Saturday, July 16, 2005

MOVIES: Zombie-Rama Part Two: 'Dawn of the Dead'

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Let the dead rise! Continuing my ongoing mission to view, for the first time, all of George Romero's "Living Dead" zombie movies, as begun right here last week. After "Night of the Living Dead," where else to go but 1978's "Dawn of the Dead," often acclaimed as the best zombie flick ever and one of the best horror movies of all time.

As I mentioned before, I had previously seen the 2004 remake of "Dawn," which I liked quite a lot. So I was in the odd position of seeing an original after a remake, never the best way to approach something fresh. That aside, I quite liked "Dawn," which has some of the clunky aspects of all of Romero's work, but has tremendously involving characters and a claustrophobic horror.

"Dawn" is a loose sequel to "Night," taking place in the same world where a mysterious zombie plague is slowly taking over society. Since nobody survived the bloodbath that was "Night," we've got all new characters to deal with — four survivors – nervous helicopter pilot Stephen, his pregnant girlfriend Francine and cocksure, courageous policemen Peter and Roger. They hop a copter and flee the city, searching for a place to hole up. After some misadventures, they end up at a shopping mall that looks like an ideal sanctuary. Unfortunately, they've got the growing army of the dead outside and even worse living survivors to contend with.

Compared to the really chilling 2004 "Dawn" opening act, I didn't care much for the muddled opening 15-20 minutes of the 1978 "Dawn," until they got to the helicopter. It starts off with some rather confusing transitions between the TV station where Stephen and Francine work and Peter and Roger on a brutal police mission to clear the unwilling residents of a ghetto out. Clumsy opening aside, once the story really gets moving it's got a focus and that Romero-esque escalating sense of dread galore. The characters really become vivid during the mall siege, each reacting to the exile in different ways, looting the mall, becoming paranoid and violent, or discovering their inner hero. Unlike 2004's "Dawn," the characters here are full-blooded and real. Having a small number of survivors makes it easy to get drawn into their plight, and the movie is often quite funny as the survivors "clear the mall" of zombies and try to evade them. The actors also give superb performances, particularly Ken Foree as Peter, who starts out as a shallow macho figure but becomes a deeply realized protector and warrior at the end — and another of Romero's "strong black men."

The zombie makeup isn't quite as cheap as it was in "Night," although it's not as fancy as modern latex, CGI and goo allows. (The "Hare Krishna" zombie looked rather like she just had a deep gray tan.) It's still plentiful gory – the infamous zombie-meets-helicopter moment springs to mind – but actually, less gruesome than I thought it'd be. The "slow" zombies here are in a lot of ways more compelling than the "fast" zombies we've seen in "28 Days Later" or 2004's "Dawn," because they sneak up on people taking them for granted. The survivors at the mall clearly think they can "outwit" the zombies, but suffer fatal errors when the sheer force of numbers overwhelms them.

The "zombies as metaphor" shopping mall setting has been analyzed to death and beyond, but it's worth pausing on again for a moment here. Watching the living dead shuffle through the flourescent lights and displays, you think, gosh, this ain't so different from real life. The zombies have been mentioned as representing everything from American consumerism to the Cold War to the spread of STDs. It's a concept rich enough that you can bring what you want to it, or you can just watch it as a bunch of decomposing ghouls wreaking havoc on the lives they once lived. It's worth noting that the mall sanctuary only goes completely to pot at the end of "Dawn" when other humans discover it.

Compared to the 2004 remake, I find they both have a lot to offer. The 2004 one is definitely "MTV"-audience aimed — faster-paced, with glitzier effects, cinematography and gore, but it's also a little shallower and you never see the characters as much more than zombie food. 1978's flick is definitely not as smooth, and dated in terms of special effects, fashion, etc., but it's got a bit more heart. I like both movies, though, for different tastes of your zombie pleasure.

So far, I'm enjoying my run through the "Dead" series — the clunky production values can be an obstacle to someone in 2005 seeing them for the first time, but the core appeal of zombie annihilation is still there and strong, particularly with the excellent "Dawn." I'll try to check out the less acclaimed third in the series, "Day of the Dead," sometime in the coming weeks and we'll do an autopsy on it!

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