Update 2018: With all the news about the retail apocalypse, swamping America these days, it’s both curiously innocent and deceptively terrifying to return to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as a vision of life after death where our consumer habits mark us as prematurely deceased in life anyway. In this film, the suburban consumer hub where we metaphorically (and literally) armor ourselves against assault from our zombified negative mirror-images also become our collective coffin. Because in life and death we can only think to shop, our protective shell becomes an iron maiden, America’s multi-story beacon of convenient commercialization and mid-century superiority curdled into a national self-cleaning oven.
Also, watching again, the film’s broad-side critique of masculine America’s preferred outlet for social critique during the ’70s – anti-social biker gangs choosing self-aggrandizing, mythic displacement and libertarian idealism over serious collective organizing – is all the more pressing today. Romero reads Easy Rider not simply as a hopeless quest for sanctity and a perpetual deferral of home in light of the dethroned classical nuclear family structure but a caricature of “rebellion,” an attempt by men to reinstate new social structures in ways which incline toward the brutishly male, the individualistically chaotic, and often – insofar as biker gangs and Neo-Nazis have a historical connection – the truly oppressive.
I wasn’t originally going to review two Romero films in the American New Wave series, but ’tis the season, and a horror review for the week of Halloween seemed only humane of me.
Dawn of the Dead is not a nuanced film, nor is George A. Romero a nuanced director. His scrappy, unfinished filmmaking was perfect for Night of the Living Dead, a low-budget monstrosity of the most blackened variety. The eternal concern of an independent filmmaker looms large over Dawn of the Dead, however: what hell hath a larger budget wrought? As it turns out, not much, for Dawn of the Dead manages to maintain Romero’s proudly non-nuanced filmmaking, marry it to some proudly non-nuanced social commentary, and elevate both to a sort of mythic nature that doesn’t need nuance when it can replace it with chutzpah and fearless gusto. And if Romero in 1978 as a director had anything, it was chutzpah and fearless gusto.
One of the best things about Dawn of the Dead is how it maintains its predecessor’s nihilism in its raw filmic language. We expect a certain build-up to horror, a certain process by which horror is filmed and cut together to assemble terror. Romero understands that this is as much a tonic as a nerve-fryer – if we know how things will unfold visually and aurally, we are lulled into submission. And Romero absolutely refuses to do this throughout the film, re-reading horror at a base visual level by putting cuts and edits where we do not expect them. Indeed, they are sloppily added in seemingly at odds with the film’s momentum, but that’s the point. It gives the film an unearthly, unholy quality that grabs us when we least expect it, with Romero cutting on atypical camera or human motions and mere seconds before or after we might expect him to. His filmmaking never lulls us into a sleep, and his film is all the more ferocious for this fact.
Of course, Dawn of the Dead still cannot maintain the lean, mean terseness of its predecessor. Its premise remains elegantly simple and contained to give the film a certain necessary primal quality – a handful of people are trapped in a mall and surrounded by zombies they must fend away – but there’s more in the way of character and story here than we found in Night of the Living Dead. Nevertheless, this could have made the film a bit flabby around the edges. Thankfully, the knife Romero brings to the table to cut through the fat is beyond sharp, and tinged with acid: his darkly comic attack on modern society. Indeed, the film is cruel in its enraged fury, seething with decay and blood-red passion. In between moments of brutal punishment, Romero gives us gallows humor steaming with rage. Most famously, he re-reads his decidedly inhuman ghouls as deeply human when he has them saunter and flail about the commercial capital of modern society: the mall. As he depicts them, they re-create what they knew in their old lives with the leftovers of the new one. In other words, instead of mindlessly shuffling to products in stores, they look to human-kind for carnal pleasure and approach them with as much boredom and mundane decay. Romero ultimately posits that they are in death as they were in life, and that they weren’t really living after all.
Along with this, Romero’s other great achievement here is to realize the zombies more as punching bags than threats, figures as worthy of humor as terror. In their place, those who finally have a chance to live provide the greatest threat. Throughout the film, it is the humans who let loose with giddy aplomb, or who suffer and strain under the heated stress of it all, who provide the biggest threats. They disagree and bicker and quarrel, often about nothing of import, and it is ultimately this apocalyptic excuse for them to expose their basest human frailties and desires that threatens them most and causes their undoing.
As much as Romero’s visual panache is at its height with Dawn of the Dead, his understanding of aural tension is at its most depraved as well. There’s a certain “muzak” to the film that accompanies the zombies that openly mocks their lethargy and commercialist lifelessness, cheekily positing their hunt for flesh accompanied by none other than middlebrow elevator music. When Romero struts in he does it with no nuance and pure energy, interrupting the elevator music with a much louder and chaotic piece of nonsensical synth music that sounds wholly unfitting, but intentionally exposes the elevator music for how silly it is. It’s as if he’s pushing safe music to its nails-on-a-chalkboard limits and making it ear-splittingly gross.
Late in the film, a group of gnarly bikers (the leader played by make-up artist Tom Savini who has a proper field day in front of and behind the camera here) break into the mall and explore their most unhinged, most macho fantasies of social chaos. Here, Romero lets loose a little, letting his grubby, formless tendencies come out as he edits with a sense of emotion rather than logic to perfectly fit the characters’ pure expression of base-level emotions on screen. He doesn’t bother with continuity, for in a situation such as this, continuity would not matter. Instead, Romero has particularly nasty things to say about these men who make play with death, cutting and framing so that what they do makes almost no sense, for to Romero, this situation in fact does not make sense. Dawn of the Dead is Romero at his most society-baiting, ripping America’s guts out and serving it to the nation on a silver trash can lid. Thankfully, he’s been blessed with a bottomless well of social chaos and decay to attack, and his ability to do so with aplomb and energy is almost as undying.