Last night I saw the original Dawn of the Dead on TV. Written and directed by George A. Romero in 1978, this is a classic zombie flick that emerged from an era of experimental and gory horror films (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Italian horror maestro, Dario Argento was script consultant for the film, and provided some of the music – certain sections of which were awful.
The story is straightforward: two SWAT officers, Stephen Andews (David Emge) and Peter Washington (Ken Foree), a helicopter pilot, Roger DeMarco (Scott H. Reiniger), and a female reporter, Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross), hole up in a mall while the world is being overrun with zombies. These are your old school zombies: slow-moving, moaning, with white face-paint, and bad hair. Most of the characters can get away from them with a well-placed push, or by breaking into a slow jog.
Yet, there are interesting sub-texts in the film, especially since the characters seek refuge in a mall – that bastion of American consumerism. Once the quartet take over the mall, they seal all the entrances and load up with guns and ammo and shoot all the lurching zombies on the premises. The authority and sense of power the weapons lend the characters is laid on thick – it’s almost unsporting how little chance the zombies have against the pogrom. This leaves the foursome free to plunder the mall for all the goods and money they want – but of course, they have nowhere to go, or anything to buy.
There’s a disjointed section towards the end in which a motorbike gang break into the mall in order to get at all the goods, which allows the zombies back into the sanctuary. This seems like a convenient plot device to create more crisis in the movie, to allow for gruesome scenes of zombies munching upon flesh and playing with entrails, and to thin out the ranks of the heroes.
There is an element of racial conflict in the film as well, since Peter is black, and only he and Francine escape at the end. The way he is framed in certain shots, always carrying a gun, is symbolic of a new kind of powerful, black male – the kind that America was most afraid of in the 1970s. The movie reflects a world in crisis, where the old order, of shambling, incoherent flesh-eaters will be destroyed by the virile, young generation who turn their back on the mall culture of meaningless attachment to material goods (there’s a pivotal scene at the end where Peter is almost killed by the zombies due to his loyalty to the mall, but survives by choosing to take flight with the pregnant Francine – another indicator that they represent the future of the world).
The film is laughable in places, the acting is patchy, and the pacing erratic. Yet, the zombies do occasionally prove menacing, if only due to their numbers, their mindless desire to eat the living, and their perseverance. What saves the movie is the fact that there are subtle, and obvious, commentaries being made about American life in the 1970s. It also has that B-movie cheesy quality which makes the film endearing due to its earnestness and dedication to the horror genre.
On the personal note, I hate zombies. Even as a jaded and hardened horror fan, there is something I find unsettling about their awful groans, shambling gait, and relentless cannibalism. Whenever I play a computer game that involves killing zombies I both love and hate it. I enjoy blowing the bejaysus out of the bastards, but hate the anticipation their signature moaning – which is heard just before they appear – generates. Watching modern horror flicks, like 28 Days Later, where the zombies acted as if they were on speed, transformed them into a different, but equally-repellent, monster. I intend seeing the remake of Dawn of the Dead quite soon, and the zombies in that version are running instead of lumbering. More promising, perhaps, is the low-budget comedy Shaun of the Dead (anything by Simon Pegg is worth watching), which appears delightful, and has gone for the traditional bumbling zombie that is both ridiculous and horrific.
As I noted on my blog some time ago, I find the resurgence of the zombie flick in the past couple of years an interesting comment on the social and political changes occurring in the world at the moment. I think we’ll see more undead-infested movies for some time to come.