Thursday 18 May 2017

1,001 Films: "Dawn of the Dead" (1978)

Dawn of the Dead was the second in George A. Romero's zombie series: after a prologue that establishes the extent to which the plague first detailed in Night of the Living Dead has spread, it forces its four heroes - a TV producer and her (clueless) traffic reporter boyfriend, plus a couple of disillusioned taskforce agents absconding from duty - to seek shelter in a shopping mall, around which the undead wander aimlessly, drawn there by some sense-memory of civilisation. As befits its era - the trauma of Vietnam giving way to the greed of Reaganomics - the film is despairing indeed beneath the satirical glee Romero displays while illustrating the effect killing has on his players; it's particularly despairing about the fact that, even in a time of crisis, mankind would be drawn to the self-sufficient grey zone that is the modern shopping centre. As heroine Frannie (Gaylen Ross) phrases it: "You're all hypnotised by this place. It's so bright and neatly wrapped, you don't see that it's a prison."

The Vietnam parallels are certainly striking - overhead shots of bodies lying in the mall's mock-greenery, corpses piling up to the accompaniment of marching-band music piping through the mall's PA - but it also still functions as a straightahead horror movie. Romero always did have a deft hand for sketching fraught, human characters, while the painfully slow response time of the assembled zombies - which could be seen as a liability, as our heroes run past them for a third or fourth time - proves to be a useful suspense mechanism; there's still something dramatic in the way they proceed towards with agonised relentlessness towards their intended victims. The finale, mixing gore with a sharp hit of social comment, sets man not against zombie, but his fellow man, as a biker gang (led by Tom Savini) shows up and starts looting. I'm not sure about the 140-minute director's cut widely circulated in recent years: though there's more sense of day-to-day mall life, it feels baggy, and the tension inherent within the siege set-up begins to seep away as we wait for the denouement; still, in whichever version you see it, it has more ideas than the slick 2004 remake.

Dawn of the Dead is available on DVD through Arrow.   

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