the most beloved of horror films has never felt more timely – but it remains a film that signals its misanthropy rather too loudly for its own good.
Writing anything about Dawn of the Dead that is beyond mere sycophantic ‘we’re not worthy’ grovelling seems such a fool’s errand that I’ve been reluctant to tackle the film at all. This is, after all, the Citizen Kane of horror according to both its genuine admirers and the johnny-come-lately horror fans who don’t care to rock the boat, and any suggestion that the film is less than perfect invariably results in howls of outrage. But with the new box set – or at least the blu-ray section of it – sitting in front of me, I feel like I’m finally being pushed out of the bunker and into the firing line.
Let me start out by explaining my history with this film. As a kid, Dawn of the Dead – or Zombies: Dawn of the Dead as the British release was sold (with the opening titles being simply Zombies) was just about the most exciting thing imaginable as it started to seep into my consciousness. Having already seen The Crazies via an entirely unexpected and life-changing TV appearance (where it showed up, unheralded and without warning, in BBC2’s Horror Double Bill series where you would normally find a Hammer horror or similar), I was hyped by the idea of an even more apocalyptic and uncompromising film from the same director. The stories of censorship problems in both the UK and the USA, the ‘exploding head’ shot that appeared in the first Fangoria (and so set the path for that magazine to finally go down), even the Tom Chantrell UK quad poster… all this whetted the appetite, and when home video allowed us underage viewers to finally catch up with the film – albeit in the UK theatrical edit that was missing several minutes of the more graphic gore – it wasn’t a disappointment. I watched the film half a dozen times in the space of three weeks, and countless times since. I poured over the novelisation. I bought the soundtrack LP and the wildly overpriced poster magazine. I fumed when notorious idiot Barry Norman called it “a film for people who put cotton wool in their ears at night to stop their brains falling out” on his shitty BBC review show. So I come to my current assessment not as a cynical critic but as someone who absolutely loved this movie. And as someone who still loves it to a large extent.
But with a film as well known as Dawn of the Dead – and I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that no one reading this hasn’t seen it, several times probably – there seems little point in just gushing about how great it is. There is no point reviewing it at all, really, because who out there is unfamiliar with it? And why are they going to be coming to The Reprobate to find out about it if they are? So I’m going to be the apostate, and say that while Dawn of the Dead is certainly one of the great horror films of the genre’s golden age, it’s also a film with a lot of problems that we shouldn’t simply ignore.
From the moment that I first heard about this movie – and yours too, if you are honest – I was aware that this was a film with Serious Social Commentary. Every critic (apart from clowns like the aforementioned Norman) said so. And yes, there it is, an early sign of Romero’s increasing misanthropy and contempt for people who… what? Go shopping? Buy things? For a man who licensed merchandise and worked for Hollywood studios, Romero sure is down on people who just want to buy food, clothes or maybe little luxuries – little luxuries like a fancy-pants seven-disc, two-book Dawn of the Dead blu-ray, you might say. There is, you might think, a certain hypocrisy in people nodding along sagely with his criticisms of capitalism while watching this 4K edition. To its credit, Dawn… doesn’t labour the point in the way that all the subsequent Dead films do; there are little jibes, but nothing like the way it was subsequently hammered home.
Watched in 2020, the digs of the film also take on a new meaning. The scenes where the main characters, holed up in an empty shopping mall, start to attempt to recreate the normality that has gone might have once seemed pathetic and telling – people so absorbed by a materialist society that it is all they can conceive. But isn’t everyone now desperate to get back to normal – the ‘old’ normal, not some ‘new’ normal? Look around – hell, look at yourself – and see how much everyone wants to be able to do all the things that they were doing before in exactly the same way. Imagine the desperation to retrieve some semblance of normal life if Covid-19 was a zombie apocalypse with changes a bit more dramatic than pubs closing an hour early and not being allowed to throw a party every weekend? I think we should all cut the characters in this film a bit of slack for their desperation to deny what is happening outside, and their determination to protect their property from marauding invaders who just want to take it all away.
In any case, the anti-consumerist message is far more subtlely handled than some of the other moments where Romero first reveals a tendency to work in shades of black and white, signalling the fact that characters are unsavoury characters by giving them clumsy mouthfuls of dialogue. Harrison Ford once allegedly said to another George “you can write this shit, but you can’t say it”, and that seems the problem with a lot of Romero’s dialogue. It looks great on the page, where you can read it at your own speed in your own character voice, but is less effective when spoken. We see this early on, with the character of Wooley, who is – immediately on introduction – given an entire virulently racist soliloquy so that we all know right away that he’s a bad sort.
This is hard dialogue to pull off for anyone, and Jim Baffico, in the role, is not the man for the job. He and Romero manage to impressive achievement of suddenly making a film about flesh-eating zombies feel artificial, and this on-the-nose approach is something that would increasingly dog Romero’s films in later years. It’s depressing because one of the great achievements of Night of the Living Dead was to have a black lead actor at the height of civil rights protests, and not to make his colour an issue. No one even mentions the fact that Ben is black in the film; we can understand the nods to lynch mobs that it closes with, but nothing is explicit; it’s all there for us to dig out. Here, Romero has to make his bad guys spout racist language as if we might not pick up on the fact that they are absolute bastards otherwise. It feels unnecessarily forced, especially in this scene. Wooley going apeshit would be more shocking if it hadn’t been so clumsily telegraphed.
I’m going to go out on a limb now and say that, for me right now, Dario Argento’s cut may be – with some serious provisos – the best version of the film; I reserve the right to change my mind on this, as I have more than once. It’s only eight minutes shorter than Romero’s preferred version, but it tightens things up in a few important places and cuts both the awful helicopter decapitation (absolutely the worst effect in the film) and a nonsensical moment involving a blood pressure machine. He also chops into the more pointed social commentary at times while leaving enough for the message to still be clear. Admittedly, his version has problems – the scene with the rednecks that already felt a bit indulgent (Romero literally stopping the film to show his contempt of rural folk) now seems completely pointless with the context removed, and it is definitely a mistake to cut the first part of the sequence where Peter and Roger block the mall entrance with trucks – we lose a fair bit of context for Roger’s reckless behaviour, and it was one of the best set-pieces of the film. Losing half of this central sequence seems a major error and I don’t know what Argento was thinking – maybe he didn’t understand it. Oddly, he leaves the slapstick scenes involving custard pies, which I’ve always hated and which feel like the sort of cartoonish moments that he was generally cutting, but replaces the silent movie music with more Goblin; this is the only point where I agree with the Romero fans who say that his choice to replace Goblin’s atmospheric and pounding score with library tracks that sound like cues from 1950s fright films (or, more precisely, Night of the Living Dead) was the right choice.
There is, of course, the 137-minute cut – prepared for Cannes, mistakenly called the ‘director’s cut’ and for quite a while the one that seemed to turn up most often (this is the version shown by the BBC if I’m not mistaken) that confuses the issue further by adding in extra scenes, some of which slow the pace and some of which actually feel more important than stuff eventually left in. For a lot of people, this is the definitive cut, and I might well agree that out of the two Romero edits, this is the one to go with. With all the different versions, it feels tempting to go through them and make your own preferred version.
So yeah, this is a film that throws up a lot of issues. I don’t really mind the fact that it sags in the middle, because that somehow feels appropriate in a film that is as much about ennui as horror – and the slow moments still propel the film forward and help give it a sense of time passing – I have no idea how long a time period the film takes place over (no doubt uber-fans can tell me) but it feels like weeks, maybe months, and that gives it a sense of sprawling, continual horror that few films share. I can live with Tom Savini’s blue/grey zombies, even though they look horribly cheesy (especially compared to Lucio Fulci’s positively pungent zombies a year later in Zombie Flesh Eaters). I do still have problems with the bikers at the end – again, they feel too much like stereotyped characters (Savini’s character, of course, is given racist dialogue) and behave like dicks, whereas it might have been more interesting to show them as just another bunch of people looking to survive as society collapses; it’d make the conflict that occurs between the two groups (started, we should note, by our heroes) more nuanced and perhaps allow us to see how much each person has slipped into tribalism, no longer seeing others as any more human than the zombies. But equally, I understand that this final conflict was necessary to move the plot to the point where the surviving characters have to flee the mall, and their nihilistic rampage and angry destruction again feels very prescient when seen now.
But beyond the imperfections, there’s a great deal to admire. The action sequences are astonishing, fast-paced, ultra-tense and dramatic in a way that suggests Romero might have become a great action movie director in another world. The main performances are all solid – better than I remembered from my last viewing, with Ken Foree having the sort of quiet strength of character that holds everything together (and allows him to bring a sense of realism to Romero’s dialogue) – and the film looks huge. The shopping mall setting is inspired and gives the film a grand scale rarely seen in horror films; it’s to Romero’s credit that he manages to keep the tension on an intimate level while exploring this huge canvas. Horror films have rarely felt as epic as this, a grand apocalyptic nightmare that I think uniquely captures the sense of everything falling apart. Most movies focus on the beginning of the end or come in once the apocalypse is over and so have a small-scale focus, but Dawn of the Dead manages to make it feel as though this is happening right now – a total collapse of society that we have been dropped right in the middle of. It’s where the film really does show genius – even though it focuses on just four people, there is never any doubt that this is happening everywhere, and that the world is ending as we watch, blinking in confusion. Again, it all feels very real when seen today – I think we can all relate to that sense of growing bewilderment and an increasing sense of losing control as some new, uncontrolled threat sweeps the world and upends life as we know it. Dawn of the Dead is actually scarier now, simply because we can look at it and see a reflection of reality; not a metaphorical critique of consumerism, but actual, in your face reality – the panic, the hysteria, the selfishness, the paranoia, the insanity and the delight that some people take in helping the world burn. Some horror films date through no fault of their own, but Dawn of the Dead feels more contemporary now than it did at the end of the 1970s, the subtext now overshadowed by the altogether more relevant main narrative. The grandiose scope and the intimate horrors, the bleakness of the idea and the unexpected sense of hope that runs throughout – that somehow, somewhere, things can get back to normal again – makes this the horror film that we need in 2020, however many flaws it might have.
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