Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dawn of The Dead (1978)

1978. 127 min. Rated X at the time; brief topside nudity, shocking gore in its day; not now; some language.
IMDB says... Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia SWAT team members, a traffic reporter, and his television-executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.

The 73rd Virgin says... George Romero made a lot of bad movies. His original classic Night of the Living Dead was always a little bit overrated and is now dated. This impressive looking sequel filmed in color is by far his best. Apparently most of the mall scenes were filmed over a holiday weekend and therefore in a pretty big hurry. Given that it’s in color and on a low budget, it looks good. The makeup blood is perhaps a little too bright red and the blue gray zombie makeup is unevenly applied here and there, but it is still a pretty scary movie.

Better than almost any movie, horror or otherwise, this establishes a feeling of how things fall apart and the center does not hold. Like all great horror fantasy it doesn’t waste time on scientific explanations or exposition. The first 10 minutes or so are set in a TV newsroom where a few dedicated semi-professionals argue over whether to take down lists of rescue stations that they know have fallen to the zombies. This lacks the frenetic sense of panic of so much modern horror but it nicely shows the sort of slow motion disintegration and especially the failure of communication that occurs in real-life emergencies. It’s almost like Romero has been a fire fighter or something or knows this intuitively.

He then cuts to a SWAT team in suspiciously crisp uniforms set to invade a housing project where the tenants have been refusing to turn over their undead for disposal. Although the scene is too brightly lit, it otherwise conveys the claustrophobia and disorder of a violent situation soon to spin out of control. The gunfighters are almost laughably bad but it still works. From these two scenes we collect our 4 protagonists; Peter, a very large bad-ass black dude, Roger, his little white and amazingly athletic sidekick; Stephen, a television news helicopter pilot; and his TV producer girlfriend, Francine.

They steal a chopper and head off into the great unknown. There is a brief funny sequence as they watch Pennsylvania rednecks turn zombie hunting into a sport. Like Peckinpah, Romero doesn’t like rednecks, or at least his idea of rednecks. My college roommate at the time was God’s own original redneck and he thought it was a great scene, with no sense of irony.

At the time, the gore was infamous with squibs blowing blood out of the back of heads all over the place, one head vaporized by shotgun blast, and the requisite zombies-tearing-living-torsos-apart scenes. Now it seems only middling gory.

From there they take over a Pittsburgh(?) shopping mall, which at the time was a completely novel idea for a horror movie. The script is smart in so many ways. It respects the audience enough to know that we will be interested in the logistics of blocking all the mall doors; the logistics of herding and misdirecting zombies, and the eventual culling of the zombie herd in the mall. For some reason it’s all just kind of interesting.

Along with all of these admirable traits Romero provides a sly take on crass late 70s mall-based consumerism. It’s not a novel idea now but it was then, and his use of authentic background mall music and public service announcements in the service of this slyness is funnier than you might expect. Romero had also made a living doing mundane tasks like safety videos and local television commercials. The camera angles he uses as the protagonists drive a bland little sedan up and down the mall evoked giggles in the theater where I saw it all those years ago. He just knew how to put a commercial image on-screen in a way that you would know that’s what it’s supposed to be. There is also a Hare Krishna zombie.

Then there is a slow but believable sequence showing the onset of boredom, dissolution, dissipative living, and time passing in their private mall. We know what must happen; sooner or later roving gangs of survivors must decide they want this jewel for themselves.

And that’s pretty much the story. There is a fair amount of pathos as one of the team gets a little sloppy and the rest of the team must deal with his illness and eventual demise, before an extended very well done, funny, and pretty exciting shoot out with the bad guys, followed by an open-ended conclusion.

Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger are both very good as the SWAT team members. They move with physical competence and quickness of professionals, and Reiniger is convincing when his character begins to display symptoms of battle rattle.

As I thought about this movie in the abstract I assumed it would be 5 stars all the way. I guess it hasn’t worn that well or maybe I’ve seen it too often, but it is still one of the richest horror experiences that I’ve seen. Mostly because of the human drama, solid acting, brisk but not frenetic pace, and convincing background detail.

Ken Foree had a small speaking part in Water For Elephants. I always thought he should have been a bigger star. He was a way better actor than OJ Simpson or Jim Brown and, man could he fill a doorway. Scott Reiniger acted in daytime soaps and is now a career coach. They both had small parts in the 2004 re-make. Gaylen Ross (Francine) is a widely-hailed documentary filmmaker.

Happy Halloween.

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