December 23, 2010

Dawn of the Dead (Review)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director: George A. Romero

4.5 / 5 zedheads

As I write this review, it is two days before Christmas and I just returned from the mall. After fighting my way through a sea of bodies wandering through the mall with no discernible pattern and with blank, shell-shocked expressions on their faces, my thoughts turn naturally to Dawn of the Dead. Although the makeup and gore effects in Dawn of the Dead are clearly dated, the social commentary at the heart of George A. Romero's action / drama zombie film is still relevant today. You can go to any mall at any time of year and see your own zombies shambling from store to store.

While Dawn of the Dead is not a strict sequel to Night of the Living Dead, it extends the premise further by showing a society on the verge of collapse under the pressure of a relentless zombie menace. In the television studio of WGON there is chaos. Employees are abandoning their jobs as people start to realize that the zombie epidemic is getting out of control. The government has made it illegal to occupy private residences and is ordering people to turn over their dead. Scientists seem to have a pretty good grasp on what makes the zombies tick and how to defeat them, but their cold, emotionless protocols are being ignored by the average American who either refuse to believe what is happening or cannot stand to destroy the bodies of their loved ones. Socially, America is coming apart at the seams.

Zombies have no concept of personal space.
In this chaotic climate, Stephen (David Emge), a helicopter pilot, and his girlfriend at WGON  Francine (Gaylen Ross) decide to leave in Stephen's helicopter. Joining them are Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), two AWOL Swat members who have seen first hand the breakdown of society, the horror of the zombies, and the senseless murder that is only fueling the zombie ranks. Together they end up taking refuge in a shopping mall where they have everything they need, but soon they realize that the mall has lured them into a false sense of security, complacency, and affluence. The zombies are just as eager to get in, and a roving gang of bikers is set to take the mall and its spoils by force.
I just can't take another marathon of What Not to Wear.
The enduring success of Dawn of the Dead has nothing to do with its gore or effects. Technically, it's a dated film. While its gore effects were envelop-pushing in its day, you can now see more shocking violence on basic cable. Because of the film's budget, photography technology, and special effects techniques available in the 1970's, the film looks crude by today's standards. The zombies are colored like smurfs and the blood looks like thin tomato soup. Viewed in the context of its era, however, Dawn of the Dead doesn't look bad, but its effects are not what keeps the film relevant.

This is why you should never pop a zit, kids
Instead, Dawn of the Dead remains a classic because of how Romero managed to successfully balance a riveting action-adventure survivor tale with a damning social critique of consumerism. Since Dawn, Romero has lost some of his subtlety, but Dawn of the Dead remains a strong film driven by strong performances, strong imagination, and a strong social warning.

Don't look so shocked. That machete wasn't for show.
Stephen (aka. Flyboy), Francine, Roger, and Peter have to be one of the most likable and realistically flawed survivor groups in all of zombie moviedom. Each actor imbues his or her character with easy-to-identify stock traits but also a level of human depth you don't often see in exploitation gore pictures. In particular, the friendship between Roger and Peter is a touchstone for much of the film's drama. Each character also has to come to terms with his or her own real and imagined flaws. Francine is a strong woman but her pregnancy hinders her ability to distinguish her identity and worth. Flyboy acts impulsively and wants to be a man of action like Peter, but he lacks the skill and foresight, which endangers the group. Roger is also impulsive and prone to immature behaviour and losing sight of the seriousness at hand. Finally, Peter appears to be the strongest of the group, but he shoulders a silent hurt that we see from the moment he's forced to gun down some zombie children. It becomes clear that he's living for his group. If they die, he has no reason to go on. Even without the zombies, I could watch Stephen, Francine, Roger, and Peter interact in any disaster situation.

Roger's reaction to 2 Girls, 1 Cup.
Despite this thread of character drama, Dawn of the Dead is also an exciting adventure movie that appeals to an adult yet childlike sensibility. What kid doesn't fantasize about staying in a mall over night and having the run of the place? Projected into an adult mind, what adult hasn't fantasized about staying in a mall over night to kill zombies in a bloody massacre. Okay, maybe not everyone considers the zombie angle, but the idea of living in a mall has a kind of man-child appeal. Everything you want and could never have is yours. Meanwhile, you get to shoot off guns and wear ammo belts across your chest while driving a stolen car through a mall. Dawn of the Dead embraces this unsupervised and childish mayhem. Like in a video game, our heroes run from place to place completing tasks and killing zombies in excessively gory ways. In Dawn of the Dead, most people come for the zombie action and wish fulfillment, but they stay for the wonderful character development.
Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away
Finally, Dawn of the Dead remains relevant because of its insightful commentary on consumerism. In 1978, shopping malls didn't saturate the North American urban landscape like they do today, but Romero saw the concept of the mall as a sign of the rampant consumerism to come. Dawn of the Dead, therefore, used its characters, setting, and zombies to show the dangers of consumerism by showing humanity as a horde of materialistic zombies. First, Romero's human characters meet their deaths because they become too complacent in the mall. Drawn by the mall as a beacon of convenience and luxury, our heroes start to revel in luxury and grow bored because they don't have to struggle for anything. Barricaded in a tomb of consumerism that contains everything they need to survive, they ironically lose their will to live. Also, the zombies outside are metaphors for a society of consumers. Drawn to the mall by instinct, they are a farcical exaggeration of Western society at large. They are hungry to consume but mindless and don't contribute anything to a world. They take, take, take, and take without nourishment or enjoyment. It's a clever use of the zombie as monster but also a warning for the future -- a warning we've ignored for 30 years.

I try really hard, but Travis just sleepwalks through his role.
Dawn of the Dead remains a smart, fun, and relevant movie today. Its effects, music, and style may be dated, but in terms of zombie movies with a message, Dawn of the Dead remains a cut above the rest. This holiday season, when you're jockeying for position at the toy store or fighting your way through a deadly mall parking lot fiasco, remember Dawn of the Dead and give yourself permission to take a break from the spend-spend-spend of Christmas. You don't want to become a zombie, do you?

THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE concludes tomorrow with our final zombie classic.