When There’s No More Room In Hell, The Dead Will Walk The Mall: Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD

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WARNING! REALLY scary and gross. But mostly, goofy.

Fans of the original Dawn of the Dead sometimes seem bothered by the remake, not because it’s bad, but because it’s good. They’re resentful that its success is one of the reasons we got and still have a renaissance in Romeroesque zombie movies. The success of The Walking Dead sustains the genre today; without it the whole trend may have faded by now. It’s frustrating to Romero fans that their guy made half of his zombie movies only because others had hits with a remake of his movie and other flicks inspired by his work, most prominently 28 Days Later. In the flood of zombie movies since the Dawn remake, do Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and the last one appear on anyone’s top five list? Top ten?

One reason the popularity of the Dawn remake seems to get to Romero partisans is that it’s a straightforward horror movie, with real scares. “But Romero’s original was a SATIRE!” And satire is more adult than just monster stuff, say these people who love “kills” and zombies chewing on human flesh. It seems to offend them that Zack Snyder’s slick style delivered what horror fans want in a zombie movie, while the Romero Dawn is too smart for them.

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Bit of a come-down, screen time-wise, after Martin, but hey, it’s a paycheck and lunch.

All I can say to that is: Give me a fucking break. Romero’s Dawn is a fine movie, particularly for its time, and it is regarded as a classic. It’s far from perfect, and far from the quality of Night of the Living Dead. If anything its influence has been harmful to the genre, paving the way for the quips, one-liners and physical comedy of horror in the eighties, all of which are ways of distancing a viewer from actual horror.

In the early scenes, Romero’s Dawn hints that this will be an intense ride. The use of just a TV studio and a crowded apartment building and open land to economically depict a world drowning in living dead is masterful. We don’t need Roland Emmerich-style “epic” shots to understand that the society we know is collapsing. The on-edge television station staff, the police giving in and shooting up a building filled with minorities, and the gun nuts shooting down the stumbling dead create a sense of a population descending into confusion, madness and violence.

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And then Dallas turns around and it’s RIGHT THERE!

When listing the Romero Dawn’s virtues in the preceding paragraph, notice that I didn’t write a single word about the heart of the movie, the part where the four characters take refuge in a mall. This is where the movie’s reputation for satire or black comedy kicks in, we’ve been told for nearly forty years. Romero relentlessly parodies our consumer culture, America’s horrific obsession with buying things, our zombie-like worship of the material. Sure, the movie does all that, and is clever with this use of an original way to depict one significant American habit. It’s also insulting, repetitive, and obvious.

Romero, like many who look down on blue collar Americans while pretending to some college poli-sci class-level of compassion for the working man and -woman, bashes the easiest target in America, the hick, the redneck (a word so many compassionate sorts toss around, unaware of just why it’s so insulting to people who work for a living). His targets are, of course, white males. I’m not a MGTOW or alt right defender of the poor white guy who has to suffer while other people simply claim the rights they’ve always had an been denied for centuries, but neither do I think it’s fair to mock people whose worst sin is not being as smart as George Romero. The movie can be cut into three parts: the TV station and SWAT team assault being the first, the mall being the third. The second part is the gun-nut-and-military scene, showing that of course all white dudes with guns (civilian and military alike) are buffoons. There’s none of the compassion for the crazed residents of the tenement, or the objectivity of the TV station scenes. They’re rednecks! What a bunch of morons! The brief refueling scene does better. Ken Foree makes a terrific action hero, and his response to the tenement battle and his encounter with the zombie kids shows his character has dimensions beyond his abilities with weapons. Romero indulges in the head-shaving stunt which is memorable. When he sticks to gore and action, we’re in good hands.

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When we get to the mall, we’re at the point where fans of zombie gore get all uppity–this is sophisticated stuff! Look at the satire! Look at the black comedy! How can you not appreciate what Romero is saying about our consumer blah blah blah…

I get it. I got it the first time when we see the grasping zombies trying to get inside the store with the sliding glass door. I got it when a character observes that they’re coming to a place where they felt comfortable. I get it when the motorcycle gang comes in and the white guys indulge in more slaughter, like in the redneck gun nut scenes. Telling me the same thing over and over for an hour doesn’t make for great satire.

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After.

I’ve got news for the folks who praise the satire here: Most people who go to malls don’t like going to malls. They go because they have to, because they buy things they need or don’t need, because it’s on their list of errands for the day. Why does any of that make these people worthy targets of criticism and parody as non-humans? The closest to the zombie types are teenagers, stammering through puberty and trying to figure out their lives. Great job of punching down, George!

While malls as depicted here are vanishing today, they’re replaced by mega-stores like Wal-Mart. I’ve been in big stores in several states, and they are invariably the most ethnically-diverse gathering places in those states. It’s not fair to bash Romero for this, I suppose, but his bashing of the working-class people who spent time in malls isn’t fair, either. Notice that of all the people Romero mocks in this movie there isn’t a single rich person. Not one. Kind of odd in a movie praised for its attack on consumerism. (Seeing how he dealt with The Evil Rich in Land of the Dead, it’s just as well.)

 

The satire, the parody of consumerism, is tiresome and repetitive. We get it, George, American consumers are zombies, we get it! What else you got?

Other than the nightmare that we might become one of those horrible working-class people, what is scary in Romero’s Dawn? The grotesque moments are done for laughs. The death of one character is nicely done as a sad moment, and the one truly scary moment of another character attacked in an elevator is very brief. His subsequent turning is very well-done, right down to the actor’s walk, but even this is troublesome, a reminder that the time for turning varies according to the needs of the script, not for any internal logic.

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It’s the one moment I have nothing bad to say about, so here it is again. Though the makeup is kinda dodgy…

I’m not denying Romero’s Dawn of the Dead its place in horror movie history. I just think its reputation as a masterpiece of satire is undeserved. Just because a movie can be classified as satirical doesn’t mean that movie is better than another, more straightforward approach, but the label is in itself an assessment of worth. “Satire” is automatically, objectively BETTER than “horror.” To some people. To me, it’s a horror movie that isn’t scary. Its rep rests on its satire, which isn’t very potent and too narrow in focus to be much fun. There is a cool moment in which two characters start to argue about what they’re going to watch on a TV that’s showing static–not believable, but the point about TV’s content and its central place in our lives is effective. It demonstrates Wilde’s observation that brevity is the soul of wit–the point is made, and we move on. What if the next scene made the same point, and then the one after, and the one after that?

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At the time, Dawn was advertised as the darkest, scariest, most intense thing ever to come to the screen. (I know, I was there.) I can watch Romero’s Dawn while eating dinner. In contrast, Texas Chainsaw Massacre–which is far less bloody–is still disturbing.

I don’t see the point in writing about movies I didn’t like, and I don’t dislike Dawn of the Dead. It’s not a bad movie. It’s clever. But if you watch horror movies to be scared, it’s not very scary.

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The Romeros, a fun couple.
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