Monthly Archives: October 2013

Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

Francine Looking at Zombie

In Night of the Living Dead (1968), the characters Ben and Harry have a heated argument over whether they should stay upstairs in the rooms of the farmhouse in which they are hiding, or retreat down in to the basement. Ben attempts to reason with Harry, claiming that the group have all that they need “up here”, including food, sofas, a television and a radio. There are multiple means of escape, and they are more likely to be rescued. Harry’s argument is that down in the basement it is “safer”. The door can be locked from the inside, and so it is the perfect place to “wait out” the apocalypse above. In a way, these two conflicting opinions are the foundations of George A. Romero’s following two films in his ‘Dead’ series. Dawn of the Dead is about those who have stayed “up here”, the ones who have ‘made house’ in abandoned buildings, and are ultimately enthralled and then numbed by the home comforts it provides.

It is months after the events of the first film, and society is already collapsing underneath the weight of its own uncontrollable dead. The slow-moving zombies are outnumbering the living, and for some, the only option left is to up sticks and get the hell out (excuse the pun). Francine (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge) abandon their work at a television news station and hijack a helicopter, accompanied by runaway police officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger). The four end up setting up base inside a shopping mall, a base which slowly evolves into a permanent home. The place is perfect for them: free clothes, free food, music, television, radio, entertainment. And yet there is always the constant threat of zombie invasion as hoards of the undead flock at the locked doors and windows like disgruntled shoppers, upset at a store being closed on a Sunday.

There is an obvious (and, dare I say it, over-analysed) metaphor at work here. The images of zombies drifting up and down escalators to the sound of muzak are a dig at consumer society, at the alienation caused by capitalism. As Peter explains to Francine and Stephen at one point in the film, the zombies are “after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” This is the first suggestion in Romero’s films that, after death, these animated corpses retain a small part of their human life. What a sad, sad thing it is that the human ‘part’ these zombies have held on to is an insatiable desire to shop. Their homing instincts have led them straight to a bland and unfeeling wasteland full of plastic manikins modelling clothes, rather than humans with beating hearts and warm flesh.

Romero, and cinematographer Michael Gornick, delight in depicting the banality of this environment. Empty space is used to great effect, with seemingly pointless shots of grey walls and stacked-up boxes emphasising the vacant feeling that pervades most of the film’s scenes. Seeing zombies through glass, rather than through the narrow gaps in between wooden boards, replaces some of the fear present in Night of the Living Dead with indifference. These ‘monsters’, their dumb stares pressed against automatic doors, are able to be quietly observed, laughed at, and even pitied. In reaction to some of the danger being removed from the situation, the characters in the film become slack. They have time to decorate their new-found home with potted plants, lights, and pretty blankets, and as the audience watches this family unit settle, they too become numbed to the danger that lurks just outside. Search “Dawn of the Dead” on Google images, and you are greeted with rows and rows of pictures of zombies attacking, their hands outstretched, ready to kill. Is this a misrepresentation of the film, a film that spends most of its two hours showing the undead wander un-threateningly around water features? At one point Francine and Stephen sit down to dinner, served by Peter as though at a restaurant. Here, the mundane reigns supreme, and in the end it is another group of humans who cause mass disruption and death.

If Night of the Living Dead deals with human reactions, then Dawn of the Dead expands upon this theme and deals with human relationships. Peter and Roger’s excursions to various shops are explorations of fearlessness in the company of a friend. The two put themselves in serious danger with smiles on their faces as they joke around with each other and turn zombie killing into recreation. It could even be argued that Roger’s sadistic recklessness is a foreshadowing of the needless zombie torture in Land of the Dead onwards (see: the ‘heads’ scene in Diary of the Dead). In turn, Francine and Stephen’s relationship is the backbone of the make-shift home. Taking up the roles of mother and father, they are the stern voices of reason to Peter and Roger’s wild antics. Gradually throughout the film, Francine begins to style herself more and more on the manikins around her, and Romero makes the weight of her maternal responsibilities crystal clear by at one point placing her in front of a shop that’s sign reads “Anticipation Maternity”.

With brilliantly visceral and gory special effects from Tom Savini, Dawn of the Dead is literally everything that a viewer could want from a zombie film. A horrifying apocalypse full of monsters that could tear your heart out breeds a horrifying boredom as humans seek refuge. Spurting blood and spilling guts shock and sicken, but human apathy and anarchy haunts long after the credits roll. The perfect blend of satire and horror, it’s easy to interpret the whole thing as a big metaphor and be done with it, satisfied with your own intelligent analysis. But be careful, because it’s easy to forget that these ‘metaphors’ can bite, and before you know it you’re lying in a pool of your own blood with your arms ripped off wishing that you’d never cared so much about the ‘social commentary’.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

“If you have a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em.”

The story of Night of the Living Dead stretches far behind and beyond its 96 minutes. It goes back to Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend which tells the apocalyptic story of the last man on earth, locking himself away in his house and defending himself from swarms of vampires. It is well documented how much of an inspiration Matheson’s book was to George A. Romero when writing his debut film. With Night of the Living Dead, Romero took I am Legend‘s theme of hellish revolution completely consuming humanity, and brought it back to the beginning, back to the very first moments of the apocalypse where it’s not quite certain what the odds are. How many humans are left? And how many monsters?

The story also stretches far beyond the 1950s and 60s. With his first horror, Romero changed forever the way that zombies were to be portrayed in film, on television, and even in video games. His ‘ghouls’ were no longer victims under the thrall of some higher power, magic, hypnotism or alien possession. They were now the dead risen; animated, rotting corpses that could not be saved, only destroyed. It had become more about the corporeal, about the physical body and the pure animal instincts that drove it to search unrelentingly for food. From the Resident Evil series, to The Walking Dead, to the recent Naughty Dog game The Last Of Us (where our antihero Joel throws molotov cocktails at the infected much like Harry Cooper), this humble black and white film’s influence is crystal clear. Made for a mere $114, 000, it is often rightfully labelled the Godfather of the modern zombie movie.

And what a simple and unassuming story it seems now, almost half a decade later, and in the unavoidable shadow of so many more complex and overwrought zombie flicks. Seven people are trapped in a farm house in rural Pennsylvania, surrounded on all sides by the undead. They scream, they cry, they plan, they kill, and ultimately the film is about each individual’s reactions to a deadly situation. Barbra (played by a laughably comatose Judith O’Dea) is first to enter the house having escaped from the clutches of zombie S. William Hinzman. Interestingly, she is desperately active only until she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who takes charge of the situation from the minute he bursts through the front door. In his presence Barbra becomes hysterical, is struck dumb by her own fear, and spends the rest of the film as a mute. Ben is resourceful and intellectual, finding wood to board up the doors and windows, and sets up house with a television and radio, as Barbra lies on the sofa with blank eyes. What the audience is shown through these two characters are two very different emotional responses to fear. Jones is brilliant in the leading role, lending his character a level-headedness which was arguably not present in the original script (Ben was initially imagined as a ‘simple truck driver’). His logical determination to survive is offset by Barbra’s illogical lack of effort.

The two soon find that they are not alone, as Harry and Helen Cooper, played by real-life producers of the film Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, are introduced as a husband and wife hiding out in the house’s basement, along with their sick daughter Karen (played by Hardman’s daughter Kyra Schon) and young couple-in-love Tom and Judy. When they surface, tensions rise between Ben and Harry, as the former believes staying at ground level is best, whereas the latter wants to retreat to the basement. Together the group try to make the best of their situation, but thanks to conflicting television news reports that at one point tell everyone to stay inside, and at another tell everyone to leave, characters begin risking their lives by venturing outdoors. From here things take a turn for the bloody.

For a budget film, Romero sets up some brilliant shots that are lit gorgeously in film noir style. The black and white not only gives the zombie makeup more power and mystery, but also makes the shadows and blackness of night seem all the more deadly. It is interesting to note that home distributors wanted to colour the film, and in 1986, 1997 and 2004, various colourised versions were released with the zombies appearing either green or grey. What these distributors clearly didn’t understand is that to colour Night of the Living Dead is to take away from its macabre nature, to paint over its Gothic heart. Each close up of a character’s face belongs in monochrome, for their expressions are pure melodrama: fear and pain encapsulated.

It is the film’s small-scale that allows it to have so much power. Hiding away in a house that with each wooden plank against the windows becomes more and more like a coffin, the characters create a microcosm of society. The stereotypically fearful girl, the good leader, the bad disturber of the peace, the naive lovers, the headstrong wife. And yet, what makes Night of the Living Dead, if not the best zombie movie in existence, then at least one of them, is its breaking of boundaries, its acknowledgement yet disregard for the norm. The gruesome death visited on a mother by her own daughter. An unhappy, un-Hollywood ending. It is script choices like this, along with an effortlessly impressive visual style, which make Romero’s debut so groundbreaking, and so completely and utterly unforgettable.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★