When I was an obnoxious teenager approximating growing up in Massapequa, I liked to blast rock music, watch horror movies, hit on cute goth chicks, and shotgun warm Meister Braus until I puked in the middle of the street and my friends would skid through the vomit on their bicycles. This was a great party trick and much cheaper entertainment than hiring some guido DJ with plastic hair spinning the 12’’ single of Noel’s Silent Morning as we suffocated from the stench of his cologne. Can you guess which of these activities I was least successful at? In those carefree days, I never thought I would see society collapse like a house of bloodstained cards in the break room at a butcher shop.
Older and more cynical now—I am not so sure. Since the days of bleaching my special sock to visions of Barbara Crampton and Elisabeth Shue, I have witnessed the 9/11 terror attacks from three blocks away and watched neighbor steal from neighbor in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy is supposed to be a cute girl’s name, not an enraged whore who got angry because we may have fingerblasted her ass too hard with our carbon footprint. I am worried the next prostitute I get will be a member of ISIS. I can deal with a minor STD or even a bump on the head if she decides to club me with a stiletto heel and take my money. I can’t live with being beheaded, though. That would suck. I can almost feel the machete blade at my throat as I type this.
Our minds are assaulted from a billion devices that transmit images of pernicious pundits and politicians from both sides of the spectrum trying to get all of us to cannibalize each other like marauding zombies ripping into smelly guts and dripping flesh. As Tom Petty once sang, “Quit jammin’ me.” The state of the world may have some of us feeling like a loudmouth, racist cop who is just looking to blow off the heads of people who don’t look and think like him. Waiting on top of a tenement building, your mouth can pop off just as loudly as your shotgun. Pump that 12 gauge thunder stick to punctuate your self-righteous oration. Your SWAT team buddies are either amused or unnerved by your macho, hairy chested bravado. You’re cooler than Ken Foree at an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. That door on the roof stairwell is going to be opening soon…….
So many brains to splatter.
This possibility that the world is heading for some type of global chaos is what makes me believe George Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead has stayed so relevant after nearly forty years of undead fun in the early morning sun. The zombies are any credible threat society faces at a given time. Those lumbering slabs of rotting flesh can represent the Bible thumping hatemonger or Quran quoting terrorist who claims God hates homosexuals and women who show their face in public. Who the fuck has use for such an unenlightened deity? When the audience watches rancid ghouls busting through flimsy barricades, half of us might see metaphors of big government encroaching on our personal freedoms, feeding on the guts of our liberty. If that is progressive thinking then I wouldn’t mind turning the clock back a bit. Am I stretching this like the sinew and muscle strands from a leg ripped out of the socket? Is what we see on the news any less crazy than Romero’s vision of anarchy and Armageddon?
Better stock up on some black coffee and bullets.
Dawn of the Dead is epic horror, a worldwide epidemic on a biblical level that Romero–that frugal fucking genius–manages to convey to us on a small budget. Romero unnerves us more with television and news clippings than a computer generated plague of zombies did to us in flicks like World War Z. Dawn of the Dead’s brilliant opening shows us the chaos of a television station during the earlier stages of the zombie uprising. People in charge are overwhelmed by the threat and make mistakes giving the public information on finding safe haven. We often learn that many put in charge of things didn’t get the position based on merit. Incompetence can cost lives and Romero shows us this, punctuated by a pulsing score by Italian prog rock group Goblin. Romero also uses this opening to give the audience the rules of his universe and the nature of his monsters.
“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill.”
Cool, frightening stuff. Romero further shows the world getting flushed down the toilet like a messy beer shit when we see a SWAT team storm a tenement building, filled with poor people, many of them armed like a small militia. It is also filled with their dead friends and relatives, many of the corpses getting restless and walking around looking for food the way most of us rummage for leftovers in the fridge in the middle of the night. This scene is incredible violent. Heads are blasted to smithereens, chunks of flesh are ripped from bodies and we witness the, sometimes funny, extermination of a room full of zombies in the tenement cellar.
It also introduces us to two main characters, SWAT members Roger and Peter. Roger–a short white dude–is played by Scott H. Reiniger. Peter–a tall black dude–is played by bastion of coolness, Ken Foree. They team up with two employees from the television station, boyfriend and girlfriend Stephen (David Emge) and Fran (Gaylen Ross). Stephen has gotten his soft hands on a helicopter and the four escape the madness of the city. As the helicopter rises into the sky, the lights in a skyscraper looming in the background go dark a floor at a time. It is an excellent way to show the breakdown of normalcy.
If you are reading these words on this website, you probably know that the four end up in a mall, surrounded by all the creature comforts they could never afford when the world was functioning as society said it should. Romero, an astute observer of the world, uses the setting as a way to poke fun at the consumerism of the United States. Shoppers searching for good buys tend to have that blank look of a zombie in their eyes. As technology has made the need for such sprawling malls obsolete, one wonders if Romero has a zombie story in him to reflect our reliance on internet shopping?
Romero has always been able to get good performances out of relative unknowns and Dawn of the Dead is no different. All the leads perform well and speak Romero’s intelligent, everyday people dialogue with the proper emotion. The standout–both physically and in talent–is Foree as Peter. With his deep voice and imposing presence, the audience is drawn to him as we try and get inside his head. He is the outsider of the group and Foree conveys this well without diatribes lamenting his situation.
Social commentary aside, this is a horror movie. The makeup effects by Tom Savini are just as much a character as anybody else. Sure, some of the zombies are just done up quickly with gray makeup, but the main ones have all manner of cool wounds and costumes. Savini and Romero let it rip, literally, in the final siege on the mall by a small army of motorcycle gang members, sporting weapons as diverse as a huge mallet and Depression-era Tommy Guns. If you have never seen a human being’s insides, Dawn of the Dead will give you that opportunity.
This sequel to Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead gives us everything you could ask for in a horror flick. It has been written about a million times before and with more intelligence than I have attempted here. I have just found myself thinking about it lately as we witness what is going down on our happy little planet. Maybe give it another watch if you have some time.
Scary shit going down out there.