remake and I’ve stuck with The Walking Dead and enjoyed many stretches of it, including this season so far. And I can see how to a kid today they seem more “real” and DAWN seems goofy, and what once was unprecedented, had-to-be-released-unrated violence is now comparable to an episode of a television show. Still, to me nothing can match DAWN. I prefer those characters, that world and the substance behind it. Some of these modern ripoffs do a good job of rebuilding the machinery, but to me they don’t have the same heart. They’re about survival and that’s about it.
Alot of people talk about DAWN as a satire of or message against rampant consumerism. The shopping mall setting (so modern at the time that they have a line explaining what it is – “it looks like a shopping center – one of those big indoor malls”) brings out our heroes’ love of material items. They have fun setting up a nice pad, trying on fur coats, etc. They use these objects for amusement with no thought about conserving useful items for other survivors (though their wastefulness is nothing compared to the bikers, who come in and smash everything just for fun [side note: the good guys do that in ZOMBIELAND, so that’s where society’s at now]). They feel entitled to all this property they stole. “It’s ours. We took it. It’s ours.” Once shots are fired they decide to go to war over it.
And of course the zombies stumbling through the place are a parody of shoppers going through mindlessly, eyes glazed over, trying to buy away that little empty spot in their heart, maybe get a free bag of rock candy in the bargain. It’s hard not to think of DAWN OF THE DEAD every day-after-Thanksgiving when you see shopping mobs photographed through the windows from inside a Walmart. Our guys theorize that the zombies are instinctively attracted to the Monroeville Mall because “This was an important place in their lives.”
But even though it’s a satire, it’s a sympathetic one. It’s not making an example of them or calling them idiots. We know we would want to do some of the same things if we were there. I always thought a big part of DAWN’s appeal was the fantasy of what you would do if you had the run of a mall to do what you want and take what you want. Of course it would be fun, and you get to enjoy it vicariously through those guys. The running aoround shooting zombies while setting up the fort, that’s got a certain element of fun to it too, you gotta acknowledge. Of course, by the time Peter is uncomfortable with how much Roger is enjoying it we catch ourselves.
And after trying on clothes, playing with money, loading up on guns, eating in the restaurant, playing video games and shooting mannequins in the ice skating rink for a certain amount of time they get bored and sad. In a sense they’re super rich with a giant home and they don’t have to go to work anymore. No more dangerous raids, no more arguing with the director, and instead they get to have and do pretty much what they want. Look at all my shit. But all their shit is not enough. It’s not a substitute for real life.
Instead of trying to find an angle to this movie that hasn’t been discussed to death I would like to share with you some screengrabs of shots that struck me on this last viewing as moments or details that I personally have underappreciated over the years.
These first two happen at the small airport where they land to refuel before they find the mall.
Peter takes a look inside, where he finds and kills the zombie kids. But have you ever noticed all the notes hanging up inside this office? People have pinned scraps of paper and cardboard boxes to the walls, doors and vending machine trying to get in touch with their loved ones, or in one case a diabetic is begging for insulin. One note on the door is from a Mark to a Barbara – I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a connection to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s Barbara or not.
These days when I see notes like that I think of the makeshift bulletin boards that spring up after a disaster, most memorably, to Americans anyway, after 9-11. People hang up messages to and pictures of their missing loved ones, willing to try anything to get in touch with them. It makes sense that this would happen during the dawn of the dead, especially in the ’70s when there were fewer electronic means of communication.
By the way, it’s a bummer that the vending machine doesn’t work.
In that scene some zombies appear and Stephen shoots into the office to get them. Peter, a cop and responsible gun user, is fucking pissed because he was in the line of fire. Right before he chews Stephen a new asshole we get this:
A static shot of him coming out of the office and walking straight toward the camera. I just want to acknowledge the badassness of that shot.
Later they’re in the mall and Fran has to guard the glass doors at the entrance to the department store. She sits face to face with this zombie, who is confused and not aggressive. She’s not afraid, and lowers her gun.
I like how she looks at him sadly, possibly sympathetic. The others tend to ignore, maybe intentionally, that the zombies are a walking human tragedy, victims themselves.
(And yes, alot of people on the internet have wondered about “Bach’s Arco Pitcairn.” Here’s some of the people who have posted about it. Here’s a story about a tourist visiting Monroeville Mall and getting a better idea what it means.)
See, Peter and especially Roger are more glib when they’re faced with the zombies:
They don’t look at them as former people. Roger clearly enjoys fucking with them. The detail I wanted to point out in this shot, though, is all the fingerprints on the window. That’s what would happen in zombie world. A million hands rubbing against windows, and who’s gonna bother to clean them? Come to think of it I remember when they had one of those “zombie walks” in Seattle, hundreds of people dressed as zombies stumbling around together for fun. The windows of the neighborhood business were all smeared with grease, makeup and fake blood, they had to put up signs asking zombies not to touch the windows. I felt bad for them. What a pain in the ass.
I imagine this would become something you pay attention to in a world of zombies. If you come across clean windows you know that somehow zombies haven’t made it there, or that a clean freak is living nearby.
Here’s a quick shot that I like of the parking lot from the roof:
I just like that zombie in the middle with the crazy fur coat. I wonder what the deal is with that one.
Here’s another badass angle I love:
Look at Peter, folding his arms Run DMC style in a fur coat. They are the kings of their domain, looking out over all that they’ve conquered from their throne in front of Penneys.
Here’s a sad one. I actually forgot about this great moment:
After leaving Fran and Stephen alone for a romantic dinner in the restaurant, Peter comes out in his nice clothes to open a bottle of champagne at the grave of his recently fallen comrade Roger. Of course they had to bury him, dogtags and all, in a fucking mall planter. But this is the world they live in now.
Finally, a quick shot from inside the vent when they’re crawling around checking out the different stores:
I think this is the only, or if not then the best, look at the electronics store/department. Look at that: tape decks, wood-paneled TVs, cassette tapes, record players. What’s that colorful spot in the upper right? The red and white thing might be one of those sturdy plastic record players for kids. Can anybody identify what’s in the box to the left of it?
What I love is that this was the state of the art of the time. In 1978 the meaning of the shot was “holy shit, look at all this expensive stuff.” Now it looks like the world’s greatest thrift store. You can appreciate it for nostalgia or to chuckle at its datedness, but it only strengthens Romero’s point that this stuff that they have, that they got when they whipped ’em and got it all, this property that they fight the bikers to the death for… it’s just a bunch of crap. If society had continued it would’ve been obsolete before long and hard to get rid of other than dumping it off at the Goodwill, the last place most of us ever saw equipment like that.
DAWN OF THE DEAD is not as disposable. Yeah, let’s face it, this is one of the best movies ever.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.