Monday, July 14, 2008

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

"I've always felt that the real horror is next door to us, that the scariest monsters are our neighbors," filmmaker Geor
ge A. Romero said in an interview with Barnes & "It's been a theme throughout my work--to bring the horror into our own homes, to fill the stories with brand names that we all use, beers that we like to drink, streets that look like our own."

So what is this one about?
Netflix tells us,
Picking up where Night of the Living Dead left off, this classic horror flick from director George Romero begins with zombies taking over every major city in the United States. Running for their lives, Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott Reiniger), Stephen (David Emge) and Frances (Gaylen Ross) find refuge in a remote shopping mall, only to discover they must fight a motorcycle gang as well as the undead ghouls.
Simple enough, right? However, anyone who knows me in real life will know, and as my facebook 'about me' section can attest, "I love zombie movies with social commentary." Romero is king of this. His Dawn of the Dead speaks to his classic theme of racial revolution--with the strong black hero; womens rights, consumerism, and good v. evil.

There is the immediate layer of zombies, and then the deeper social commentary layer. It is amazing.

And how much did I pay to watch?
This one was a Netflix-er. Over the past 30 days I have rented 13 movies (one of which was damaged and unwatchable). At a price of $16.99 per month that evens out to $1.30 per movie. Not too shabby.

And what did I think?
Man oh man. This may be a long entry. My love and admiration for George Romero grows more and more with each movie I see and each time I hear his opinion about his works. I even ordered two books about him (though one of them got lost in the mail, gd!)

I'm not quite sure where to start. Well, I'd seen this one before. I watched it about three years ago when I was really starting to get into zombie movies. It was really hard to find back in the days of scouring Blockbuster for those hard to find titles. I had seen Dawn of the Dead (2004) in the theatre when it came out and I really wanted to see the original. (I will eventually end up doing a Dawn of the Dead (2004) review because it is one of my most watched movies that I own). I was actually already familiar with Romero because my parents had shown me Night of the Living Dead when I was much younger (I know that seems weird, but it was ok because it isn't that scary of a movie, and as a 12 year old I think I just thought it was lame because it was black and white.) Dawn of the Dead (1978) was a real disappointment initially. My original netflix 2 cents review read, "the color of the blood and of the zombies skin is so weird and technicolor. its bizarre." This original critique still remains factually accurate. The zombies had a disturbing (not scary, just shoddy) blue-grey color, and the blood (which I learned from the commentary was made by 3-M) looked like a magenta paint.

See here...

And here.

The "special effects" may have seemed bizarre and comic book, but that is how Romero wanted them. He says the film was meant to be a satire. That is one of the themes of all his zombie movies.

His social commentary was just as good in this one as it was in Land of the Dead and, his new one, Diary of the Dead. My favorite Romero technique is his use of the strong black hero. He is from Pittsburgh, and in coal mining Pennsylvania I would imagine that there was not a lot of positivity surrounding black men. Romero has always used a strong black hero in his films to go against stereotypes and has had this character be the most capable, the most pragmatic, and the best leader of all the other characters in each film. This one was no different. Peter is the hero in this one. (Interestingly enough, he is also in the 2004 version of this film, saying the same famous line, "When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth", which I thought was beyond fabulous). He was also the realistic one.

One of the scenes I really liked in this film, for its social commentary, was a scene early in the movie. The four main characters are in a helicopter looking for a place to land or refuel. The pilot, Fly Boy, was commenting that they couldn't just land and take whatever they wanted like a bunch of scoundrel hooligans. Peter pipes up and says, "Wake up sucker! We're theives and we're bad guys. That's exactly who we are." This could be read simply in the plot, or it could be read into more deeply (in true grad student style). These four people have already killed dozens of 'people' (who are now zombies), they've left their friends behind so that they can save themselves, and they will do whatever it takes to survive. It is this casual blurring of the lines between good and bad that is one of the skills of Romero.

Another social commentary this movie makes is about the excesses of capitalism. The movie is obviously set in a mall. There were a few parts in the movie when characters were asking each other why and how the zombies managed to find their way to the mall. It was decided, and stated, that the mall had held a special value to them when they were alive. This, of course, speaks to the desire of most people in modern society to shop and own and consume things. Even in 1978 Romero was speaking to this. It is summed up fabulously in a scene where Peter and Roger have just run through the mall, and the horde of zombies, to make it to the JC Penney to pick up supplies. Once they get safely inside the store Roger asks "How are we gonna get back?" to which Peter gleefully replies, "Who the hell cares? Let's go shopping first!!" Even in a time of complete seriousness, the American urge to consume overpowers.

Romero also uses a motorcycle gang in the film to describe the desire to create chaos and destruction when the gang comes in, trashes the mall, and loots it for their personal gain (even though, in a land filled with zombies, what is the point...right??)

This version of Dawn of the Dead was part of a special dvd collection.... the Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition DVD. Each of the four discs and multiple versions of the film (including the much shorter European version) have commentaries by Romero. The one on this disc was fascinating, and because I'd already seen the movie, it was the part of this movie experience that I appreciated the most.

So what is the rating? (out of 10)
It is nearly impossible for me to rate this movie objectively. As I said already, my love for Romero's films makes it hard for me to critique them in any sort of deep way. I recognized that the makeup and special effects were unimpressive, but I pushed that aside with the realization that it was only 1978.

I liked the 2004 version of this movie much more, because it was scarier, more fast paced, and more realistic (I mean, as much as a zombie movie can be). However, without Romero's original vision that version of the movie wouldn't exist.

It is the mastery of social commentary masked under a horror movie that makes Romero a truly brilliant film maker. It can be just a horror movie if thats what you want, but if you want to look deeper there are smart and controversial layers.

The television spot for Dawn of the Dead says the film "is a horrible, hauntingly accurate vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad." I think it is. On an intellectual level I would give this movie a 10. On a film level I would give this one a 5 or 6 (I had rated it a 3 on netflix [out of 5] originally). If I average those scores together I end up with an 8.

An 8 is a rating I feel absolutely comfortable with.

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