An insult to the undead
Over a year ago now, I wrote a post explaining why I disliked the much-loved Night of the Living Dead. Now I return after finally, finally watching the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead to tell you that it is even worse. Perhaps I was spoiled by seeing the 2004 version before this one. Perhaps that is why I watched Romero’s lauded masterpiece straight-faceda and confused as to how a film that ambles along so slowly and aimlessly like one of its own undead can be worthy of so much undeserved praise.
Let’s begin with the primary failure of the film. Much like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead lacks the tension and suspense of other films due to its woefully unthreatening zombies. To be perfectly clear, zombies do not have to run to be threatening, they do not have to be the athletic Olympian sprinters that were brought about by 28 Days Later or I Am Legend. A great example of slow-moving yet intimidating zombies can be found in AMC’s The Walking Dead. The shambling corpses in that show never fail to be a looming source of concern for the characters and lurk around every corner, ready to pounce.
But that is not true here, not only are the undead in Romero’s film slow and shambolic, but they rarely attack in numbers great enough to threaten the protagonists and they appear, most of the time, to be completely braindead (pun intended). The zombies are slow to react, their movement is non-threatening and their ability to pose a threat is largely diminished because of this. They are punched and pushed away with ease, their physical threat non-existent. There are so many moments where, in any modern zombie movie, a character would die and yet did not in this movie that I began to lose count. Zombies have opportunities to bite and attack our heroes and yet inexplicably do not, not for any logical reason that serves the plot, but simply because the writer did not want them to. The choreography of these creatures is awful.
Initially, the film begins inside a TV station and does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of chaos and confusion and also foreshadows how civilization will struggle to survive after the relationships between us begin to break down into chaos. Yet, as the scene carried on I began to question how much of a threat these zombies were if there was still the manpower left to run a fully-fledged TV station capable of hosting a full crew and broadcasting to a yet-to-be-eaten public. This was largely unlike other zombie movies in which society deteriorates at an alarming and frightening rate. This lack of threat adds to the biggest flaw of the movie. It is only just after the hour mark that any of our main characters are harmed or killed in any way, meaning that for a large portion of the film our characters are allowed to gallivant unthreatened.
Thanks to the movie’s inability to demonstrate the threat of the undead, there is little reason to get invested in the characters, who seem largely immune to the roaming zombies throughout large swathes of the film. Without investment in any of the characters or a perceived threat to keep me on edge, I felt largely uncompelled to continue watching no care for the movies outcome. A scene where the film is most guilty of this is during the refueling of the helicopter. Pilot Stephen encounters a zombie, his hand millimeters from the mouth of the creature, and yet he is not bitten. The zombie has many other chances to pin down the character, to bite or scratch him and yet Stephen manages to survive the encounter unscathed. This is a perfect example of the plot being driven not by characters or events, but by the writer’s dictation. In fact, throughout the vast majority of this movie the tension and fear feel engineered and synthetic, it does not come from the obvious source, the situation or the undead, but from the character’s own stupidity.
After this opening, we move on to an even more confusing action sequence in an apartment block where a group of police officers and national guardsmen (one of the inexplicably racist) look to evacuate the stubborn residents from their private residences. It is in this scene that we are introduced to the effects and makeup, some of which are admirable. The rest is laughable and the pale, white faces of the infected are so overexaggerated that it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief, with the zombies looking more like mimes. We then witness the stupidity and ineptitude of the rest of the men, one who, without any reason or suggestion, commits suicide while the others allow a woman to be bitten by her husband with no intervention whatsoever. The seeming lack of common sense from the characters is infuriating and detracts from the sense of chaos created in the opening scenes, only serving to make the characters unlikeable and hard to believe. This scene is a huge missed opportunity, with the majority of the residents being ethnic minorities and the soldiers being homogenously white, the film lost a prime opportunity for some excellent social commentary.
Despite what I have written so far, there are some examples of excellent cinematic storytelling throughout the film. One of the film’s most chilling moments comes from the shot of a skyscraper lit up in green. The camera hangs on this shot until the lights on each floor of the building slowly begin to go out, showing the deteriorating world our characters inhabit. Yet the film lets itself down in the very next scene, with our heroes helicopter flight intercut with scenes of people partying, laughing and drinking, and hunting the undead, an apocalypse turned into a joyride. Scenes like these and the fundamental lack of respect given to the undead completely obliterates any fear that may have been built up at the beginning of the story.
Furthermore, our heroes never struggle for food, power, or resources after they reach their destination. They live comfortably in their material paradise for the majority of the film with no desperate bid for survival. Does the threat of extinction from either the undead or nuclear annihilation loom over the characters? Yes, but not enough to create any sense of unease or disquiet. Herein lies an improvement in the 2004 remake of the film, in Zack Snyder’s take we get a short energetic montage of the characters enjoying their lives as prisoners of the undead hordes in the mall (set to the perfectly chosen tune Down With the Sickness by Richard Cheese), only to be reminded that their existence in the mall is not a long-term sustainable solution with the death of Luda and her fiance. In Romero’s version, it is a 15-20 minute segment of the film that tells the audience this. It is unstreamlined and bloats film even more. It is only at the hour and ten-minute mark of this two-hour movie that one of our characters (Roger) is bitten and the action is slightly moved forward.
Again, this moment is not horrifying or heart-rending because we don’t care for Roger. We know nothing about his character and the chain of events that leads to his demise stem from his own stupidity. The film tries to trick the audience into believing that Roger is having some sort of breakdown as his actions become erratic and lead to his injury and eventual death. However, this is done with no build-up or nuance and makes little sense in the narrative, Roger’s turn to seeming insanity is portrayed well by Scott Reiniger whose facial expressions and body language convey this change aptly, but it is shunted upon us the filmmakers so quickly and ends up coming off as ridiculous. What comes from the rest of the film is much the same with a few exceptions, Stephen’s death came as a surprise, with a swarm of the undead overcoming him in the claustrophobia of the elevator and the reveal of his newly-zombified corpse stumbling from the elevator was unsettling. If there were more scenes like that in this movie then I might not have been writing this review.
Furthermore, ask any fan of Dawn of the Dead why it is the greatest film in the zombie sub-genre they will tell you it is because of the layers of nuanced satire that run throughout every scene and shot. I again found this to be most untrue, aside from one or two lines of dialogue that enthusiasts like to read into, there is little of the anti-consumer message that fans of the film would have you think. However, one particularly clever scene comes when our characters visit the arcade and the games they play resemble all of the activities they have had to do during the apocalypse such as shooting, driving, and surviving. Not only is this moment delightfully postmodern it is also an excellent juxtaposition of their lives inside the mall compared to those without. Beside this, the whole film feels like a missed opportunity at social commentary.
Ultimately, Dawn of the Dead is a massive disappointment to anywho who buys into the critics’ hype before watching. A film where plot convenience and nonsensical characters reign supreme. What is in theory a fantastic concept falls woefully short in its execution and it would be unfair to make a direct comparison to its 2004 remake that gets so many things right where this film doesn’t. While there are occasional moments of brilliance that shine through and the acting and makeup can be superb at times, a lack of competent storytelling seriously inhibits what could have, and perhaps should have, been a fantastic film.