Sunday, March 15, 2009
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
I think it's pretty easy to see that the 1978 George A. Romero classic, Dawn of the Dead, ranks towards, if not at, the top of my list of favorite horror films. Hell, it's one of my favorite movies, genre aside. I named this blog after the vehicle of choice our heroes use as the plot unfolds. So, it only stands to reason that the first in-depth review I choose to do here begins with Dawn.
Written and directed by Romero, Dawn of the Dead picks up some time after the events in Night of the Living Dead. The mysterious malady that causes dead folk to get up, shamble about, and develop the pesky habit of eating the living has spread. There is mass panic and chaos, and the movie opens in the Philadelphia television studios of WGON. Right from the first image of news producer Francine (Gaylen Ross) in the midst of a fitful nap and the first strains of the amazing soundtrack by Goblin and the minimalist title card...yeah, we know we're in for something creepy.
The chaos in the station reflects the insanity going on outside. People with frayed nerves flutter around the studio while scientist Dr. Foster (David Crawford) tries in vain to explain what is happening and what the public should know about the recently reanimated dead. Workers are flying the coop, everyone's yelling at someone or no one, and only Fran has the humanity to remove the list of now-overrun shelters from the air. There are a lot of characters in this scene, and I can never help but wonder what became of them. What became of Fran's friend who woke her from her nightmare? What about the wry cameraman who states "our responsibility is finished"? That insane director who worries the viewers will tune out? Hell, what about the security guard?
Enter Stephen aka "Flyboy" (David Emge), helicopter pilot who mans the WGON traffic chopper and is also Fran's man. Later, it's revealed he's also her baby-daddy. He pleads with Fran to meet him later, that they've got to get out and survive. They plan on meeting up with one of Stephen's friends and getting the hell out of Philly.
Speaking of Stephen's friend, let's find out what he's up to. Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) is part of one of several SWAT teams sent to a housing project to quell some kind of uprising. Some residents have taken up arms in this most unstable of times, and with tensions being what they are, it's only a matter of time before the police and the SWAT teams are called into action. Roger is up on the roof with his squad, which includes babyfaced rookie Roy and wired racist Wooley, waiting for the insurgent leader Martinez to appear. When Martinez and his crew do show, Roy is greeting with a forehead bullet while Martinez bolts and is shot himself. Through it all, Roger displays a cool head and actual compassion as he reassures Roy (before the bullet) and tries to keep Martinez from being shot.
Inside the apartment building, it's all tear gas and screams. The confused tenants run through the halls and an insane Wooley just starts gunning them down. In a piece of classic horror cinema, he kicks open one door and fires on a man, causing his head to spectacularly blow apart. With Wooley out of control, one SWAT member puts down the rabid officer as the situation finally cools down. Witnessing this, a vicious biting attack, and the suicide of a fellow team member in quick succession, Roger bugs out to a quiet washroom in pure frustration and to collect his head.
Before I go on, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the first biting scene in this film. One apartment tenant recognizes a man - who is very obviously one of the living dead - and runs into his arms. He repays the gesture by taking a sizable bite out of hers. It is unflinching and in your face, and lets you know, this just got real. It is in scenes like this that special effects legend Tom Savini earned his title.
In the washroom, Roger meets up with the officer that shot Wooley, a tall drink of water known as Peter (Ken Foree). After tense introductions, an offer to escape, and an encounter with a wise old one-legged priest, the pair join their squads in the basement where, just as the priest had said, the dead had been deposited after their last rites. It's a charnel house, as the recently risen write inside sheets and gnaw on leftovers of those unlucky enough to get near them. Yeah, they're not cannibals - they don't eat each other. So where did the juicy leg bone come from? Makes you think. And shudder.
Roger and Peter arrive at the dock, where Stephen and Fran are already waiting (after a tense run-in with some escaping policemen, one of which is played by Joe Pilato, who played the evil Colonel Rhodes in the next Dead movie, Day of the Dead). Yeah, my original VHS version had this scene, my Special Edition DVD does not - so many versions, so little money. The four escape as Philadelphia falls. Off they go in their own WGON helicopter.
They fly through the night and over the Pennsylvania countryside as they head west. There's a little segue here where the Armed Forces and the good ol' boy locals are having themselves a right fine little zombie huntin' jamboree. It's a high-falootin' time, complete with country music and cases of Iron City Beer. See my very own can of Iron City Beer:
Our heroes fly on and find an abandoned airport to scrounge up some fuel. They each head out, unaware they're being watched by an odd-headed zombie.
This unique fellow tries to sneak up on Roger, but gets too close to the chopper blades and...yep...gets the top of his head lopped off like the cap of an Iron City Beer longneck. Peter has a run-in with two zombie children, and is nearly shot by Stephen, whose own run-in a few minutes earlier suddenly made him think he had a pair. Roger smugly shows Flyboy up when it comes to shooting skills, the latter's lack thereof angering Peter. After settling down, they take to the air again.
There's a bit of a go-round about what they should do next. Cleveland to refuel? No, best to stay away from big cities. The locks on the Alleghaney? Nah, they're still manned. The world's descending into chaos. It's best to find someplace deserted and safe to plan out the next move.
Lo and behold, hello! Welcome to the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh. And, yes, the hockey team Seth Rogen plays for in the wonderful Zach and Miri Make A Porno (the Monroeville Zombies) is a direct reference. It's the 70's, so they call it a "shopping center." Landing and breaking inside, our heroes begin to think the mall is a pretty sweet setup. How can they be wrong? Sure, there are some living dead wandering around (spawning Stephen's great "important place in their lives" line), but hey, think of all those stores just ripe for looting...I mean, necessity shopping.
While Stephen dozes, Roger and Peter decide to have a little fun and explore the place, see what kind of home it could become. They find keys and turn on all the little bells and whistles in the place to serve as a distraction. Stephen wakes and decides he wants to keep the pair he just grew. He dashes out to join the others, but nearly loses it all when he encounters a dead maintenance man. Joining Roger and Peter, Stephen proves his worth after all and is finally accepted into the blossoming brotherhood. Things get a little hairy as another maintenence zombie attacks Roger. Screwdriver to the ear - no problem. The Hare Krishna zombie somehow finds its way up the stairs to where Fran is and nearly destroys its vow of vegetarianism before its dispatched by the returning menfolk.
While resting, eating, and listening to the Civil Defense broadcast, Stephen reveals that Fran is preggers. This is the 70's, and before political correctness, so Peter offers to abort the baby if that's what Stephen wants. Shocked, but undoubtedly thinking about it, Stephen won't go through with it. Meanwhile, on the small black and white TV, the esteemed Dr. Millard Rouch explains the horrible truth that these things are not loved ones or people they knew anymore.
The troop inside the mall decide to make the mall their home, but they've got to block the entrances first. The doors, unfortunately, are still operational and the zombies are coming in and out like there's a lunch special at the Brown Derby (look for it during the movie). Fran, no longer the demure wallflower, demands to be given a gun and helicopter lessons. Good thinking and welcome to the dance, Fran. They're going to need your cool head.
Peter and Roger move trucks while Stephen flies lookout over them, and Fran holds a sniper position from the roof. Peter knows what's what, but Roger is increasingly bold and brazen. He's nearly bitten by a dead young lady, but is saved by Peter. After dispatching another attacker, Roger gets back to work, but with his "perfect, baby" line...oh, it's obvious Roger is seeing his porch lights go out one by one.
In one of his manic moments, Roger forgets his tool kit in a truck and demands to go back against Peter's wishes. Roger's wildness catches up to him as he's bitten on the arm, and worse on the calf. No one wants to say, but everyone knows: the bite leads to a painful, downward spiralling death, then reanimation. Roger lives for now, but he's in bad shape.
In a well-coordinated play, our home team sets out to lock up then clean up the mall. Once it's done, they set about creating their own fortress. As Peter points out, even the living will be a problem in this new, terrible world. Roger, meanwhile, grows weaker and sicker. The dead are taken out, then cleaned up, allowing the four to more leisurely explore the mall and reap its benefits. The montage of them doing so culminates in Peter's now-super-classic line about "no more room in Hell."
Roger painfully dies, but not before imploring to Peter that he's going to try not to come back. Sadly, he can't hold himself to this and comes back. Peter does his duty and shoots his friend, then buries him to really rest in peace.
Life steadies out in the ol' mall, but Roger's still very dead and Fran won't accept Stephen's marriage proposal just yet. Makes for a pretty tense atmosphere. Time passes - Fran is even more pregnant, Peter keeps mostly to himself, and Stephen bickers with his would-be bride as if they're already an old married couple. But things look up as Fran gets the hang of flying the chopper.
If it were only that easy. While the chopper is used for flying lessons, a roving band of bandits spy it landing on the roof and plan on hitting the place when night falls, not knowing or caring if there's three or three hundred living people inside. After trying to communicate by radio, the gang takes it as an offense that those inside the mall won't answer. They probably would've taken any response as an offense, so they descend upon the mall, moving the trucks and letting scores of zombies in during their hedonistic raid. Peter keeps a cool head, knowing the gang will raid, vandalize, and not finding them, move on. But good ol' Flyboy falls victim to the selfish consumerism bug and wants to stop the looters from taking what he sees as his things. Zombies, looters, and our heroes all wrapped up into a big battle sandwich.
The looters rob and assault the zombies with...pies. Yes, pies. What do they care? It's a party to them. Stephen is appalled, but more about the gang taking things out of the mall. He starts firing, and the real battle is on. The gang fires back, but can't quite catch up to expert marksman Peter and slippery Stephen. The party's over as more and more zombies pour into the place, Peter cuts down a few more bikers, and Stephen tries to make his way back to Fran. Unfortunately, he's caught in the elevator and has to climb up to the ventilation duct to escape. Some bikers see him and shoot him in the shoulder, and he drops back down into the elevator, badly hurt. The gang escapes, but many of them are mobbed by zombies, leading to the very, very gory...and I mean G-O-R-Y...climax of the mall battle.
In a scene directly from the trailer that scared the crap outta me as a kid, zombies burst into the elevator Flyboy's trying to leave and bite him repeatedly. He manages to fight and shoot them off, but everyone who's a zombie movie fan knows it's over for Fran's man. Hours later, as Peter tries to console Fran into thinking he's alright, we see that it's over: the elevator doors open, and out comes Zombie Flyboy to join the true residents of the Monroeville Mall. Some trace memory leads him back to the makeshift apartment along with his new pals.
Peter sends Fran up to the roof to escape, planning on going down shooting. He puts down Stephen and awaits his fate as he puts a small gun to his head. Now, in the original version, he kills himself, but not here! Cue the heroic music! Peter comes to his senses and fights his way to the roof, where Fran has the chopper - low on fuel - ready for takeoff. Off into the dawn - get it? - they fly away, to land or maybe crash somewhere.
Inside the mall, the dead have reclaimed their "holy place," as the end credits featuring that jaunty mall song play over them. And yes, you've heard an a cappella version during every end credits for "Robot Chicken."
What intrigued me so much about this movie? It could have been the nostalgia factor. I mean, the trailer creeped me out as a kid, so naturally, I'd want to conquer any remaining reservations I had about it. It
The zombie film, with Dawn of the Dead as its true flagship, is at its heart, a study on society and civilization. The destruction isn't catastrophic in the same way an alien warship or a meteor crashing to Earth are. It's much more subtle, but just as deadly. The enemy isn't someone or something that sets out to do what it does. They're victims, too. They're the ones who didn't get away. Not only that, they're your friends, your husband, your wife, your girlfriend, your kids, your boss, the neighbor down the street, a policewoman who just tried to help. It's intriguing to me: each walking dead that we see in these films has a story. Every single one of them. They had a life, probably rich with detail, but were somehow turned into an undead ghoul who feeds on the living due to some strange instinct. That's vast and it's chilling. Not only that, but the living have stories. Take Dawn, for example. What made Peter want to become a SWAT officer? How did Roger learn to shoot so well? How long have Fran and Stephen been together? It's the study of the human condition on both ends of the spectrum: living and un-living.
For a creative take on the characters' possible backstories, check out The Zombie Farm and click on "characters." In fact, browse the whole site - it's keen.
Couple lists for you after the zombies burst into the elevator:
* That opening scene with Fran propped up trying to sleep as the basic font below tells us that this is the "Dawn of the Dead."
* Any moment with that great soundtrack by Goblin.
* The frenetic and sad insanity of the SWAT raid on the tenament building that features the most startling special effects that still hold up today.
* Peter and Roger first meet, then receive forboding words from the old priest.
* A tearful Peter dutifully puts down the zombies in the basement. Nothing will ever be the same - you can see it in his eyes.
* After the quartet take off in the helicopter, the lights in a Philadelphia high-rise go out one by one, floor by floor, representing the death of the city.
* The redneck zombie hunt jamboree. Good music, good times, good beer...and zombies.
* The weird demise of the Square-Headed Helicopter Zombie at the airfield, and Roger's surprised and thankful expression as he peers at the chopper blades.
* The stunned expression on Peter's face when he's forced to gun down children zombies in the airfield headquarters. This apocalypse changes all the rules.
* Our first glimpses of the Monroeville Mall.
* Peter and Roger play a game of "hit and run" to scope out the mall and its potential.
* The pure 70's-ness of the mall. This was how they looked when I was a wee pilot.
* The maintenance zombie that jumps out at Roger as they run through JC Penney, including the screwdriver to the ear.
* The Hare Krishna zombie somehow finding his way up to Fran - Romero zombies can climb stairs, but no, they do not run. The expression on her face after she's rescued shows her transformation. No longer will she be weak.
* The realization that Fran is pregnant. It's a world where an infant has little chance of surviving.
* Dr. Millard Rouch's televised rants. He sounds crazy and arrogant, but he's probably the smartest guy in the room. He knows what's what.
* Fran stands up for herself, demanding to learn to fly the helicopter and not to be treated any different because she's pregnant. Stephen demonstrates his dickishness by being a baby about her speaking up, while Peter agrees with her and Roger can't wait to get out of the room o' tension. It's a great scene that shows the dynamic between the four characters.
* Roger gets cocky, then goes batty during the truck moving sequence. It starts as a game, but his brushes with death make him go over the deep end.
* Fran's tears when she can do nothing to prevent Roger from being bitten from up on the roof.
* Fran encounters a nun zombie, and later a baseball player zombie, both almost peaceful. It just demonstrates that no one was exempt, and everyone is an innocent victim.
* Peter and Stephen take money from the bank, knowing it means nothing, and pose cheefully for the security camera - this sets up the montage showing the four enjoying the fruits of a fully-stocked and empty mall. The ultimate consumer dream.
* Roger's heart-wrenching promise that he'll try not to "come back," and his subsequent real death at the hands of a sad Peter. In the background, Dr. Rouch shows he's finally lost his marbles on TV when he proposes actually feeding the undead.
* The biker gang/army sees the helicopter flying above the roof of the mall and plans their attack.
* The brains hit the fan when the zombies swarm the bikers - if you have a weak stomach, I'd suggest not eating while this scene is on. And someone's doing some eating, alright...
* Stephen returns, no longer alive, as the elevator doors open to his dead face.
* Peter's change of heart as he abandons the idea of suicide and joins Fran to escape in the WGON chopper.
* The bouncy end credits theme song playing over the zombies having taken back the mall they cherished so much in life.
Great lines of dialogue:
"Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill!" - Dr. Foster in his news conference
"Our responsibility is finished." - Camera guy at WGON
"Many have died this last week on the streets. In the basement of this building, you'll find them. I have given them the last rites. Now, you do what you will. You are stronger than us, but soon, I think, they be stronger than you. When the dead walk, we must stop the killing or lose the war." - The Old Priest after the raid on the apartment building.
"You got any cigarettes?" - Goofy cop on the dock
"Jesus...it's everywhere." - Roger, as they fly over the countryside.
"Some kind of instinct, memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." - Stephen (when Fran asks him why the living dead wander to the mall - think about the symbolism next time *you're* at the mall)
"These creatures are nothing more than pure, motorized instinct. We must not be lulled by the concept that these are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions. They must be destroyed on sight!" - Dr. Millard Rouch in his first televised press conference
"Perfect, baby. Perfect." - Roger, off the deep end.
"I've seen half a dozen guys get bitten by those things. None of them lasted more than three days." - Peter
"We whipped 'em and we got it ALL!" - Roger, raving as he succumbs to the infection
"They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here." - Peter, as he corrects Stephen on what the creatures outside are after.
"Grandad was a [voodoo] priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us: when there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth." - Peter, delivering the most famous line from the movie.
"Don't do it until you're sure I am coming back. I'm gonna try...not to. I'm gonna try not to come back. I'm gonna try...not to." - Roger, his final words.
"For all I know, the brains are already dead, it's the idiots that are still alive." - Dr. Millard Rouch, in his second press conference.
"Alright, dammit! Now we've got a war!" - Peter, admonishing Stephen for firing on the bikers.