[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Part Two of George Romero’s projected Dead trilogy begins almost literally where Night of the Living Dead left off, though it is stylistically closer to the comic-book look of The Crazies. This time Romero’s plunging in media res is even more violent and merciless than before, the fast-paced editing pulling us into shock after bloody shock before we quite understand what’s going on. We’re grateful for the first breathing spell, about ten minutes into the film. A SWAT team has just wiped out a basement full of cannibal zombies in an urban apartment building, the result of residents’ defiance of orders to deliver their dead up for burning to help authorities stomp out the plague of zombie ghouls that began in Night of the Living Dead. “Why did they put them in there like that?” someone asks, and gets the bitter reply, “They still believe there’s respect in dying.” Later, up country, where clean-up teams roam the fields picking off zombies as if in a shooting gallery, there’s a telling moment when one of the SWAT guys lines up his riflesight on an approaching zombie. As he takes aim, a quick rack-focus reveals another rifleman lining up to shoot the same zombie from 180 degrees opposite. The first guy ducks away just in time to avoid getting shot by his comrade-in-arms. There is, at this point in the film, still a difference between shooting the dead and shooting the living.
As the film progresses, that difference—like the difference between foraging for survival and looting for fun, and the difference between rational, living humans and the instinct-driven zombies—will gradually and overpoweringly vanish. The power of Dawn of the Dead lies in its surrounding its audience utterly with orgiastic violence, so that the viewer, too, is tainted, drawn into the madness that comes inevitably with so complete a change in the moral and physical order of things. When basic assumptions about life and death prove false, what can possibly remain true? Yet there is a voice of calm. A scientist, still being scientific despite all perceptible evidence, summarizes the rules for us (for those, that is, who may not be familiar with the premise of Night of the Living Dead): “Any dead body not exterminated becomes one of them. They rise and kill the living. The ones they kill also rise and kill…. They kill for food…. They are not cannibals; they do not prey on each other. They attack and they feed on only warm, living flesh.” The mythos is delineated almost as intricately as the rules and regulations of vampirism that evolved over years of Universal Studios and Hammer horror films.
There is grim humor inherent in the situation and Romero takes full advantage of it. In Night of the Living Dead the humor remained subtle, growing out of the irony of public statements on television, the comments of a redneck zombie-hunter, and a few sardonic visual puns on cannibalism and human interrelationships. Dawn of the Dead‘s humor is more of a slapstick variety. The four lead characters, after a flight from Pittsburgh through zombie-occupied territory (“They’re everywhere!”), establish a stronghold in a sprawling shopping mall where all their physical needs are easily met, as long as they can kill off or hold at bay the throngs of zombies. In a department store battle between humans and zombies, both are compared visually with the mannequins around them: three separate images of the same doomed reality. The humans shoot these mannequins for target practice later, when they have successfully cleared the zombies—temporarily—out of the mall. The mall becomes a playground for them, and an orgy of zombie-killing helps them suppress the unstated fear of finding out what it’s like to be food. “They’re us,” says one of the living about the dead who ride dumbly up and down on escalators to the tune of shopping mall Muzak—the stumbling dead swept along in a life just like the one they lived before. The living are now on a shopping spree, and they begin to laugh and joke as they mock and kill the zombies and strip goods from the mall’s stores, experiencing the kind of high that must come with the unrestrained violation of all moral instincts and social restrictions, without fear of penalty. The killing becomes commonplace, then fun; and with the release from responsibility comes also the release from humanity.
A gang of marauding bikers baits the zombies in a Laurel & Hardy pie fight before they get serious about defending themselves against the dead and against the living who are safeguarding their shopping center stronghold. Romero’s characters are no longer afraid of the living dead, nor of what they represent. This cessation of fear proves to be a tragic mistake, however: the defenders forget that the bikers they kill will be zombies next, and they become too easy about the zombies once they regard them as allies—or weapons—in their battle with the bikers (a notion that points toward the more traditional idea of zombie as slave of the living, which Romero has said he will develop in a third Dead film). Dawn of the Dead has been accused of being nothing more than an irreverent, sensationalistic gorefest; it is certainly that, but it is also a worthy successor to Night of the Living Dead. At the end of that film the nightmare seemed to be ending and humanity, such as it is, to have things in control again. By the end of Dawn we are trapped in an utterly different world, a completely new way of thinking. The last laugh this time is to the zombies, who hold final sway and who will, we must assume, continue to do so as long as they find food.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
DAWN OF THE DEAD
Screenplay, direction, and editing: George A. Romero. Cinematography: Michael Gornick. Music: The Goblins with Dario Argento. Production: Richard P. Rubinstein.
The players: David Emge, Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reininger.