Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment VHS
At the end of the roll call for horror monsters is the zombie: the most durable and, when grouped among its like, most threatening. What the zombie lacks in motor skills and intelligence is compensated in his frighteningly quick ability to spawn. A school of zombies is venerably hostile in growing numbers.
Like any monster, their chief end is to threaten the human race (blood and flesh, of course, are their only supposed nutrients). Zombies are defeated rather easily. Their brains must be absolved from the nervous system; a shot to the head is the most frequent offense. If this legion of zombies — the dead — is seen as pitted against living humans, only the living suffer, for in their death they become the enemy. Because of this fact, zombies collectively rival any singular monster regardless of inherent threat.
Though there are numerous zombie films, none in the past several decades exist without a formidable debt to George Romero’s Living Dead series. His debut was a low-budget independent feature, like most every horror debut, and in its lack of resources displayed a passion and philosophy associated with few others.
The Living Dead trilogy (Night of —, Dawn of —, and Day of —, ’68, ’78, and ’84) eschews sequential expectations, having resisted the ’80s horror sequel boom, and includes a rare sequel that exceeds its preamble in its ideas and philosophy. Night of the Living Dead is a typical — though effective — low budget effort with moments of poignancy and terror; Dawn of the Dead is an ambitious social commentary that may be deservingly compared to Taxi Driver.
Among the laudable aspects of Dawn is its lack of introduction and initial context. These elements are available in the prequel: Night of the Living Dead opens with the burial of a recently deceased corpse, a convicted killer. As Romero’s first zombie, he serves to suggest the nature of his type. Although his former behavior may be interpreted to lend to his reincarnated action as a zombie, theories stated in Dawn violate this. Zombies, regardless of their past behaviors, are all killers. (Note: these details are taken from the 30th Anniversary Edition of Night of the Living Dead, and are not included in the original theatrical cut.)
The single laughable moment of Romero’s zombie films occurs in the first half of Night. Exiled survivors, in a rural farmhouse, group in front of a television displaying scientists, morticians, and anyone with some idea behind the undead’s bloodlust. The word “radioactive waste” is spoken and it inspires cringes. Romero’s debut is heralded, among numerous reasons, for dodging the campy stride of ’50s science fiction, favoring ambiguity over reason in establishing the case of horror. Perhaps the suggestion of this as the impetus behind the actions of the antagonist is a needed convention in a horror film. Thankfully, it is ignored in Dawn.
Ultimately the actions of Romero’s many zombies are given neither definition nor reason. In narrative, Dawn of the Dead is an extension of the acts depicted in Night of the Living Dead. Although it is directly linked to its prequel (and, moreover, has no closure) the film is not narratively reliant upon its sequels, and emerges as the more ambitious of Romero’s first coupling of zombie films.
The story so far is summed up in the film’s panicked opening minutes as employees of a television studio scramble to fill airtime with guesses and explanations for the zombie plague. Two flee from the studio via helicopter. Their attempt is prohibited by a S.W.A.T. team, also desperate for an escape. Stephen and Francine, of the television studio, are joined by Roger and Peter. The four flee to a local mall. These characters are simple extensions of human impulse, with personalities overwhelmed by their paranoia. The sexes are represented, three males to one female, and the ratio is the same for race: three white, one black. Furthering the microcosmic function of the four, by the film’s end two of them die and the female becomes pregnant; in the duration of the film, the survivor’s fates mimic the transpiration of life, its beginning and end.
In its second act, the foursome’s lives become routine: they have successfully fortified the mall, and dozens of stores are made available exclusively to them. At this point, Romero’s satire, largely absent in Night, is evident as his survivors, instead of panicking, occupy their time by raiding the mall — the plague supplies them with a modest utopia. Symbolically the group is trapped by consumerism, which is the same trait that distinguishes their enemies, albeit on a more viscerally literal level.
In Romero’s words, the mall is “a temple of consumer society”: its sole function is to house goods in bulk, and the humans have the entire place at their disposal. A humorously satirical scene later in the film places the characters in their shelter amidst stolen matching furniture. Earlier, Roger expectedly mistakes a mannequin for a zombie. Equally reliant upon satire, violence, humor (this film contains a pie fight), and allegory, Dawn of the Dead is among the more thematically ambitious horror films in history.
In his direction Romero compensates in philosophy for what he lacks in technique. The film is shot simply; static shots abound and few setups are repeated. Dawn also benefits from the involvement of Dario Argento (ripe off the success of Suspiria) and Goblin, whose score is the most dated aspect of the film. Respect must also be allotted in part to effects guru Tom Savini (William Lustig’s bloody Maniac is his most accomplished showcase), who is responsible for much of the blood in the film. Though it may be tasteless to extol a film’s gore, in Dawn it is highly innovative. In addition to being blown to bits, zombies are downed with progressive creativity in the film’s duration (my favorite: a zombie who steps too close to the revolving blades of a helicopter). Its intent is to inspire cringes, and Savini’s work succeeds this without becoming camp.
The signature visual in Dawn is employed in the foursome’s helicopter flight to the mall. They peer below and see landscapes punctuated by occasional zombies. These images suggest that the group is trapped — that for this plague there is neither escape nor remedy. Death may not be inevitable, though life and its comforts will never again be found. Dawn of the Dead is an exemplary work of anarchic fiction.
Before shooting began on Romero’s much-anticipated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (which would follow his lesser-received The Crazies, Hungry Wives, and Martin), Dario Argento invited the director to Rome to pen the screenplay. This is a hugely erroneous scenario for many reasons, not the least of which that the classic foreign setting was used to cultivate the actions that take place in a rural, mundane Pennsylvania setting. In addition, Romero granted Argento the right to edit the international print of the film. To date, and in result of this deal as well as the film’s generous use of hyper-real pastel blood, Dawn of the Dead has been seen in roughly a dozen of cuts of varying lengths, content, and legality. The recently released Ultimate Edition of the film contains three.
The curious feature of Romero and Argento’s collaboration is that their works are stylistically and thematically differentiated. At the time Argento was promoting Suspiria, arguably his most fantastical, manically staged and edited film. The brevity of Argento’s stylistic innovations (including a suspended camera setup in Opera made to emulate the point of view of a flying crow) is contrary to Romero’s admitted guerilla filmmaking; he films his actions from various setups, allows all his actors to improvise at whim, and assembles a mass of footage without a clear idea of the final cut until editing commences. (Given the variety of behaviors in his zombies, it is doubtful he gave much direction to them, either.)
Romero’s cuts occupy discs one and two. The theatrical version is the most “official” of the three, neither the longest (the extended version) nor the shortest (the European version). The extended version (which to my knowledge was only seen at the film’s 1978 Cannes debut) differs most noticeably in its scoring, the theatrical cut bearing a completed score by Goblin (the gothic prog-rockers who specialize in scoring Argento’s films). I noticed little variation between the footages, despite the twelve-minute difference in running times.
Argento’s cut (disc three; the European version) is — at moments — more violent. Informed by his tendencies in plotting (Suspiria’s regular criticism, for measure, is its marginal plotting), the zombie attacks are generally more favored than the talk that separates them, which is the transcendent feature of this film. Erroneously absent from this cut is the popular helicopter zombie.
In addition to the cuts included on this set, Dawn of the Dead has been available on bootlegs of varying length, the most notable of which is a “complete” cut which includes all available footage from existent cuts, which are, again, numerous, due to the results censors have imposed on the film in different countries.
The final disc includes an image gallery of what appears to be every video box cover (including beta tapes and LaserDisc) for every legitimate release of Dawn of the Dead. This gallery seems to function to elevate the value of this set, as the most inclusive package available for the film — a title I’m willing to grant it, somewhat reluctantly given Anchor Bay’s exclusive tendency to release cult horror films in numerous editions (a similar feature is available on their “Book of the Dead” edition of The Evil Dead).
The Ultimate Edition of Dawn of the Dead is a significant case for the parties involved in its varying distributions — Romero and Argento, who could not speak the other’s language at the time they worked together. The result is an exercise of preference over the same material, but, finally and obviously, the idea is best left in the hands of its maker.