Saturday, October 27, 2007

A feast of flesh: Digesting Dawn of the Dead

Part 4 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

I still recall the first time I watched Dawn of the Dead. The violence and gore were shockingly graphic, and the dread I felt from the zombie hordes enveloping the earth was palpable. But it was the feeling of isolation and spiritual stagnation of the survivors in the mall that really made Dawn stand out for me, elevating it into something much more than traditional horror fare.

Made in 1978, Dawn of the Dead is the second in what has become director George Romero's zombie quadriology (is that an actual word?). The series started with the low-budget black and white 1968 Night of the Living Dead, then Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead (1985) and, most recently, Land of the Dead (2005).

Dawn of the Dead stands out above the rest of the series for several reasons. While Night is quite good, Dawn features a true full-blown zombie apocalypse in which mankind is overrun. While the zombie virus-as-pandemic first surfaced in Night, that film focused on a small group of survivors in a farmhouse, and, by the end of Night, the implication was that the outbreak was under control.

Not so in Dawn. In the first act, the world is plunged into chaos and we get to watch the disintegration of order as institutions crumble and populaces panic. Four survivors band together and manage to clear out a huge shopping mall, then "batten down the hatches" and attempt to live while death and destruction reigns outside.

While the four survivors (three men and a woman) have plenty of food and every material desire at their fingertips, their "bliss" proves very shallow and temporary.

In its second act, Dawn takes an introspective look at the human condition: While we may think death is at a comfortable distance, and that having money and all the "stuff" it buys will make us content, this is a lie. Ultimately, we as humans need something more. The zombies become a symbol of the ever-present disease and death that threatens to devour us, and ultimately will consume every man, woman, and child born. They are also a symbol of unbridled materialism, mindless "shoppers" drawn to the mall that you can find in any large or small-sized city across the United States, every day.

When a roving band of armed, militant bikers break into the mall in the final act of Dawn, all hell breaks loose. For sheer, unbridled fun and over-the-top gore, you can't beat the scene of bikers hacking and beheading zombies with machetes, bats, and axes, lobbing grenades and firing shotguns and pistols, and watching raiders get hauled screaming from their bikes and eviscerated and consumed alive. The scene of the guy who insists on using the blood pressure machine even as zombies converge on him and eat him is dark comedy at its best.

Despite the death and destruction, Dawn ends on a positive note as the last two survivors ultimately choose life, and a chance of salvation elsewhere. Whether or not they find it in their low-fuel helicopter is another story, but it's noteworthy that, even in the depths of despair, they make the choice to move on and live, despite the odds. When confronted with our own stark mortality, this is all we as mankind can do.

On a side note, Dawn was remade in 2004. Romero was not involved in the project. While the new Dawn is quite enjoyable, and perhaps even scarier than the original (the running zombies are shockingly unexpected and terrifying, and the opening sequence is amazing), it unfortunately loses much of the subtext and themes that made the 1978 version so great.


Falze said...

You'll probably get a kick out of this:

What are your chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse:

Brian Murphy said...

Great link man. I have a 53% chance of survival. Not too good, but better than the odds at Vegas.