Saturday, 2 February 2008

George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead

[Not a regular review / post, more something I did for a writing on film class which I'm doing for fun and figured I'd post here as well; the brief was to write 700-1000 words or so on a film of your choice and, if an older film, contextualise it]

It is impossible to approach Dawn of the Dead (1978) without consideration of its auteur, George A. Romero. Born in 1940 in New York, Romero worked as an industrial film-maker in Pittsburgh before making his independently made feature debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Today recognised as one of the most influential horror films ever made, the failure of the film's original distributors to properly copyright their release caused it to pass into the public domain. While situations like this are alas none too rare in the world of low-budget independent filmmaking, Romero was unusual in that he did not seek to use Night as a route into Hollywood, preferring to remain as a regional, independent filmmaker.

Wary of being typed as a horror man, he also sought to resist making other genre films. However, the critical and commercial failures of There's Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch (1972) coupled with comparatively successful returns to horror with The Crazies (1973) and Martin (1976) led him back to the idea of a sequel to Night.

Although nearly ten years had passed since its predecessor's production, Dawn picks up events as if only a few weeks have elapsed. The living dead are everywhere, mindlessly and remorselessly searching for human flesh to eat. The situation is getting worse by the hour. Fran and her boyfriend Stephen, who work for the local television station, which is about to go off the air and be replaced by the emergency network, and two SWAT team members, Roger and Peter, who participate on a disastrous raid on a housing project whose inhabitants have refused to deliver up their dead for disposal, decide to flee the city. Escaping in one of the TV station's helicopters, they have a narrow escape whilst refuelling before landing on the roof of a massive out of town mall to rest. Entranced by the treasures therein, they formulate a new plan: seal off all the entrances to the place, kill all the living dead already within it and take over.

With backing for the project forthcoming and an uneventful shoot, Romero's trials began when he took Dawn before the MPAA for certification. They refused to grant it an 'R' rating and instead threatened an 'X'. This, through its association with hardcore pornography, would make it difficult for the film to get advertising and bookings. Reaching an impasse with the MPAA, Romero thus decided to release the film unrated – a situation, it is worth noting, which is not possible here, where every theatrical released film is required to have a BBFC certificate.

Thankfully for Romero, his refusal to compromise paid off, with the film doing good business. It might also be asked, however, whether it would have done even better with a major studio behind it and if compromise could have benefitted Romero's career in the longer term. Certainly his intended conclusion to the series, Day of the Dead (1985), was constrained by an inadequate budget. Likewise a long period in the wilderness followed before the commercial success of Zack Snider's remake-cum-interpretation, Dawn of the Dead (2004) paved the way for the long-proposed fourth Dead film, Land of the Dead (2005). Significantly, however, it was both a major studio production and an R-rated one.

So much for the history lesson. The question the contemporary viewer is likely to have is how well Dawn of the Dead holds up after 30 years. The answer is remarkably well. Although Tom Savini's state-of-the-art splatter effects have long been surpassed by those of today's CGI-intensive releases, they still pack a wallop. It also helps here that the aesthetic of these effects, like that of the film as a whole, is essentially a comic book one, in line with both Jean-Luc Godard's famous “This is not blood, it's red,” formulation and Romero and Savini's notion of“splatstick” While it might seem odd to juxtapose arthouse and grindhouse cinemas in this way, the truth is that they are closer than we might think on many occasions, including this one.

No doubt as a serious commentary on contemporary consumer society and what it does to us, Romero's film lacks the subtlety and complexity of Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) – indeed, Romero's approach to satire can be summed up by the pies in the face which a number of the zombies receive in one action sequence, which may seem incongruous, but is in fact in perfect harmony with the grotesque comedy of the film as a whole and the tradition of Jonathan Swift's 'Modest Proposal' beyond it – but his allegorical vision is as apocalyptic as Weekend's (1968), has its own often-unacknowledged subtleties. Most important of all, it also managed to reach those mainstream audiences that the Frenchman singularly failed to.

How many of us, having seen the film, can never look at the crowds in a brightly-lit shopping mall with musak tinkling in quite the same way again, without thinking of the other shoppers as zombies and of what we would do if placed in Fran or Peter's position? “They're us, this was an important place to them,” as Fran observes. It's the continuing revelance of this statement which ensures the significance of the film today. It also gets it by those areas of potential weakness, such as the somewhat broad performances and at times overly-meaningful dialogue.

Romero's genius is all the more apparent when his film is contrasted with Snider's. It is not that Snider's undead run rather than amble as the effects this has on the core dynamics of the work. In Romero's Dawn we understand that the main threat the zombies pose is in the characters' underestimation of them as figures of fun and that the mall just might be a place of safety if it can be emptied of flesh-eaters, while the more deliberate pacing affords him to convey a real sense of the growing stasis of his characters lives, their own becoming zombie. In Snider's music-video styled remake, by contrast, everything is just that bit too fast, too intense, with little scope for meaningful digressions, be it a glacial pan across the mallscape or a leisurely montage of otherwise conventional middle-class life as a state of living death.

Or, 'independent horror 1, Hollywood 0'.

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