Dawn of the Dead
Night of the Living Dead was a watershed movie. In fact it was so successful it played for years after its initial release, screened in drive-ins, film clubs and grindhouses. Night of the Living Dead established the ‘midnight movie’ trend and late night film screenings establishing it has a cult movie.
Romero’s bleak focus on the destruction of the present order spoke volumes about the cataclysmic shifts in American consciousness that were occurring during the turbulent times of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. Night of the Living Dead’s bleak focus on the destruction of the present order spoke volumes about the cataclysmic shifts in American consciousness that had occurred throughout the past decade. However, at the end of the film authorities had seemed to had taken control as search and destroy squads worked their way across the countryside.
At the beginning of Dawn of the Dead it seems that the balance of power has shifted and it was now the zombies that were running amok. Dawn of the Dead made an irrevocable impact by reviving the genre with comic panache. The origins of Dawn of the Dead comes from the mid-1970s when George A Romero was given a tour of a sprawling out-of-town shopping mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania by a business associate who had offices inside the complex.
The vast cathedral to consumerism overwhelmed Romero, he began to wonder what it would be like if a group of survivors of an apocalyptical scenario found themselves taking shelter inside. Romero initially pictured a man and a pregnant woman living inside the crawl space with the man acting as the hunter/gatherer, leaving the safety of their cave and going down to the mall for supplies. Romero believed this idea was too dark and ugly so he decided to return to the devastation of the original Night of the Living Dead. Focusing instead on the collapse of social order that had been hinted at indirectly in Night of the Living Dead.
Dawn of the Dead starts with the character ‘Fran’ jolting out of a bad dream into the waking nightmare that is Dawn of the Dead. The walking dead have won the upper hand and the fabric of society is crumbling, not least of all in the Pittsburgh television station where she works as ratings hungry producers air a list of closed down rescue stations in the desperate attempt to win ratings. Outside the television station, martial law prevails and in a near-by ghetto National Guardsmen and SWAT are preparing to storm a building where the occupants of the building are attempting to hide the corpses of their dead relatives. In the ensuing gun battle one officer loses his mind indiscriminately blowing off heads of the remaining living residents. One woman rushes out into the arms of her recently deceased husband, only for him to take a bite out of her shoulder. Two SWAT officers make their way down into the cellar where the dead are being kept. A gruesome sequence ensues as the two officers shoot scores of zombies as they writhe about on the floor.
As the group escape Pittsburgh in a stolen helicopter, George A Romero paints a picture this world as headless, with law and order has vanished and all television and radio channels have been turned off, society, as we know it has finally fallen. Landing on an abandoned shopping mall, they secure the complex by blocking all main exits with trucks and once the complex is cleared of any remaining ghoul the group settle into a life of luxury that quickly gives way to boredom, although this is finally broken by the arrival of a gang of bikers who brake into the shopping mall allowing the living dead to re-enter the mall.
Whilst fighting off bikers one of the characters ridiculously attempts to save the array of useless consumer goods the group has managed to hoard and in doing so becomes a victim to a group of zombies. If he had simply hidden from both bikers and zombies he would have survived. In the end, it’s not the hordes of zombies that cause the groups demise but their own greed.
The message of Dawn of the Dead is simple ‘Shoot ‘em in the head’; it’s mantra that seems terrifyingly perverse. A headshot may be the only way to kill a zombie but it also symbolises everything that is wrong with the authorities’ response to the crisis. It is only the scientific community have seemed to have kept their heads, but their cold rationality is too much for the populace to bear. ‘We must not be lulled by the concept that these are our family members or our friends’ explains one scientist, ‘THEY ARE NOT!’ His demand that they should be exterminated on sight only provokes anger with the surviving population, whilst his suggestion that the survivors should feed the zombies is met with disgust. While Night of the Living Dead reflects the turmoil that was going on at the time Dawn of the Dead encapsulates the fickle and empty consumerism of the time.
Day of the Dead, Romero’s third zombie movie, begins where Dawn of the Dead left off, with the living dead have taken over the entire planet. As the film opens, a civilian – military left over from the old world order land their helicopter in deserted Florida street in the hope of finding any survivors, however, they are not greeted by the living but instead the living dead spill out of shops and apartment complexes hungry for human flesh.
Back at the team’s base, (an abandoned missile silo), the divisions among the group of survivors quickly become apparent. The handful of scientists still can’t fathom out why the dead are returning to life and more importantly can’t find a cure for the problem. The military led by Captain Rhodes are fed up of waiting for results, prompting the Captain to become increasingly tyrannical in running the facility. The only thing that keeps Rhodes and his men from deserting the complex and scientists is the fact that none of them can fly the helicopter.
The groups pilot is a civilian pilot along with their communication operator, who both are civilians and have no interest in either side. Having established the group’s dynamic, Day of the Dead proceeds to pull them apart as they bicker their way to oblivion. The film ends as the compound is overrun by zombies who have been let in by one of the military personal who has been driven insane after being bitten on the arm by a zombie. As with Dawn of the Dead it is the stupidity of the living that is the greatest threat, with the zombies capitalising on the petty quarrelling of the group.
Day of the Dead proves that the real horror in this world isn’t the hordes of the living dead, but the inhumanity of the living and the innate rottenness of modern society. While one of the scientists spirals out of control changing into some variation of a mad scientist chopping up numerous zombies in order to find the answer while attempting to socialise one zombie, (called Bub), into good behaviour. Rhodes and his soldiers regress in barbarism.
The only character that understands this is John, (the civilian helicopter pilot), who along with the character McDermott, (the civilian communication operator), who have both decided to live outside of the safety of the main complex but deep within one of the many tunnels in a converted Winnebago nicknamed ‘The Ritz’.
If Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead exposed the rotten underbelly of twentieth century America Day of the Dead fantasises on a possibility of an alternative, on that is born out of the destruction of the old. Unlike the previous films Day of the Dead ends on an upbeat scene that shows the three surviving members living on a zombie free Caribbean Island.
Book of the Dead – The complete history of zombie cinema FAB Press 2006.