Synopsis (Another word for ‘spoiler’. Duh.)
Picking up an unspecified time after Night of the Living Dead (we’re in color now, at least), the movie drops us into the rapidly-unraveling world of a TV newsroom where it becomes clear that the zombies are winning. While experts ‘Crossfire’ each other on air, debating the various options under consideration (nuking major cities is seemingly on the table), the crew gradually falls apart. Two of those, chopper pilot Stephen (Ken Emge, hereafter known as ‘Flyboy’) and girlfriend Fran (Gaylen Ross) decide, at Flyboy’s urging, to steal the chopper and look for safety, after they pick up Flyboy’s pal Roger (Scott Reiniger), a SWAT team member also looking to escape the growing chaos. Speaking of chaos, Roger finds himself part of a police action to force tenement dwellers to abandon their fortified slum (where they’re keeping reanimated relatives penned up, due to some lower-class fanaticism that they deserve some dignity in death) which turns into a bloodbath. He, and the
unbelievably-cool SWAT guy Peter (the enduringly-cool Ken Foree) decide to bug out together, and the now-foursome pile into the chopper to try and find some refuge from the whole zombie thing. After a near-disastrous fueling stop, the gang land on the roof of a shopping mall and decide to try and fortify it, since it’s got all the stuff and stuff. They manage the feat, blocking the entrances with 18 wheelers and mopping up the zombies trapped inside, but not before Roger, due to some ill-advised recklessness, gets himself bit. Working together, the foursome (or three-and-a-halfsome) secure the mall and make a pretty sweet, if empty, home. Roger turns and Peter shoots him, burying him in the food court. Fran’s pregnant, and everything’s going okay. But then some Road Warrior-esque bikers show up to try and steal their mall, and they let the zombies in as they pillage. Flyboy acts like a dumbass (he sorta was one all along) which gets him bit, too. The bikers get eaten, the zombies take their mall back, and Peter (in the coolest way possible) tells Fran to take the chopper and go; he’s seen enough. BUT THEN: Peter has a change of manly heart and runs for the chopper. He and Fran take off. Happy ending? Well, no, but at least there’s hope, right?
No, not really. And that’s a good thing.
The strength of the first Romero trilogy is the logically-terrifying, seemingly-inexorable slow retreat of, well, us. Night of the Living Dead was the origin story and, despite everyone in the house biting it (so to speak), it ends on a hopeful note, with the redneck sheriff and his cronies seemingly mopping up that pesky zombie nonsense. Sure, they’re a little trigger-happy, and implicitly kinda racist, but everything seems well in hand at the end, right?
Well, that’s part of the genius of Dawn of the Dead, and Romero in general. Sure, there will be initial successes; zombies are slow, and dumb, and when they’re still scattered and relatively sparse, any ol’ good ol’ boy militia can plug ’em and burn ’em, no sweat on their red, red necks. But, as Dawn lays out so chillingly from its beginning, that’s not how things are gonna stay. People are going to keep dying, (at a 2010 rate of approximately 150,000 per day world wide), and every single one of them is going to come back. Oh, and since every one that dies and comes back will be a kill-crazy monster whose only un-living desire is to eat everyone it can reach, well, that number is going to go up. Dramatically. Exponentially. And, if you’re holding out any hope that the fractious, isolated, and distressingly human-peopled governments of the world will be able to mount an effective, rational response to this heretofore unimaginable crisis, well, I’ll give you a few minutes to google some stuff. (I’d start with “Hurricane Katrina.”)
Nope, this shit is going to get out of hand real, real quickly.
Forget rural Pennsylvania, what do you think New York City is going to be like in just a few weeks? Los Angeles? Jesus, Bombay India? Governments retreat and collapse. Police and military are overburdened and overwhelmed. Public utilities (like, you know, lights, clean water, waste removal) shut down, leading to disease and desperate, desperate people (most of whom in my opinion don’t need anything as drastic as a zombie apocalypse to start acting like a-holes)… It’s chaos.
Which brings us to Dawn of the Dead where the first hints of the inevitable end are beginning to gape wider. Sure, Pittsburgh ain’t Hong Kong, but, at the local TV station, the decaying situation outside is breeding panic and self-interest; the station manager is demanding that the crawl of purported rescue stations stays up, even though Fran angrily tells him that they could be sending people to their certain deaths, since they have no way of knowing if those stations are even still there. Anything for ratings. Security guards abandon their posts and the station’s chopper pilot, Flyboy, plans to escape with Fran. It’s an effective, unnerving way to set up the movie, expanding logically from the initial premise and truly embodying the real horror of the zombie genre. Sure, a lone zombie lurching out from the shadows of a dark boiler room is a fun, and occasionally necessary, component of any zombie film, but movies that rely on such scares (or, more accurately, “startles”) are, let’s all say it together…missing the point! Which is that a zombie outbreak is inexorable, relentless, and ever-expanding, and that that very unstoppability will cause the societal framework we rely on (even more than we realize) to collapse and leave us helpless in shockingly short order.
This is echoed (with lots of goopy gore) in the SWAT team’s siege on the fortified tenement, where stubborn slum-dwellers have barricaded themselves both for protection and in order to prevent the authorities from carting their recently-deceased (and more-recently reanimated) loved ones away like zombie trash. It’s a sentimental idea (perhaps, suggests the movie a little troublingly, due to them being so “ethnic”), and it’s wiped out pretty handily by a thuggish authority determined to try and maintain order, but not before the conflict again lays out both that 1. people are so definitely not going to band together nobly and intelligently in the face of all this, and 2. we’re losing. Romero sets the movie up with these two sequences to effectively, that all the rest of the events of the film play out with those two queasy facts squirming in your stomach.
As the film progresses, and it becomes clear that our four protagonists (Flyboy, Fran, Roger and Peter) are going to be our surrogates in the apocalypse, the performances become central. How do we do?
1. Ken Emge (Flyboy) is…fine. His character’s a little bit douchey, a little bit weedy, but, for all that, he’s not such a bad guy, and Emge does okay with his ambiguous position in the foursome; his initial alpha-maleness gets shunted aside pretty hard when SWAT studs Roger and Peter show up, and his later actions are sort of touching as he tries to reestablish himself, while clearly admiring his new, more macho pals. His final meltdown when the bikers invade his sanctuary seems pretty unmotivated, but he does…fine.
2. Fran (Gaylen Ross) goes a long way in redeeming the women of Night of the Living Dead. Not particularly pretty or conspicuously interesting, Fran, nonetheless, comes into her own over the course of the, you know, apocalypse and stuff, becoming more confident, assertive, and competent. Clearly, Flyboy is kinda beneath her, and her eventual pairing (romantic or not) with Peter is a much better fit, as they are the most sensible ones in the group. Look at the scene where she’s, understandably, upset at having been left alone without a gun; Peter’s the one who admits they were wrong to have done so (although it was really Flyboy’s fault), but he also tells her that she needs to learn how to use it and take care of herself before she’s trusted on any sort of dangerous mission. It’s a refreshingly-sane and respectful exchange that sets the both of them apart (and above.)
3. Roger (Scott Reiniger) has a few rough moments, but that’s Romero’s fault, really. Roger’s just all over the place- reckless daredevil, hardened professional soldier, clearly-losing-it headcase in the 18 wheeler mission (and just what’s the deal with the Kubrick-ian spooky look and “Perfect, baby” response to Peter over the radio? He looks like he’s introducing a Shining-style demon possession subplot there.) His big death scene’s unevenness can’t be blamed on anyone but Reiniger, though. I like the way his half-delirious, post-bitten shouted boast, “We whipped ’em and we got it all!” resonates, though.
and then there’s
4. Peter (Ken Foree). Ken-freaking-Foree. Romero, once again, has a handsome, charismatic black
man for the film’s lead (a shocking rarity in the horror genre, sadly), and Foree is every bit as compelling as was Duane Jones. Smart, together, competent, funny, and all around awesome, coupled with that sonorous voice, Foree’s Peter is, perhaps, the most reassuringly-commanding presence in any horror film ever. Look at the aforementioned scene with Fran, or the chilling standoffs he has with Roger (in the tenement) and Flyboy (at the airfield), or Roger’s final scene and the lonely burial afterwards. Loo at his quiet assuredness in action scenes. Seriously, I can’t think of a sequence in Dawn where Foree isn’t just the man. Even when his self doubt surfaces (the lone tennis match on the roof, his champagne toast to his fallen friend), Peter is the guy you want around.
One of the best performances ever in a horror film.
On the debit side, there are some weaknesses in Dawn. It is a Romero film after all.
-The makeup effects, while Savini-licious, range from the garish (the near-magenta blood, blamed by Romero on the particular film stock), to the half-assed (many mall zombies, with their lavender face paint), to the just plain wacko (the Frankenstein-flat head of the zombie scapled by the chopper blades.) I know it was, as ever, a tiny budget, but some stuff just stands out, badly.
-Oh, and speaking of makeup, did they not have any Latino actors in Pittsburgh? The tenement-rebel leader (played by the very white John Amplas, of Martin and Day of the Dead fame) sports the greasiest, shoe-polish-est “Puerto Rican” face paint I’ve seen this side of a high school production of West Side Story. It makes Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil look like Pancho Villa. And his accent “Oly chit! Dere’s like a million pigs!” is…unfortunate.
-The ending. Oh dear. Peter’s decision to stay behind is a believable one (sold immensely by Ken Foree’s performance, of course), and I’m even okay with the idea that he’d change his mind (he’d been broken by all of the horror he’d seen, and by the seeming hopelessness of the situation, exemplified by the bikers’ display of the worst of human nature, but, in the end, his affection for Fran and his innate strength resurfaces, etc.) Fine. But the execution of that final run for the chopper, accompanied by the cheesiest, ‘A-Team’ quality stock music and some really unconvincing (and suicidally-stupid) punches to a few zombies’ faces (?!), really undermines the dramatic gravity of the situation. It’s partially redeemed by the pitch-perfect exchange between Fran and Peter in the chopper, but it’s still a major miscalculation/bummer.
– The rest of my complaints reside in the realm of…
#5. “Zombies do not (and here I’m gonna piss of the Romero faithful) remember anything about their previous lives.” Dawn of the Dead does pretty well overall following the Zombie Rules (which, of course, I made up because I’m so smart and right about everything), but,
beginning with this movie and carrying on through all his subsequent zombie films, Romero shows a real weakness for this regrettable trope. George seems convinced that having zombies retain elements of their pre-resurrection is necessary to up the heavy drama quotient and/or introduce satirical elements to his films, to which I respectfully just sigh and shake my head. The zombie phenomenon itself is inherently terrifying and dreadful, and the reactions of the human race to it provides an endless variety of dramatic/satirical plotlines to choose from.
Take the whole shopping mall concept. There’s plenty of social commentary in how our foursome act in this former consumer wonderland. Beginning with the desire to own the space itself, progressing
to conspicuous consumption, and gradually settling down into sated boredom and disillusionment, our heroes’ journey says all we need about human nature (not to mention the additional layer of commentary provided by the lowest-denominator biker invasion later.) Fran’s assessment that the zombies are congregating in the mall because “this was an important place in their lives” is 1. an unnecessary spotlighting of the theme and 2. a Zombie Crime! Zombies have no memories of their past, and while lots of reviewers like to applaud the film for this “satire of consumerism”, I think it really weakens the film, and the inherent horror of the disaster. That being said, of course we don’t have to believe that Fran knows what the hell she’s talking about here. It’s more likely (and less zombie criminal) that zombies are attracted to the mall because it still has power (lights, muzak) and they are there hunting for food. (It’s the same with Peter’s musing about his grandad in Trinidad; it’s not meant to be a definitive explanation for the zombie phenomenon any more that the “crashing satellite” theory in Night.)
#6. “Zombies do not learn. Not to use tools, not to fear weapons, or humans with weapons. Zombies are. They are reanimated corpses with only one, singleminded goal. That is what’s scary.” From the very first zombie we ever see in Night, Romero clearly didn’t think this one through, giving his zombies rudimentary (and, unfortunately as the series goes on, escalating) powers of deduction and tool use. Here we get one using a tire iron to smash a truck window. It’s not the major problem it becomes later in the series, but it’s still distracting and wrong, wrong, wrong.
#7. “Zombies never stop, for any reason, until they eat you.” It always bugged me when Frannie is behind the glass doors of the department store and she frees a trapped nun zombie’s dress and it just wanders away. There’s food there, nun-zombie! The blond food, right there! Major zombie crime. And what’s the deal with the softball zombie in the same scene which just sits there whimpering sadly, again, while there’s a delicious Fran just standing there? Sure, maybe most of the zombies would be drawn to the racket the boys are making in the ‘Old okey-doke’ gambit, but these two examples just offend my delicate zombie sensibilities. And the scene where a zombie has, apparently, been holding stock-still amongst the store mannequins, just waiting for someone to run by so it can lurch out and go boo (figuratively speaking)? Violating the zombie rules just for a cheap scare, George? Shame…
And this one is minor enough that there isn’t even a zombie crimes category for it, but the whole die-and-reanimate process seems to get violated for effect when Roger comes back. Sure,
he wasn’t looking great when he finally dies, but he was believably just pale and sickly looking. When he reanimates, a mere minute or so later, he is a Tom Savini special, with heavy zombie makeup. It’s meant to be a shocking reveal, but it just doesn’t make sense. A decayed, horrific zombie visage is the result of it having been dead and decaying over time; again, sacrificing zombie verisimilitude for a cheap scare effect has the opposite effect of taking the viewer out of the movie.
That’s why you should always abide by the Zombie Rules…