WARNING: This review is LOOOONG - it will take several posts to get through due to LJ's posting limits. IN ADDITION, it is graphic intensive - I have loads and loads of screenshots, so dial up folk need not clicky the cut-link at all. SPOILERS always apply - I'm doing a scene by scene description, here, so expect the ending to be blown. There is also discussion of "Night of the Living Dead" & "Day of the Dead" which mentions plot points - like the endings, in passing. SCREEN SHOTS contain grue.
Dawn of the Dead
DIR: George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
Foreword: Back in 1978/1979 when this came to theatres, I was but 10 or 11 years old. As a kid during the drive in era, I was basically at the mercy of others as to whether I'd get to see any movies that weren't shown during matinee hours. Now, I did get to see a lot of movies that might have been questionable for a kid at that time to see. We were a bit more sheltered than the young hoodlums these days (get off my lawn, you punks!) and we had a certain amount of innocence still - even with all of the drugs and the general dystopia of the 70s... at least in my neighborhood.
So back when there was this new movie coming out about zombies who - OMG, EAT PEOPLE ALIVE - AND YOU SEE IT ONSCREEN - it was the talk of everybody in my age group. All of my classmates were insisting they were going to see it, they all insisted that they had seen it - whether they had or not (and most of them hadn't, but they'd picked up the highlights and tried to fake that they had). I didn't get to see it. And, for that I was actually kind of grateful. You see, this movie's reputation proceeded it on the news, in the general commentary, on the street. This was the movie where they were actually showing people being ripped apart in all of its gruesome detail. I lived in fear of this movie. I didn't know if I wanted to see bloody guts all over the screen. And, plus, the music and the commercials on television were nearly enough to send me to another room in fear and loathing. Just the marketing campaign was enough to scar my young brain.
Such was my fear of this movie, that I hadn't seen it until ... well... until I took a deep breath and the Anchor Bay DVD edition was sitting on the store shelf, readily available. I know, it is sort of sad isn't it? I'll never be a horror-junkie in the blood & guts mode. Now, to be fair, I think that you have to understand something about the personal circumstances where I grew up. You see, I HAD seen 'Night of the Living Dead' (well, the edited, blurry edition on UHF) and 'Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things' was a staple on the late night monster movie shows, before making its way to a staple on the afternoon monster movie shows after school (in my area it was Sir Graves Ghastley who brought us all manner of monster, including giving me my first exposure and developing my subsequent love toward Godzilla and his ilk). And, we lived abutted to a graveyard. See, even as a young, naive lad in my hideous orange & brown striped pants that were worn indecently tight for a prepubescent, I knew that if the zombies rose, we'd be one of the first houses surrounded and the thought of being eaten alive kept me up at night, sweating and staring into the black rectangle of my open bedroom door, waiting for pale rotted flesh to come out of the darkness and block off my means of escape from a fate worse than death.
This fear (and overactive imagination - a movie was never JUST a movie in my head) carried over, unspoken and mostly unacknowledged, well into adulthood. I'm afraid of the zombie apocalypse. I've run through scenarios of where I'll go and how I'll survive thousands of times, if not tens of thousands. The thoughts of Zombies scared me far, far more than the kiddie-raping pervert handing out free candy. They scared me far more than a nuclear holocaust. Plane hijacking? Who cares. Vampires, Frankenstein's Monster, Werewolves... hah! (Although, I'll admit to a certain trepidation toward our lycanthropic buddies, too.) No - it was the idea that people we knew would be walking around dead, wanting to tear our flesh from us as we were still alive that got to me (probably in the exact same way that the thought of sharks getting me post-Jaws got to me, and that I did see at the drive in).
So, you can imagine that by the time I sweaty-palm-edly bought my edition of 'Dawn of the Dead' I had it built up quite a bit in my head. I literally watched it for the first time, in my 30's now, crouched up into a ball, with all the lights off, trying to remember that I could hit the stop button if it was too gruesome, if it was too much for my poor, weak brain to take.
So... how did I do? Well, I loved it! I love this movie with everything I have. Final Girl has a series of survey-postings from horror bloggers in which she asks them to name one film that they heart so much they want to stick it down their pants - for me it would be Dawn of the Dead (safely ensconsced in its case though, so the undead couldn't bite off my weenie). There are some scenes of grue that still hold up against modern blood & guts, but the zombies themselves are far less horrifying than I imagined they'd be. A lot of 70s greasepaint is used, which isn't exactly as horror-inducing as curdled flesh falling off of bones. What struck me as I watched Dawn for the first time though, is how likeable the cast is. For large portions of the film, we don't even see the zombies killing and eating victims - we're stuck quite safely in a mall - with our stars, and yet I'm never bored by this break because I like these people. I like them a lot, which makes me not want to lose any of them - and really, how many times does that happen in a movie anymore? Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a movie I return to over and over again... thanks, George.
And, now, onto the show:
Scene 01: We start with opening credits over this bizarre red background that actually makes me laugh these days because it will turn out to be a rug over a wall.
Commentary: Yes, people, in the 1970s when our parents were suffering brain-rot, not only did they dress their kids in clashing colors of butt-squeazing and none-existent-package-outlining tightness, they also thought that carpeting the walls was a stylish aesthetic. You should know that during the 70s, they also trended toward burnt oranges, creamy browns, stripes and opened at the chest shirts (for the men - chest hair was really, really big) with medallions that looked large enough to be hood ornaments and all of it in polyester. It was the decade when taste more or less died.
I want to say here, too, that I really love the electronic score with its blips and bloops and weird off-kilter sounds.
We're with a pretty blonde woman, suffering a nightmare and crouched into the corner of carpeting-on-the-wall.
She snaps awake with a cry, and we join her in a bustling control booth. Out on the floor, men are yelling at each other and it becomes very clear that we're in a television studio.
Scene 02: While the men on camera argue with each other over what is happening and what must be done, another woman comes in with a cup of coffee for Frannie (one of our stars) and to take her place napping in the corner of carpet. She tells Fran that things are starting to fall apart around the studio. We get the sense that we've been dropped into the middle of the action and the other woman says that some of the crew have already abandoned the studio and she can't be sure how much longer they'll be able to stay on the air.
Scene 03: Things in the control room are just as contentious as in the studio as the show runners (I believe this is our movie's director and producer, no?) are arguing over running the list of 'rescue stations' - a list that is out of date, as some of them have already been overrun.
Scene 04: In the studio, a scientist is arguing with the show host that the dead are returning to life and must be destroyed. The show's host, in typical cynical 70s, is arguing that he doesn't know what to believe. He tells the scientist that for all he knows, the whole thing is some sort of conspiracy.
Scene 05: Back in the control room, Fran gets the unenviable task of getting updates on the rescue stations, but another hand tells her that the information they have is at least 12 hours out of date. Their hasn't been any updated news, and in the meantime one of the station managers who we'll meet in a few moments, is making them continue posting - even though now half of the sites are no longer safe.
Fran is appalled that they're still running rescue station sites on the bottom of the screen that aren't any good. She orders them killed until they can get some sort of updated information.
She goes out onto the floor of the studio, to find people milling about arguing both on camera and off.
Commentary: One things I really like about 70s films is the way they allow a situation to breathe. We get to a sense of what is going on and the chaos spreading through these people trying to do their jobs, while only barely keeping themselves in control. We're shown enough to get a sense of the larger break down occurring 'out there', rather than just being told it is happening in dialog and we're getting a sense of who Frannie is....
Scene 06: The show host is being a prick. The scientist is trying to get through to anyone still listening that the dead are being re-animated and must be destroyed. In the meantime, back in the booth, that station manager I mentioned is barrelling down the hallway, angry....
We'll soon find out it's because the rescue station information has been taken down and he's afraid that people will stop watching if that information isn't being streamed, despite its being out of date information. Clearly, he's one of the people who really is not getting what is actually going on out there. Ratings? He's worried about ratings while THE DEAD ARE EATING THE LIVING? Yeah - he's really not getting it.
Station Manager yells at Fran (who has returned to the studio floor) over taking down the rescue station information. She shouts back (on the air) that the information is out of date and he'll be responsible for killing people (and he makes the 'but people won't watch if we're not transmitting the information' argument).
As they're having their argument, television host is complaining that they're interrupting his show (he's stuck in a delusion as well) even as people are leaving their positions to make a run from the station. Station Manager yells for a security guard to stop his console runners from leaving, but he just rolls his eyes and joins the stream of people abandoning the station.
Commentary: We don't check on these folks again, after we leave the station, but it isn't hard to imagine that they'll all be dead, soon. Where are they going to run? If they stay, what are they going to eat?
Scene 07: We find out here that we're in Philadelphia and that all of the major cities are under marshall law. The scientist tries to make people understand that the dead are eating their victims, but at this point it still seems that people in the studio can't accept this reality as they shout him down. Fran seems to be the only one who is actually trying to listen to what he's saying.
In the meanwhile, a guy in a bomber-jacket comes into the studio. The scientist informs the public that people are no longer allowed to stay in their private residences, no matter how well stocked or fortified because it isn't safe. Everyone is to report to evacuation centers that will be heavily protected (and just like now, and perhaps always, people don't trust the government, so this gets shout down by the camera crew and line producers as well).
The bomber-jacket guy finds Fran and tells her that they're leaving. He shares he has access to the station's chopper and they're flying out of Philly while the getting is good.
Fran at first resists, as she feels like she has to stay to help inform the public on what they need to do, but Stephen knows better. He sees that things have already gone too far and they've lost. He's already thinking ahead to survival.
As the scientist is insisting to the shouting studio crew that all dead bodies will be turned over to the National Guard for disposal, we cut to a SWAT team closing in on an apartment tenement.
Scene 08: At the tenement, SWAT and National Guardsmen have the building surrounded and a police lieutenant is trying to force the residents to give up. He complains the "little bastards" have gathered "them all" in the one building.
Commentary: There is an uncomfortable subtext here when it comes to the police guy talking about "your people" through the bullhorn. It's hard not to see that the troops are all white in this lead up to an assault on the building, while of course, the inner city tenement is almost assuredly nearly all black and hispanic. We'll get this racist subtext converted to text with a psycho-cop in a minute, but then it is quickly undone when we see both minority guardsmen and of course, that one of our SWAT stars is a black guy. I can't help but see some sort of commentary on racial tensions in late 70s America and how ridiculous it is, once the horror of the end of the world is shown manifest in the zombies....
The seeming man 'in charge' of the tenement is a Puerto Rican, which our soon-to-be psycho cop calls 'greasy' in a very racist way. It definitely gives the impression that some are using the martial law less to get a handle on the undead plague and more to settle their own bigoted scores against 'the other'....
Psycho rants about blowing "all their low life Puerto Rican and Nigger asses" off. He further complains of how these 'low life bastards' are being put up in 'these fancy hotels' and how it's 'better than I got'....
Commentary: Okay, first, it's an inner city tenement - not fancy, by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, there is definitely a lot of anger in this SWAT guy toward minorities, public assistance and everyone who isn't white, reflecting the turmoil of the 70s. But third, this guy is so on the edge, it will come as no surprise when he really loses it in a bit - further painting a picture that society at large is coming apart at the seams and old, barely contained hostilities between the differing ethnic constituencies of our 'melting pot' have well and truly boiled over, which is why we're losing to the undead. If we take the opportunity of the world falling apart to turn on one another, what hope can there be?
Also, I want to talk about the language here, because it's really uncomfortable to hear the *N* word thrown around like it is, here. Yes, the copper is shown as a racist nut who's losing it, but you also need to understand that using the word didn't have the ... ugly punch... that it does, now. I clearly remember that it was thrown around casually by everyone as both an insult and between friends, no matter what your particular race. Once upon a time in America, it wasn't only rappers that were allowed to throw that particular epithet out into the public discourse.
Now, it just makes me cringe....
Scene 09: Things quickly go pear shaped when the 'low lifes' come out with guns blazing. Immediately, one of the greenhorns is shot dead instantly with a bullet to the forehead. In the meanwhile, Psycho cop is showing a bit too much enthusiasm for using his gun.
The teams move in to secure the building, but we haven't gotten to see any zombies yet, so you could almost forget that there is an apocalypse going on. This could easily be a crime drama playing out as gas grenades are launched into the building and our SWAT guys flood into the building.
We also see there are National Guardsmen in green in some of the apartments, arresting the building's residents apartment by apartment. Psycho cop kicks in doors, firing indiscrimately, and we see one guy's head blow apart.
Our SWAT hero (Roger) tries to stop him, because he has clearly gone 'ape shit', but it falls to our other SWAT hero (Peter) to shoot him in the back to stop him. The Psycho collapses into an apartment, that another guy in the background had tried to stop him from kicking open.
Commentary: One of the best components of the movie is going to be the relationship between Roger and Peter. Both actors have a great deal of charisma and play off of each other very well, adding an unexpected emotional component that really makes the film more than just a zombie-horror. These two form a real friendship on screen that the audience can feel and it really adds so much to the film and I think, makes this a classic film, rather than just a memorable horror.
Scene 10: Peter turns and finds his own men (white men) training their guns on him and he responds in kind, but the situation doesn't escalate. Instead, the SWAT members get back to their jobs as Peter walks away.
Roger is helped up off of the floor, where the Psycho SWAT member left him in a heap.
In the apartment beyond, the SWAT guys find a dismembered body - and a member of the undead. "Jesus Christ," one of the young SWAT cops says as the undead struggles to crawl toward him. The undead guy is missing a foot and cannot stand.
Commentary: And, we get the first inkling of the horror that is playing out all over the country, perhaps even the world. We can understand, perhaps, why we see so many instances of people refusing to deal with what is actually happening and why some of them have just plain lost their minds. Also, I don't know if this was the first movie that really pushed the envelope in special effects (under the eye of body horror maestro Tom Savini) but it was one of the earliest, so it isn't hard to understand why those who saw this on a giant theatre screen left traumatized. It's probably a good thing I wasn't allowed to see it back in the day.
Scene 11: As one of the young guys is dealing with the zombie on the floor, another comes out of a side bedroom and starts wrestling with another SWAT guy in the apartment. Roger rushes to help the struggling SWAT guy with the woman zombie.
The young SWAT guy dealing with the zombie crawling on the floor misfires (because he grabbed up the shotgun from Psycho cop which is empty now, instead of using his own assault rifle). He's allowed the zombie to get close enough to grab at his ankles, as he tries to deal not just physically with shooting the zombie in the head, but emotionally as well.
While all of this is going on, another zombie comes from the bedroom and wanders past them out into the hallway....
The young SWAT guy spider crawls, now panicking, away from the crawling hungry dead. Roger and other SWAT guy are still struggling to not get bitten by woman zombie until they can get their guns to bear to shoot her in the head.
The blond guy wrestling with crawling zombie finally draws his pistol and is able to fire several shots into its head, while Roger and other SWAT guy are able to fill the woman zombie full of lead (including a head shot). But the wandering zombie has made it into the hallway and the SWAT team there is unable to take a shot because a woman who knows the re-animated gets into their line of fire to protect him (his wife?).
As we know, and wife (?) just now learns to her regret, zombies don't retain their emotional attachments. She gets herself good and bitten (in a nice effect, a big mouthful is torn out of her shoulder)... she falls away screaming and the wandering zombie is put down (even though there is a mistake here in that we don't see a head shot - ooops). We never get a follow up to this woman, but it isn't hard to guess they rush her to a hospital where she'll get sick, die and re-animate. We find this out because we see what happens when someone is bitten later....
Before the wandering zombie gets shot down, he also manages to take a bite out of wife's (?) arm in a nicely gooey effect.
In the meantime, young SWAT blond is still sitting in the corner staring at the undead guy he just shot. He puts his gun to his face and pulls the trigger, shocking and saddening Roger.
Scene 12: Which is why Roger runs to the basement to get away from all of the noise and chaos to try to deal with the horror around him....
There, a voice surprises him. It's Peter, who has also retreated to the relative quiet of the basement to deal with his own horror at shooting his co-SWAT member in the back.
They're pointing their rifles at one another and Peter recognizes him from the hallway scene. Peter mentions he was in the Psycho-cop's unit upstairs, but Roger says he didn't see anything - he didn't see how psycho cop died. Both of them stand for a moment with their rifles pointed at each other waiting to see if the other is going to shoot.
Finally Roger lowers his weapon first and waits to see if Peter is going to shoot him, but instead the other SWAT guy slings his gun.
Commentary: I like the way this whole scene plays out. We can see that either one of these guys could easily be the next one to put a gun to their own head, like the young blond SWAT member upstairs. Peter is clearly having trouble dealing with what he did, as you can see if you study his demeanor and the heavy look on his face as he leans against the basement sink. Meanwhile, Roger was there upstairs when young blond SWAT guy blew his own face off and is struggling not to get sick.
Roger tells Peter that there are a lot of guys running and that he's considered abandoning, too. He hints to Peter that he might run that night, as he passes him a cigarette. Roger tells Peter about his friend with the helicoptor (Stephen) and asks if he thinks it's right to run.
Before Peter can answer, a door opens and both men snatch up their rifles. It turns out to only be a priest, though. The Priest tells them that many have died on the streets in the past week and that they've gathered them in the basement beyond the door he just came from. He tells them that they can do what they want with them, but that in a land where the dead walk, they need to stop the killing, or they're going to lose the war.
Scene 13: In another part of the building, another team of guardsmen find a boarded up room. They break into it, but it has also been filled with the undead - the zombies flood out of the broken doorway into room, threatening to over run the army men and they're forced to retreat.
Commentary: It doesn't help that in the cramped confines they're so pressed against each other that their long rifles are nearly useless.... I don't know who was supposed to be coordinating these raids, but they really bungled it by not sticking to hand guns - there just isn't room for all of these men with their rifles to get a bead on the mass of the animated dead.
Scene 14: Back with Roger and Peter, they enter the room the priest just came from to find the bodies that he was giving last rites to. They're crammed beyond a storage fence. Peter pulls out his pistol and looks on the scene with dismay.
He starts shooting them one by one, tears coming from his eyes. When his pistol empties, he just numbly keeps pulling the trigger as one of the zombies crawls toward him (like the young blond guy scene earlier). He very slowly starts to fumble to reload, but doesn't get out of the way of the crawling zombie and you're left with the feeling that he's going to end up like the kid earlier -
Until Roger appears at his side, with his own firearm in hand to shoot the grasping zombie in the head.
Roger angrily asks why the residents kept them there like that and Peter tells him that they did it out of respect for who they were.
Commentary: I like this scene, too, because when added to this whole sequence, it really makes clear the emotional toll that this war against the dead is taking on the men having to deal with it. And, it also provides an emotional reason for why Peter and Roger become such fast friends.
Peter brings up his re-loaded pistol to aim at another zombie off screen and as he pulls his trigger we see a man with a hole in his head....
Scene 15: But it isn't one of the tenement undead that has been shot. We've cut to the helicoptor dispatch office, where Stephen has found the radioman, a victim of another suicide. Stephen reports into whoever is calling over the radio that the operator is dead and the post is abandoned. They're at a police post where the coptor is located (however, this doesn't look much like a police helicoptor, I have to say and I thought that Stephen was a news-helicoptor pilot, so why is it at a police outpost?).
Around them, it's obvious that the police are readying supplies to abandon their posts as well. Roger arrives with Peter to join Fran and Stephen aboard the coptor, while the police around them load up a police boat.
Fran and Stephen are not exactly pleased that Roger brought an unexpected guest with him, but Stephen (who will come to be called 'Flyboy' by Peter) assures her that they'll be fine with the extra weight.
In the meanwhile, one of the young cops comes over to look for a cigarette, but no one has any. He provides more explication that the cops have banded together to take the police launch out. They have no idea where they're going, other than to find one of the channel islands to hole up on. As the police ready the launch, our group starts their trip with both Fran and Roger pulling out cigarettes.
Commentary: This scene goes on a bit long to get in this bit of comic relief with the nerdy, geeky young cop. I wish it had been excised for some sort of dialog regarding our foursome's family and friends. We never hear any of them mention their fear or heartbreak or any other thoughts that they have parents, siblings, close friends - that they're abandoning as well to go on the run from the city. Some scenes of Fran, for instance, frantically dialing one of those 'out of date' rescue centers looking for someone and getting no answer would have added more than this scene.
Onto Part II, Instead