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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★