In 1978, after a series of commercial failures, George Romero went back to his zombies. Having finally reached a settlement over the complex issue of who actually owned the rights to Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero announced that his seminal work had been the first part of a trilogy and promptly served up this, the much imitated second chapter. Unlike so many sequels, this is a genuine continuation of the same story, one that abandons the grainy, almost documentary-like monochrome of the original in favour of relatively slick colour. And to celebrate this momentous occasion, Romero called on the services of two of the key figures in modern genre cinema. From Italy, came il maestro, Dario Argento, still riding high on the success of Suspiria (1976), bringing with him his resident musos, Goblin, who supplied Dawn’s score. Argento was hired to handle the European cut of the film, his name lending some welcome Euro-credibility to Romero’s production.
Romero also called on the services of Tom Savini, whose acting and make-up work had already been showcased in Romero’s Martin (1977). Savini rapidly became a cult figure in the early 1980s thanks to his crude but widely admired work in the field of special effects make up – the effects obsessed Fangoria virtually deified him! Low budget psycho-slashers like the disturbing Maniac (1980) and the first of the Friday the 13th series (1980) created a devoted following for his work and he almost single handed created the tedious special effects cult that kept Fangorians enthralled during the 1980s.
At the unforgettable climax of Night of the Living Dead, looking past the shattering fate of the film’s hero, there was a sense that somehow, Mankind was managing to win it’s opening battle with the undead, that despite everything society might just prevail – it might be a society full of gun-happy rednecks, and the unasked question was whether it was a society really worth saving at all. At the opening of Dawn, that question has become almost irrelevant – society now hangs in the balance, a besieged Mankind standing ready to be completely over-run by the ever growing army of the dead.
For Romero, the zombies are gradually becoming the new normality, a new society inheriting a grave new world. Taking his cue from Richard Matheson’s similarly themed novel I Am Legend – Romero has never made any bones about being inspired by Matheson – Romero reverses all our expectations and it is the surviving humans who have become the monsters, callously gunning down the undead like animals, making almost no attempt to actually understand what’s really happening. Even the scientists interviewed sporadically on a chaotic TV broadcast can do nothing but suggest dropping nuclear weapons on major population centres.
In the four central characters – what pass as the nominal ‘heroes’ and ‘heroine’ – Romero sees other traits. They’re too proud to bow to the inevitable, too human to surrender their individuality. One of Romero’s great strengths has always been his insistence of drawing strong characters to populate his genre work and Dawn is no exception. He’s rewarded by excellent performance from his four leads, easily the best of any of his films thus far, and they more than compensate for some of the less inspired supporting performances.
But it is the reanimated dead for whom Romero seems to beg the most sympathy. They didn’t ask to be the way they are. They’re little more than pathetic, shambling wrecks, confused and probably more than a little frightened. One of the strengths of Dawn of the Dead is that we find our sympathies torn between the living and the dead. Such ambiguity in the distinctions between the concepts of “good” and “bad” inform most of Romero’s early work and here it’s a far more interesting and fruitful subtext than the much trumpeted – and frankly over-done – anti-consumerist stance that Dawn of the Dead is best known for.
Romero’s sequel has been hailed one of the most satirical of 70s horror films due to his pouring considerable scorn on North America’s passionate obsession with guns and materialism. The mall is a consumerist paradise for the four survivors who have at their fingertips all the material possessions they could wish for, but they lack the imagination to use them creatively. Instead, they struggle to create a microcosm of their old society within the mall, yearning for a way of life that no longer exists. They come to view the mall as ‘their property’ and are willing to defend it at any cost. When a biker gang (led by Savini) breaks in, the surviving trio (one of their number has already been killed) are in a position to let them just get on with it; in time, they’d eventually grow tired and leave. But because their ‘property’ has been invaded, they fight back, without really understanding why, causing the death of another of their number and allowing the zombies back in, rendering the building useless again.
The undead themselves hardly act any better, though they at least have an excuse. They congregate around the mall as clueless as to why they really want is as the group of humans they are trying to eat; “This was an important place in their lives” notes Roger when they first arrive to find the mall full of zombies. In death, we lose everything – our personalities, our identity and our individuality. Everything, it seems, but our materialist urges, our need to be among the possessions we so desire in life. One zombie is spurred into action only when the bikers steal her jewellery, while another clings tenaciously to a rifle – not to use as a weapon, but to brandish like some bizarre status symbol. It’s clear that Romero is trying to draw a parallel between the brainwashed, materialistic shoppers that congest North America’s shopping malls and the massed ranks of the undead.
And while it’s a potent and valid point, it’s one that Romero does tend to labour somewhat, and at over two hours in length, the film needs more that just the one idea, no matter how well intentioned it might be. The film opens well enough, with the SWAT assault on the Puerto Rican ghetto being one of the darkest and grimmest horror sequences of the 70s. In this relatively short but spectacular sequence, Romero manages to economically set up his vision of a society teetering on the edge of destruction and has his cast present every possible human reaction to the crisis in the shortest time possible – everything from bullet-spitting fury to numbed disbelief, from quiet resignation to sheer, blind panic.
Once past the heliport refuelling scene however – with its disturbing shots of zombie children being mowed down by machine gun fire, one of the most shocking images in the entire genre – things start to unravel. The use of the shopping mall as the primary location was inspired, but Romero’s insistence on pushing the consumerist metaphor seriously unbalances the film. After the taut, well-paced and exciting opening, Dawn of the Dead gets bogged down in soap operatics (should we keep the baby or not?) and tedious scenes of the four protagonists settling into their new life, complete with romantic dinner parties. One can’t help but think that Romero had made his point fairly early on, even before the film reaches the mall, and certainly some of this mid-section could easily be discarded in favour of a more consistent pace.
The film never really recovers from this slow down of pace – it seems as though Romero lost sight of where he was going and the latter half of the film becomes a meandering mess, all too often punctuated with out-of-the-blue comic silliness. The slapstick battle between the invading bikers and the hoard of zombies is rendered laughable by inappropriate music cues and Romero’s inexplicable decision to have the bikers meet their undead foes with custard pies to the face…
But despite the messiness of the script – which prevents the film from really becoming masterpiece it’s all too often hailed as – there’s still much in Dawn of the Dead to admire. Technically, the film was Romero’s best to date – even if the whole film doesn’t quite gel, individual sequences really shine as Romero proves himself to be an excellent action director, staging the major set-pieces with real aplomb. Michael Gornick’s photography is superb, making great use of the mall settings and giving Romero his most polished and slick looking film so far. Even Romero’s editing, often a bug-bear in his earlier work, is fine here as he pieces the action scenes together with flair and imagination. Goblin’s score too is impressive, one that was much imitated in the glut of zombie movies that followed the worldwide success of Dawn, and it provided the largest stage yet for the excellent Italian prog rock outfit to show what they could do.
There’s no denying the importance of Dawn of the Dead, nor the tremendous impact it had – it spawned dozens of imitators from all over the world and introduced a new generation of fans to the genre. It also upped the ante in what was acceptable in terms of screen violence – it was by far and away the most visceral movie ever released to that date (though in truth the effects were never that convincing), a fact that caused no small amount of controversy wherever the film played. But it’s not the great film that it’s legion of fans would have us believe. It’s a very good one certainly, but it’s somewhat shambolic structure and relentless, unsubtle proselytising get in the way of it being truly great.