Friday, 19 October 2012

Dawn of The Dead (1978)

We continue Shocktober, with the don dada of zombie films - the original Dawn of the Dead. Directed by legendary undead supremo George A Romero, Dawn of The Dead is a must see for anyone interested in horror flicks. Both funny and terrifying whilst also providing an offbeat social comment on the times, the film holds celebrated status and deserves high residence on any Top 10 of the genre. Dawn of The Dead is a sequel to Romero's first feature Night of The Living Dead which itself was a bit of a game-changer when it was released back in 1968. It's also part of a long catalogue of zombie films helmed by and involving Romero including Day of The Dead and Diary of the Dead. There was a pretty decent remake of Dawn of The Dead made by Zack Snyder in 2004, but this is the original bad boy.

Made 10 years after Night, Dawn of The Dead picks up where the former leaves off. It's three weeks after the initial outbreak and the flesh eaters are wreaking merry hell across the United States. Martial law is in place across the country and gun totin' SWAT teams are called upon to attack those infected. Chaos reigns and law, order and civilisation in general seems to be on a downward curve.

The devastation is reported in chaotic broadcasts by Philadelphia news station WGON, where eye in the sky pilot Stephen and his girlfriend Francine work. The pair plan their escape using the network's helicopter and aim to pick up Stephen's SWAT mate Roger on the way. Meanwhile Roger and fellow armed police Peter are busy battling a strange combo of zombies and hippies in a tenement block in the city - a particularly grizzly sequence. Once done they hook up with Stephen and Francine in the chopper and head for anywhere but here in the hope of finding refuge.

Needing somewhere to land, rest and refuel, the foursome happen across Monroeville shopping mall which is, yes you've guessed it, full of zombies! Refusing to flee, the protagonists choose to sit out the pandemic in a secluded part of the mall, dodging zombies and living off what's on sale. But the ghouls are getting ever closer, and it's not long before their consumerist paradise is under threat.

The zombies themselves are of the classic mould - stumbling, groping, unstable and slow on their feet. In fact it's a wonder how they are able to kill or feed off any living creature. There's a lot of comedy falling over by victims and a lot of standing and screaming as their adversaries approach at an agonising pace to claim their next meal. The flesh eaters do however look horrific and that's down to the make-up skills of Tom Savini. A Vietnam vet, it was Savini who came up with the blue/grey tint to the skin which is now a zombie staple. The contrast between the skin and the bright red day-glo blood only enhances the gore when it flows.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here" asks Francine of the zombies. "Some kind of instinct" replies Stephen. "Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." It's one of the key pieces of dialogue of the whole film. Maybe in late 1970s America there's not much difference between shoppers before and after they become zombiefied? I mean they act the same way, aimlessly wandering the isles, gawping gormlessly at what's on show. And it also asks questions about how a zombie thinks. At what point do you realise that your life amongst the living has ended and that you have become part of the legion of the undead? Zombies must have some form of intelligence otherwise they wouldn't come back to the shopping mall where they spent so much of their lives.

Philosophical musings aside, all four lead roles are well rounded with distinguishing characteristics. "Flyboy" Stephen is ever so slightly camp in his aviators and pilot's jacket, and clearly not in tune with basic means of survival. Francine is resourceful, realistic and handy with a snipers rifle. Roger is reckless and slightly immature whereas cigar smoking Peter is the brains of the team, calm and collected and always with a strategy at hand. All the actors do what is expected of them without too many embarrassing moments - in particular Scott Reiniger (current Prince of Ghor in Afghanistan, WTF?) makes Roger a very watchable presence.

Romero knows where to point his camera and there is some elegant framing of shots amid the blood and body parts. Our old friends Goblin provide another memorable score with the help of Suspiria director Dario Argento (who also acted as mentor to Romero in pre-production). Unlike the foreboding music of Argento's classic, their throbbing music in Dawn of The Dead verges on the disco and wouldn't sound out of place in the nightclubs of New York, Dalston or Vauxhall.

Dawn of The Dead may not be the most violent of the zombie canon, or even the scariest, but it more than holds it's own in the horror stakes and it's certainly one of the most iconic. What it lacks slightly in scares it makes up for with an impending sense of doom and apocalypse. There's a real sense that this is the shopping centre at the end of the world, a paean to capitalism gone wrong set against the grey American winter skies. The world of Dawn of The Dead is a world where credit is redundant and ammunition and groceries rule... and even they turn out to be useless in the end. It's a world where there is no respect for mortality and the dead are cursed to walk the earth. There's no more room in hell...

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