Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I picked up the original Dawn of the Dead again because it's been over a decade since I last saw it and it's remake disappointed the hell out of me. This is one of the most highly regarded films in all of zomebiedom, so it's gotta be good right? Maybe. I spent most of this movie lost in a culture that ceased to exist around the time I was born. Mall culture. But I'm getting ahead of myself on that. The movie picks up where Night of the Living Dead left off and the situation is explained through news broadcasts, which are completely awesome. Some guy with an eye patch represents all of science and he gets harassed by talkshow hosts because he advocates killing the cannibalistic dead. In his broadcast he gives up on reasoning with people and just calls them all dummies, it's kind of great.

Our cast is committing the taboo act of trying to escape the zombie carnage and find someplace safe. Along their way they stop at a shopping mall and decide to make a living in alcove near the roof. Unlike the re-make this is not the death of the movie, they have a lot of work ahead of them cleaning up the mall's zombie infestation and making sure no more of them can get in. Watching them do this is actually kind of fun. The malls of the '70s were vastly different places from the malls I grew up with. For one thing the music is a lot better, mostly circus-y synth tunes that lighten the mood and make zombies shuffling around a mall seem like a pretty comical thing. It's my understanding that Romero had a specific aspect of modern culture he was lampooning with each film in his original dead trilogy, Dawn of the Dead was his potshot at consumer culture and that still shines through very clearly. Zombies stumbling around on ice, in the isles of department stores and being jostled by the escalators are a scathing lampoon of mall culture.
The consumer goods paradise doesn't last long enough to get boring thankfully, as raiders set their sights on the mall. This small army of leather clad bandits aren't as much of a threat as they are an excuse to introduce slapstick comedy to the movie. They dart around the slow moving zombies and pelt them with seltzer water and pies for no fucking reason at all. The insanity of a world gone to hell somehow rings true as bikers and zombies form a zany circus in the middle of the apocalypse. And who should be leading them but fucking Tom Savini. I did a double take when I saw From Dusk 'Till Dawn's very own Sex Machine leading the army, looking exactly like he did in that surprise hit of a B-film about vampires. I wish he did more movies, he seems to love these cheesy roles and it shows.
The end of this film isn't anything especially stellar, but it's hard to cap this kind of experience so I wasn't expecting much. I can't help but feel watching this movie in the context of the time in which it was released would've made it more of a horror film and less of a comedy piece with a message. It's still great for what it is and serves as a time capsule for the generation of people who knew their mall as a center of culture. Those of us raised after the '80s will only ever know it as a place to get brand name jeans.

Now with all that said, there was a lot about this movie that bugged the hell out of me. When running away from the city the main cast come across rural communities that were pretty successful in killing off the slow walking menace. Why not land and join these people who are competently dealing with the problem? It's better than blindly hoping you can find a place where the problem doesn't exist. These zombies are only really a threat in large numbers as the film often shows. They shuffle and aren't as inclined to bite as their modern counterparts. We see zombies hug people and grab at them but the first bite doesn't happen for at least an hour. They even took the time to dress the zombies in whacky costumes like nun habits and Hare Krishna robes. They're not the clear threat a good zombie outbreak should be and that bugs me to no end.
Making matters worse the main cast constantly makes choices that fly in the face of all logic. Whenever they have a chance to safely pick off zombies they choose to run around in the middle of them instead. Rather than hide in the safety of their rooftop apartment they try to fight the raiders. They go far out of their way to create opportunities for things to happen. Up to a point human stupidity is the bread and butter of a zombie movie, but these guys abuse that and it took me out of the movie. The way it handles race is just kind of bizarre. There's remarkably little tension with one of our main cast members being black. The woman of the group asks him to clarify his use of the term "brothers" early on, asking him if he meant it as street slang for friends or actual biological brothers, that was pretty much the only racial crack until the raiders came. They've got a Mexican raider in a sombrero. It was a what the hell moment for me when he burst onto the scene looking like he could burst into a hat dance at any time. Oddly enough he spends most of his screen time trying to get his blood pressure tested. When the zombies over run the mall and the raiders are retreating he just kind of gives up and tries one last time to finish a blood pressure test while he's devoured. Oh, and Tom Savini calls the black member of the main cast "chocolate man" at one point. It's such a cheesy bit of racism from a cheesy guy that I cracked up laughing. I had to pause the film and rewind it a few times before I could move on from that.

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