Monday, September 24, 2012
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The dead are walking the earth and eating the living. Stephen and his girlfriend Francine work at a TV station, where they decided to steal the station's helicopter to find someplace safe form the zombie menace. Roger and Peter are SWAT team operatives that are forced to kill the dead that a group of people decided to store in their apartment's basement instead of taking them to the authorities to be disposed of. Together, these two groups of people escape Philadelphia and stop at a shopping mall because it seems like a fortified, safe place to hide out for a while. Who knows how long the mall will remain a relatively safe place or how long it will take other people to discover it.
Dawn of the Dead is an interesting and important film in modern zombie history. There are things I love about and things I don't love about it. Let's start with what I like. It was made on a really small budget, but the effects and sets look pretty amazing. The zombie makeup ended up looking more blue than gray, but the blood and gore effects plus a lot of the stunts look really good. It's a pretty gory film compared to Night of the Living Dead and, thanks to the genius and ingenuity of Tom Savini, most of the effects look top notch. Many of them were improvised and some even use animal organs to create an authentic look. They also filmed on location in a mall in Monroeville that you can still visit today. The mall looks really creepy with no one in it but zombies. The mannequins look ominous and it just seems oppressive and overpowering.
I also really like the conflicting tones and the strong message within the film. One on hand, there are some really funny and lighthearted scenes with Roger and Peter messing with the zombies or all of them taking advantage of the luxuries in the mall. There are also scary and depressing scenes like the SWAT team raid in the beginning. Those people in the apartment building just wanted their dead to have some dignity and it backfired on them, getting them killed by their departed loved ones and the SWAT team. The difference in tone puts me a little off balance and feels different than zombie films today. Zombie films categorized as comedy tend to have some serious moments, but stay away from the truly depressing stuff. The commentary is biting and direct in its criticism of our society. The scene where zombies aimlessly mill around while the PA system tells them of deals is an obvious stab at the consumerism of our society and how it makes us no better than those brainless zombies. The four main characters aren't heroes, but are simply survivors. They don't really make an effort to save others and they use the mall as a way of escaping horrific reality in their moments of hedonism. They also tend to make their decisions based on emotion rather than logic, which proves never to be a good idea in a zombie apocalypse.
I did not like some aspects of this film. The pacing feels odd and there are definite plot holes. The acting leaves something to be desired, but it's kind of part of its cheesy charm. I really didn't like the woman or the way she was treated in the film. She, like Barbara from Night of the Living Dead, is completely useless and incapacitated by emotion to the point of literally doing nothing as a zombie comes near her. It's just frustrating to watch her not even move out of the way. She was left out of a lot of the action scenes because she stays behind, by herself usually with no weapons. I guess it's better than Barbara's constant hysterics, but it still irked me. The only intelligent thing she did was have her boyfriend teach her how to operate the helicopter in case something happened it him. There is a tiny scene that annoyed me because it didn't need to be there and the implications are troubling. Peter asks Stephen if he wants to abort Francine's baby. I thought it was weird and basically saying that these men are in control of her body. It's nice that the topic of abortion was brought up because Roe vs. Wade had happened not too long before that. However, the subject really wasn't explored or developed at all and this teeny tiny mention was just more problematic than it was worth.
This film and the original Night of the Living Dead set up many of the conventions and tropes we see even today in the zombie genre, both the good and the bad. So many of the zombie movies today have homages or responses to this film. I'm glad I watched it and it's important in the scope of the history of the modern zombie, but it wasn't my favorite film of the genre.
My rating: 8/10 fishmuffins