For horror fans, Halloween is the most important day of the year. To celebrate horror’s official holiday, ADV presents the 31 Days of Halloween: each day in October, we will suggest a film or film series that we consider essential viewing during the season of fear. This isn’t a “Top 31 List” or a countdown of the “Best” or “Scariest” horror films out there, just a rundown of films that are sure to creep you out or otherwise put you in the Halloween spirit. Enjoy!
Though almost any list of the best horror films of all time will include George A. Romero’s 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (including ours), we will always hold a special place in our hearts for its first sequel, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Where Night of the Living Dead was small in scale, showing just the effects of the dead rising on one small group of survivors over a single night, Dawn of the Dead was a true apocalyptic epic, showing the erosion of civilization as civil order breaks down and the societal, moral, and religious implications of the fact that the dead would no longer stay dead. It also offered a scathing look at our society of mass consumers, making the zombies a perfect metaphor for a Western civilization that just cannot stop mindlessly consuming- in this case, even after they are all dead. While The Night of the Living Dead is probably the scarier film of the two, and certainly more atmospheric, in terms of embodying the energetic dualism of Halloween, the fun and the frights, we chose a double feature of Dawn of the Dead and its 2004 remake, directed by Zach Snider (Superman vs. Batman) and written by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) as part of our list of essential movies to watch during this year’s build-up to Halloween.
Each of Romero’s zombie films reflect the fears of the decade in which they were made. In the ’60s, when Night of the Living Dead was made, the fear was of radiation and the price of science, reflecting a Cold War era where the twin concerns of nuclear Armageddon and the space race occupied the American consciousness. As a result, it is suggested during the film that the reason the dead are rising from their graves was due to radiation contamination from a space probe recently returned from Venus. Well, that certainly sounds like an explanation from a 1960’s B-movie, and it is good enough for me. However, by the time of Dawn of the Dead, the explanation is much more sinister, and with connotations that say a lot about how the world was seen in the cynical ’70s: “When there is no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth”. This is the message being spread by political and religious pundits in the media at the beginning of the film, and there is little in the film that can contest those claims.
At the beginning of the film we are introduced to Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross), who both work for a Philadelphia television news studio. As it becomes apparent that civilization is entirely unravelling and that the last vestiges of order will soon be swept away, Steve and Francine hatch a plan to steal the station’s traffic helicopter and escape to somewhere away from the city to ride out the violence and wait for the government to restore order. Stephen’s friend Roger (Scott Reiniger) is a member of the SWAT team, and has been promised a place on the helicopter when the time comes. During a raid on a low-rent tenement in which the residents, made up mostly of minorities, have been defying orders of martial law and refusing to give up their dead for eradication due to religious beliefs, one of the other SWAT team members snaps and goes on an killing spree, slaughtering citizens and zombies alike while spewing racist epithets. During the chaos, Roger teams up with Peter (Ken Foree), a black (since there are heavy anti-racism messages in this film, this is actually important) member of the SWAT team, offering him a place on Stephen’s helicopter once it is apparent that all semblance of order is breaking down. Peter agrees, and the four protagonists are soon airborne and looking for a safer place to hunker down and wait out the end of the world.
They soon discover that things are never so simple, and soon, low on fuel and supplies, they are forced to land on the roof of a mall in an attempt to resupply and formulate a new plan. However, despite the dangers and the carnage all around them, the survivors are soon lured by the luxuries offered by the still-stocked but abandoned mall, and realize that they could live like kings if they could take the mall and turn it into their personal fortress. This is the heart of the film and the heart of its message about society, represented when a simple struggle for survival turns into an ill-conceived consumer glut.
The film works well on nearly every level. Written and directed by George Romero, the film is equally strong as a pure horror movie and as a social commentary, just as The Night of the Living Dead was. In terms of the special effects and the zombies, the film holds up remarkably well, though depending on the cut of the film you are watching, the zombies may look a tad blue-hued and their blood tinging towards the orange- an unfortunately common look for 1970’s horror films. The gore and the special effects are absolutely amazing, and amazingly disgusting, having been created by special effects legend Tom Savini (who also acts in the film as the biker credited as “Blades”). While it isn’t anything that kids haven’t seen these days every week in The Walking Dead, when Savini created these effects, nothing like them had been seen before. Just as George Romero should get a dollar any time someone says the word “zombie”, Tom Savini should get a dollar every time some dumb schmuck gets held down and his intestines fought over by a pack of zombies.
As previously alluded to, the social commentary is both scathing and spot-on, equally applicable today as it was nearly 40 years ago in 1978. Zombies really do make the perfect horror movie stand-ins for Western consumers. At one point in the film, one of the characters asks why the dead come back to the mall, why they seem drawn there even in death. The response is that it must be some kind of instinct, a remnant of the hardwired programming that had been part of their daily lives when they were still alive. In short, the mall had meaning to them when they were alive, and had been important to them. Now they kept coming back to this capitalist consumer Mecca even though they no longer could need anything contained within. The last scene in the film shows the zombies once again in possession of the mall, mindlessly shambling around, riding the escalators and pushing shopping carts while cheery muzak plays over the overheads (actually, the song they are playing, written by Goblin, is the same one Seth Green uses during the credits of Robot Chicken, in homage to Dawn of the Dead), completely indistinguishable at a distance from living mall-goers. Zombies are, quite literally, mindless consumers. If that isn’t a perfect metaphor for society even today, I don’t know what is.
The script does an excellent job of revealing the motivations and inner world of the characters, though it is sometimes awkwardly conveyed. When Peter says to the group that he left some brothers behind, Francine asks him “real brothers, or street brothers?” Because you know, he’s black. His answer is a terse and disgusted “both”. Scenes like this are awkward and fraught, but it isn’t always clear how much of it is intentional. On the other hand, the racial tensions of the time are an undercurrent to the film rather than the main message, unlike in Night of the Living Dead. It is obvious that Francine is a little frightened frightened and intimidated by Peter through most of the film, and in her defense he does exude an almost subliminal element of menace. Not because of his race, but because unlike his white companions, he had known that civilization is just a thin veneer over chaos due to growing up in the projects in the ’60s and ’70s. He is the only one who knows how to make the hard decisions, and as a result, the one that Francine is eventually drawn to when push comes to shove, because she now recognizes him as a born survivor.
Francine herself faces similar prejudice- as soon as society crumbles, Roger and Peter stop taking her seriously and start treating her like fragile, brainless baggage, especially once it is revealed that she is pregnant. The turning point between her and Peter comes when he asks her if she wants to “take care of it”. On the one hand she is shocked and dismayed, but on the other hand, Peter is the only one to carefully assess the situation and ask the hard questions, and because he actually asked her her opinion, showing that in his mind she was still the master of her own fate and not another commodity of the men-folk. Neither the racism or the sexism was the main message of the film, but came through as a subtle undercurrent. So while I wasn’t always the biggest fan of Gaylen Ross’ portrayal of Francine, the fact that all this came through speaks volumes about the quality of the script and acting in general.
The 2004 “re-imagining” of the film, directed by Zach Snyder and written by James Gunn, is a different critter entirely. In fact, the only thing that it really has in common with the original film is the title, the zombies, the fact that it takes place in a mall, and the general anti-consumer message. Beyond that, it has almost no characters, major action sequences, or plot points in common with the original Dawn of the Dead. However, despite that, it is really, really good for what it is. Try to view them as two very different zombie films that just happen to share the same title. Due mainly to the influence of Snyder’s visual brand of storytelling and Gunn’s scathingly pitch black sense of humor, the 2003 version of the film is a lot more fast-paced, frenetic, and humorous than Romero’s version. Taking a page from Danny Boyle’s brilliant 28 Days Later (more on that later in the month), the zombies in Snyder’s Dead are much faster and more spry than Romero’s shambling relics, and as such offer a much more immediate terror and less of a creeping and pervasive sense of dread. The opening 15 minutes of the film represent one of the most tense, emotionally charged openings to any horror film, followed by a wonderful opening credits/news footage montage of the end of the world set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” the most upbeat-sounding song about the book of Revelations ever written. The contrast between Snyder’s opening, with shrieking, screaming zombies, doll-wielding zombie children missing parts of their face, and the hyperkinetic escape from the crumbling suburbs complete with explosions, to the slow, deliberate, tense and sinister pace of George Romero’s original is almost comical. But each version of the film are uniquely wonderful in their own ways.
The main protagonist of Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is Ana (Sarah Polley), who is about as far from Francine as it is possible to get. Not only is she a tough-as-nail ER nurse who manages to just escape the initial outbreak at the opening of the film, early on in the film it becomes obvious that she is a leader and a survivor, not a victim or a possession. Through mishap more than plan she ends up trapped in a mall with a relatively large and diverse group of survivors, quickly establishing herself as the groups’ strong, empathetic center. There are a lot of personalities in play in the group, including an intimidating police officer named Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a power-drunk mall security guard named C.J. (Michael Kelly), and a spoiled hedonist named Steve (Ty Burrell), to name but a few members of the large group of survivors. Ana is quickly drawn to Michael (Jake Webber), a soft spoken, level headed man who, like Ana, is a natural leader.
All of these people make for a lot of diverse problems, especially when dealing with the zombie apocalypse, and much of the early part of the film deals with the various ways that Ana and the rest of the group choose to deal with these issues. These problems include survivors who have been bitten, problems with prejudice between various groups, and the ramifications of what happens when a high-risk, late-term pregnant woman is bitten by a zombie.
However, just as in Romero’s version, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is, at the end of the day, a condemnation of consumerism, though it goes about it in a far more humorous and less dire manner than Romero did. It can be darkly amusing to see the various ways in which the characters use the playground of the mall to try to forget the ravenous dead right outside the gates. The character of Steve is especially fun during these sequences, and the roof golf scene is one of the best things ever. Keep your eyes open for horror references hidden throughout the mall, including a women’s boutique named Gaylen Ross. Ken Foree, Tom Savini, and Scott Reiniger, from the original film all have cameos in the remake.
While Romero’s original is obviously the superior film of the two, the remake is a lot of fun and is pretty phenomenal in its own right, especially considering it is a remake (which, more often than not, suck). They are two very different horror films on the same theme, so between the shambling, subtle horror and political commentary of the 1978 version and the frenetic, in-your-face spectacle that is 2004 version, this double feature should make for an alternately interesting, exciting, horrifying, thought-provoking, and overall entertaining night of zombie watching during this Halloween season.