Unrated, but this is completely an R-rated, bordering on NC-17 underground horror hit. This is Tom Savini zombie effects. There are situations where Savini is just setting up the most absurd ways to show some gore. It's that red paint gore too, so keep that in mind. There's also just a shot of nudity that doesn't really jibe with the rest of the film. But, again, there is just an abundance of gore. Zombies eat people and we get to see how that looks like. Tearing flesh is part of the film, let's just say that. Also, there are really uncomfortable racial slurs. Unrated.
DIRECTOR: George Romero
Oh man, I might just need to skip October horror movies in 2020. There were just so many moments in this movie where I was reminded about the hellscape we are currently navigating. I mean, it's good. It gives me more to write about. But this was another of those movies that I was obsessed with in my college years and haven't really revisited it since I started dating my wife. (I'm just throwing my wife under the bus.) But in a time where Coronavirus is spreading faster and harder as the months fly by, can I really enjoy Dawn of the Dead?
The short answer is...heck, yes. As an OG zombie movie by the man who made zombies a household word, Dawn of the Dead absolutely holds up. Yeah, the purpleish grey hue of the zombies shambling everywhere looks a little dated. The movie screams '70s, but that is also what gives the film its charm. Too often, and I'm especially looking at the remake made by Zack Snyder, zombie movies are just a little bit too pretty looking. The special effects are neat and clean. There's so much attention brought to the scares that the movie forgets that zombie movies can be a lot of fun. Romero is not exactly one to shy away from politics in his zombie films, which I will be discussing in this blog. But for as bleak and gory as the movie is, it is genuinely funny for a lot of it. And I'm not talking about ironically funny. I'm definitely laughing with instead of laughing at. I mean, we probably wouldn't have The Walking Dead without Romero's movies. But as much fun stuff as we get in The Walking Dead, it's rarely all that funny. Instead, we have Hari Krishna zombies. There's that really odd joke about the blood pressure machine. There's the zombie who gets the top of his head cut off by a spinning helicopter blade. It's just a good time. And I normally have this strong opinion about goofy music, but Dawn of the Dead might be the exception to the rule. The theme song towards the end when the zombies have taken over the mall once again, that song is iconic. There's a reason that Robot Chicken used it for its theme song.
But now that I can safely say how fun and enjoyable this movie is, I do want to look at the political voice of Romero and how it applies to today. It's kind of no wonder that so many people don't trust scientists and the government. Romero is not exactly a prophet. Horror movies love having the hubris of scientists trampled upon. With Dawn, the film keeps coming back to this scientist trying to keep order in a world that is quickly falling down around him. Considering that this is a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, the film starts off in media res, the news station well into the zombie apocalypse. The entire situation is chaos. No one is really listening to one another and this scientist, who at this point in the film, is desperately trying to get the attention of his listeners. He has this sacred duty to protect others. And as chaotic as the opening is, the environment with the television studio only gets worse and worse. We see our basic civilization start to break down. After all, zombies are more of a setting villain than a practical villain. They are there to comment on how fragile our cultural norms are in the face of adversity. By the time we see the scientist for the last time, he has gone completely off the reservation. He talks about using a nuclear weapon on major cities. (I don't know what this would really do, considering that there are many zombies in the suburbs and in rural areas. But seeing the way that the media is portrayed during a viral crisis is haunting. The fact that no one can even communicate anything clearly is something I don't want to be thinking today, considering that I'm pro-science and most media right now.
I always thought that Dawn of the Dead's central theme was about commercialism. I mean, I suppose it is. I know that becomes a bigger thing in Land of the Dead. But I was floored to see the commentary it makes about police violence. As much as I claim that Romero isn't a prophet, it is haunting to think about what 1978 thought about abuses within law enforcement and how little those attitudes have changed to today. The news station opening makes sense with the rest of the film, but I always wondered about the police scenes in the movie. Two of the survivors that we follow in the mall are police officers. Okay. But Romero devotes a not unsubstantial amount of screen time to police officers going ham on Black families. It's really a disturbing scene. There's this cop who shouts racial slurs and guns down as many Black people in a short amount of time as he can. How little have we grown as a culture? It's that whole attitude of a few bad apples, but Roger is one of these people who is indoctrinated in this culture. As a dynamic character, Roger seems to be "one of the good ones." He actively stands up to the insane officer, leading to that character's death. But as the movie progresses, he gets more and more irresponsible. Romero seems to be commenting on the fact that humanity may be toxic to the core. As much as Roger seems to be the model for a healthy civilization at the beginning of the film, his descent into recklessness and suicidal tendencies increases. It gets to a point where Stephen has to stress that Roger is not only risking his own life, but the lives of the people around him.
I think that Romero is trying to be progressive with his views on feminism in the movie, but he comes across pretty regressive by today's standards. Francine pretty much verbalizes that she refuses to be a den mother for these three men. (By the way, no one thought that it would be dangerous to hunker down for the long haul apocalypse with that gender and relationship dynamic?) I know that Francine insists on learning how to fire a gun and how to fly a helicopter, but these scenes don't really help the film as a whole. They are mainly examples of white knighting the whole situation. When Peter is fighting off zombies and the guy whom I will refer to as "helicopter zombie" is coming after her, she just stands there. A lot of the problem would be solved if she just moved at a reasonable pace away from him, but Peter is stuck there flopping about with a zombie. I want to applaud Romero for trying to create a strong female protagonist, but Francine really offers nothing to the dynamic besides being a hazard. Thank goodness she learns how to fly the helicopter, but that is one minute out of a whole movie.
Stephen's sacrifice also seems really tagged on. I mean, he bails, which almost reaffirms my initial statement. But Stephen offers to stay back to help Francine escape. His argument is that he doesn't want to run anymore. But what was his plan? He'd rather be eaten alive? Nothing in the film implies that Stephen is at all suicidal. I get that he really likes the setup that they had. Romero, after all, builds the mall to be a microcosm of culture and humanity. It's an artificial biodome of happiness and Stephen doesn't want to lose that for a second time. But Francine needs to have someone help her with delivering her baby. Also, his suicide might be one of the more selfish attitudes to have, considering that he was always the most capable member of the society. Part of me also reads that he is attracted to Francine, but is never able to act on his feelings due to Peter. Peter always kind of sucks. I'm just going to stick with that. I get that Peter and Stephen eventually bury the hatchet (pun intended), but it is almost out of necessity versus genuine bonding. If Peter is dead, why would Stephen decide to bow out of surviving when he has an opportunity to be happy with Francine? I guess it's because Romero had an ending he wanted to do, regardless of how it fit.
Thank goodness for Dawn of the Dead though. While Night of the Living Dead sews a lot of the seeds for themes within the zombie film Dawn of the Dead makes these themes overt. The zombies are such a low threat (until they have to be. I do appreciate that evolution of the zombie has made the intellect a little more consistent than Romero's shambling creatures). But the real terror comes from other people. Romero doesn't really scare me with his zombies. They are actually kind of fun with their quirky personalities. It's the people that scare me. When we see that militia enjoying the hunt of zombies, there's something both funny and haunting about that image. But the biker gang really does the job in stressing that the problems our society will run into isn't from an outside force, but from the notion that we're inherently selfish and self-destructive. The biker gang needs to do very little damage. After all, the survivors have made a long term home out of the mall. The notion of wrecking it is the personification of the id. They derive joy from ruining someone else's happiness, so they do it. Again, this movie is bleak and it never gets more so than thinking about what humanity would do in the face of zombies.
Yeah, Dawn of the Dead might not be the best movie to watch right now. But it is still an absolutely amazing movie. Do I wish that the scientist wasn't a crackpot? Sure. But otherwise, the movie is Romero's best.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.