Aw yiss. Get ready for another dispatch from the outpost – it’s time for a look at 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, which actually isn’t even my favorite Romero Dead film. What the heck? Read on, o you person who is reading this!
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
Director: George A. Romero
Stars: David Emge, Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger
Country: United States
[this review refers to the 127 minute Anchor Bay Theatrical Edition of the film]
I was going to put a spoiler warning in this review, but…come on. The time limit has run out, and this movie is practically Film 101 for horror, so if you somehow haven’t seen this by now and you might be concerned with spoilers, I guess maybe don’t read this and go watch this film? Anyhow, you better not stop reading this if you know what’s good for you. Here is a pie in your face, you bastard. See how my tone shifted there? That’s kind of Dawn of the Dead in a nutshell.
Way back when, the first time I saw Dawn of the Dead, I was blown away. There was so much to love about it: the cast, the setting, the comic-book style. My opinion of the film has softened over time – I’m still awfully fond of Dawn, but there’s a light at the end of the film that rings somewhat hollow, especially coming after the absolute downbeat of Night of the Living Dead‘s shock ending (I’ll discuss Day of the Dead, which is my favorite of the three, at another time). Damn it, I want my zombie films to be depressing and bleak, because a zombie outbreak is in itself an endgame. What is survival? What is living, particularly among the undead?
The obsession with putting a consistently new spin on the zombie sub-genre is why I’m both burned out on zombies altogether, and why I keep coming back to Romero’s original three Dead films. Even with a hopeful ending, he still managed to be one of the very few, if not the only, people to understand that it’s a hopeless situation. He squarely addresses this with Dawn – okay, we’ve gotten out of the overrun city, into a mall that’s stocked with food and supplies, but what then? You’re trapped. You cannot leave. And you are still under constant threat of some kind of outside force getting in. There’s no guarantee of LIFE, which is why when Peter (Foree) puts a pistol to his forehead at the end of the film, it somehow feels like a relief. Is suicide always the answer? No, but in that situation, would you rather die quickly, or suffer to live over several months or perhaps days? It’s all the more frustrating when he changes his mind and joins Fran (Ross) in the helicopter. They fly off into the sunrise, roll credits. BUT TO WHAT. Certain death, most likely, let’s be honest here.
But I digress. The basic plot of Dawn is four survivors – Stephen (Emge), a TV station helicopter pilot; Fran, a producer at the station; Stephen’s friend Roger (Reiniger) and Peter, both SWAT team members – who find an abandoned mall and decide to use it as long-term shelter against the undead hoards outside. Stephen is established early on as being pretty useless outside of flying the ‘copter, Fran is pregnant and feels as though she’s being pigeonholed as the group’s den mother, and Roger is a crack shot but a loose cannon – he can hardly contain himself outside of the confines of their living quarters. Peter is decidedly the most reliable, the most rational, and the most sensible of the group. It cannot be a coincidence that Romero cast a black man in this role; Peter is a spiritual son to Ben (Duane Jones) from Night of the Living Dead. Perhaps that Peter lives in the end is Romero’s mea culpa for killing off Ben, who was the first black male lead in a horror film. NOTE: in the original screenplay, Fran and Peter kill themselves minutes before the helicopter runs out of fuel. Part of me really wants this ending, particularly because it’s foreshadowed earlier in the film.
Dawn never seems to find a good balance between being dead serious and overtly comedic in tone. The tone shifts are jarring and it’s not clear if it’s because Romero doesn’t exactly know what he’s going for, or if he’s deliberately trying to keep the audience off kilter. Either way, the film lulls you into a particular comfort zone, then knocks you out of it. This is especially frustrating because when the film is serious, there are some interesting moments that take place, particularly surrounding Fran’s character. At one point, while the men think she’s asleep, Stephen discloses Fran’s pregnancy, and Peter offers abortion as an option. Later, she asserts herself, making it clear that she wants to be treated as an equal party to all decision-making, and that the pregnancy is none of their concern. She learns to properly shoot a gun, and to fly the helicopter, and the best part is that she never becomes an ass-kickin’ action bad ass mama. Her character is probably the most interesting, but this all gets overshadowed when the film remembers that it’s a horror and then we’re treated to another round of Tom Savini head explosions. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just disjointed, as disjointed as having a pie fight in the middle of the film’s climactic siege scene.
When watching Dawn again after several years, and as much as I want that more downbeat ending, what happens to the characters is just perfect. Stephen, who becomes more and more annoying on each subsequent viewing because of his damn fool ineptitude, and Roger, who just makes some of the worst decisions for being a SWAT team guy, do not survive. In fact, I find David Emge to be an amazing zombie, with one of the best shuffling walks of all time. And watching, or rather, listening to Scott Reiniger’s performance when Roger starts to turn after being bitten is equally terrifying and heartrending. Volumes can be written about Ken Foree, and volumes should be written about Gaylen Ross, who has been directed and producing her own films for several years now.
For all its strange quirks and uneven tone, Dawn of the Dead remains a classic. It’s still one of my favorite films of any genre, with some of my favorite music (Goblin ftw), and one of my favorite casts. It’s easy to see why people routinely peg this as their top Romero film. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch, but damn, is it ever one hell of a rollercoaster.