Sunday, May 27, 2007

George Romero's Dawn of the Dead

"It is a horrible, hauntingly accurate vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad," says a gravelly voiceover in the trailer for Dawn of the Dead. Director George Romero made it in 1978, about 10 years after his famous Night of the Living Dead.

It isn't really a sequel; it's more of an ambitious expansion of the concept from the 1968 film. Romero says he got the idea when he toured a shopping mall owned by some friends. The mall had crawl spaces above the stores and civil defense food supplies hidden away.

The film begins with a television station in chaos, trying to report on the worldwide zombie pandemic. Our heroes are four people who get away from Pittsburgh in a TV news helicopter. About a half hour into Dawn of the Dead, the four land on top of a shopping mall to look for supplies. The mall's crawling with the undead.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here?" Francine asks her boyfriend Stephen, the helicopter pilot.

"Some kind of instinct. Memory. What they used to do," Stephen replies. "This was an important place in their lives."

When the two others, cops named Roger and Peter, find the mall's control center, they turn on the Muzak. Next the escalators, then the fountains. We hear comical easy listening tunes while zombies stumble around. Cut to mannequin heads in windows. Which is which?

The message here is mixed: on the one hand, we have shoppers coming to the mall to mill around after death looking much as they did as live shoppers. A sort of critique of consumerism.

On the other hand, our survivors are living the ultimate consumer dream: a shopping spree.

"I need lighter fluid," Roger says to Peter.

"You got it!" Peter yells, as they jump out into the mall's main concourse with their machine guns.

They're ecstatic as they break into Penneys:

"How the hell are we going to get back!?"

"Who the hell cares! Let's go shopping first!" they cry.

We can see already what will be their undoing. It's greed. The horror movie code (especially circa 1978) demands it. This is the code that says promiscuous women must get killed first. That a swagger of over-confidence will be rewarded with decapitation. My god, if the zombies ever do come for us in the real world, more than half of us will know exactly what not to do, just from watching movies.

Another hour in, and the survivors are barricaded in the mall, having destroyed all the zombies inside. During a repose, they hear a clattering at the entrance of the mall.

"They're still here," says Francine.

"They're after us." They know we're still in here," says Stephen, her boyfriend.

"They're after the place," smiles Peter. "They don't know why they're here. Just remember. Remember that they want to be in here."

"What the hell are they?" muses Francine.

"They're us, that's all," answers Peter.

Romero plays the mall for its survivalist haven potential and black comic relief as much for its emerging status as a cultural wasteland.

The shopping spree has soured. Roger slowly dies after being bitten. He comes back to life, and Peter shoots him and buries him in the mall's modest tropical garden.

But life in the mall goes on. They make the mall's skating rink a shooting range, using mannequins for target practice. There's an almost endless cache of weapons and ammo in the mall's gun shop. They dress up in department store duds and make a candlelight dinner in the mall's restaurant. They outfit a fortified part of the mall like a luxury penthouse -- clear acrylic side chairs, an Italian lamp, a Danish stereo system, appliances, televisions tuned to the dwindling broadcasts.

They do everything they can to play at normal life, and it's utterly surreal. A cartoon imitation of real life, but weirder. Certain scenes surprise us: is this person dead? If so, is she a zombie? Or is it a mannequin? Or is one of our survivors just being still? When does the difference no longer matter?

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