Sunday, October 17, 2010

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) Twilight of the Betamax

Halloween is heating up down at Acidemic. As our mangy staff prepares to move to Park Slope Brooklyn before the zombies reach 14th St., now, more than ever, we need to hold onto the classics. If you had to take only one horror DVD with you to your new pad, leaving the rest to fall into the hands of the undead hordes, would there be any other logical choice than DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)?

An artistic peak in the midnight movie genre, it's the crossroads of horror cinema, the end of ends, a work of superb apocalyptic acumen that just gets better and better with repeat viewings. Not only does it metatextually foreshadow the death knell of the small town art houses and drive-ins (where such a film was meant to be be seen), it announces the rise of the mall multiplex and the end of 'live' entertainment altogether. 

Zombies have become the cultural touchstone of the 21st century, just as, thanks to expired copyrights, anyone can make a film based on Poe, Shelly or Stoker, or Romero -- anyone with a pint of Ben Nye's mint flavored stage blood can make a movie about the rising of the dead from their graves to eat the flesh of the living. This, as it turns out, is a very good thing. The undead seem to bring out the best in us. They remind us that life is a day-to-day struggle; they force us to remember our countless previous lifetimes as hunted prey-- gazelles, rabbits, little fishes--forever on the run from hungry predators; they force us to confront our mortality by removing "the dubious comforts that a funeral service may provide."

Unlike other threats, such as sharks, the cool thing with zombies is they cannot be escaped --they are the social order with its mask off, as inseparable from our bodies as our own organs. Sooner or later you're bound to slip, get careless, get bitten, die, come back. You can let go of the idea of reaching old age, no worries about retirement, and providing for future generations, and taxes. Freed from the restraints and castrations of the now obliterated social order, citizens are forced to prioritize and move fully into the moment.

We all have that 'desert island disc' fantasy if we're the collector types, and the terrors of the undead help us to 'let go' of our burdensome collections. As I pack box after box of books, LPs, CDs, DVDs, VHS, ETC., for my Brooklyn move, I dream of civilization collapsing so I can just grab my laptop, DAWN and of course, Electric Ladyland, and Rio Bravo, and oh wait, and... no way, I need to bring all this... and that.. and then CHOMP I hesitated at the shelf of favorites, and now may as well stay there, because I'm dead.

The opening scene with Gaylen Ross holding her head against a beautiful dark reddish orange soundproofing studio wall carpet (top) is my favorite opening of all horror - she looks like she's wrapped up in a Dario Argento wall blanket, waking up from SUSPIRIA and already thinking about the hands coming out of the wall in Romero's third entry, DAY OF THE DEAD (1984). I love how civilization's collapse is so neatly depicted in the way the TV crew on the local live 'black' talk show she's producing gradually abandon ship and flip off their progressively more annoying and frenzied station manager. I love the way the host tries to accuse the white government representative of racism in association with mandates about disposing of dead bodies. We see all the kernels of what's going to bring us down and its okay because we realize maybe there was no 'us' to begin with. The ones who survive are those who can look out for themselves and maybe the ones around them--those who aren't panicking and acting like brats--and can let go of all the rest of the 'humanitarian' concerns, can abandon all hope of any reliable bastion of military protection, as each sanctuary falls before the name of the town even finishes scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

William S. Burroughs had an analogy for it, that of holding onto the string of a helium balloon that suddenly starts lifting you in the air. Are you the type to let go of the string right away--while it's 'hot' so to speak--or are you the type to instinctively hang on until you're so high up in the air you can no longer let go without falling to your death? Some people can't let go of their identity within the social order, can't drop their whole worldview and social position on a dime and just flee to the hills, and those are the ones that get eaten.  It's all summed up in the way the distraught girlfriend can't accept her man is a zombie (below) during the projects section, even as he's biting her shoulder off. That's America! Its shoulder being chewed off by corporate-controlled government, still munching even as the whole shithouse goes up in oily flames... all right!

When the four essential cast members get off the ground and away, the film becomes a consumerist fantasia, depicting conspicuous consumption not unlike pre-revolutionary France, with the humans standing in as royalty, enjoying all the luxuries suburban America has to offer, while outside, the unwashed (or in this case, undead) masses clamor hungrily at the gates. It's a superb metaphor, made without hammering the point home or getting didactic. Instead the jet black humor makes it the drive-in era equivalent of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), in other words everything a sequel should be, encompassing and surpassing and continuing and commenting on its predecessor all at once, while slyly using its popularity to delight your audience even as you ease your countercultural agenda over the line into the mainstream. There's just, for example, a hint of Native American tears in Goblin's pounding drums as we pan across the mall's lower levels after all the zombies have been shot; it just subtly gestures towards the metaphor (the mall is America, the zombies its original inhabitants) without being obvious or didactic. It's beautiful, man. It's poetry. 

While most of the various layers of sociological critique subtext was no doubt intentional, the film’s equally trenchant relevance to film history could not have been. Romero couldn’t have guessed the extent to which secular iconoclasm and religious/cultural disparity (as reflected in the opening SWAT scenes) would be ground down to suburban mush, made tasteless to as not offend the masses’ palate. In other words, movies like DAWN OF THE DEAD would soon no longer be able to operate like carny sideshows, moving from town to town, outside the constraints of standard cinema distribution patterns, unhindered by television's sitcom groupthink censor rulebook, able to profit by showing all the sick shit most of us never saw or imagined, and therefore put great dread in. They would now be bound to 'up the ante,' forced to find ever-new ways to shock, to cater to the deadening of the senses brought about by the sudden surge of sex and violence coming into the American household with the arrival of cable and home video.

To flashback: 1979 was a time when cities like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia and especially New York City, housed specialty theaters--often full of great old landmark-style 20's art deco theaters gone to crumbling, with moldy red velvet curtains, listing balconies, drafts and sticky, warped floors--that would show independently-made genre films. Outside the city limits, the small town residents would flock to the drive ins to see triple bills that might start with something new and studio-backed, then gradually lean back into the really out-there independents. A film like DAWN or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE could play for years this way on a handful of constantly circulating prints, starting as the first film on the bill and gradually working its way back to the third, in a now-tattered version with scenes missing and thick splices.  In their spinning round film cans, the movies rolled across the country, gradually getting chewed up by backwoods projectors.

Nowadays it’s impossible to imagine zombies ever not eating the flesh of the living, yet this trait originated with Romero’s first in the series, shot in areas outside Pittsburgh, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, in 1967. That film put Romero on the map and helped DAWN gain a decent budget, courtesy producer and NOTLD fan Dario Argento, who used the bundle he made with SUSPIRIA (1977) to back DAWN, even loaning out his SUSPIRIA house band, Goblin, for the score.

But suddenly and significantly, just as NIGHT began it, DAWN came along and symbolically ended it. VCRs and cable TV took over and suddenly you could get "the little somethin' that ya can't get at home" (1)... at home.

Before the VCR/cable revolution, DAWN, which was rated X, had been almost impossible for anyone under 18 to see in the theaters, it acquired scary mythic powers as a result. Two years later and all you needed was your parent's membership card and you were good to go, at 12 or 13 years old. Parental ratings concerns were shunted aside by the sheer novelty of it all, the mad headlong stampede by teens and parents alike on all the lurid stuff they never wanted to risk getting their car stolen to see on the big screen in the bad neighborhood crumbling theater. Cannibalism, zombies and violence were suddenly spilling into family living rooms. Frankly, the 1970s permissiveness was still enough in effect that no one thought twice about watching X-rated films with the whole family and if we were traumatized it seemed un-hip to admit it. The first movie I ever rented, and watched with my mom and little brother one Sunday afternoon: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971, below), it was my first rated X, or even R.

I was cured, all right!

The problem was, of course, lurid gore and sex was meant more as an enticement to leave home and go the theater. It was something you'd never seen before and was bound to traumatize the hell out of you -- it took some courage to attend, like going on a roller coaster, or skydiving (as opposed to being able to sky dive at home). And as you weren't able to pause and freeze frame on an exploding head or an alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest, and were out with an audience who were also wincing and gasping it became more frightening each time you remembered it or told your friends about it. Having gone to see CARRIE or SUSPIRIA or THE OMEN was a marker of bravery and we heard willingly of the tale. But with home video 'forbidden violence' lost a lot of its terrifying mystique and mythological cachet. Now you didn't get to imagine the film in your head while being told the entire story by some kid at recess. Now the kid just taped it for you, and rather than reeling with a brain ablaze from campfire ghost primordial goosebumps, you came away with a headache from the tracking issues of his second generation dupe.

It was a big fall from innocence, especially if you watched the wrong movie at the wrong time, unaware, unprepared, like I was when I saw the end of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977), one afternoon on cable, thinking it was ANNIE HALL, when it showed up unannounced on the Movie Channel. Well, I watched it expecting laughs. I watched it by myself. At 13. If you can be molested through the movies, GOODBAR molested me that day. And of course, there's no one to arrest when it's only a movie. I felt abused, traumatized, unable to speak about it. And as far as horror films go, GOODBAR has no mythical cachet, no warning for that traumatic, brutal, insane ending. It's too mature, too much a women's lib commentary singles bar adult anti-feminist moralizing-disguised-as-artsy drama picture to ever be considered a horror film. No 'notoriety' or warning label associated with it - no one mentions it in the same breath as CHAINSAW and CALIGULA, no reason to fear it or even know about it. Even today few have seen it, it's been unavailable on tape for decades. Most of it is a single's bar tale, there's no mention in most descriptions of the horrifying end. In short, its less an initiation into adulthood and more a violation, a rape of the soul which you can't tell anyone about because no one understands and so rather then kick you into adulthood like DAWN might, it freezes you in the amber of final girl sexophobia. The other kids are all going to get killed out there, and you'll be the last one left, clinging to your virginity like a thorny lifejacket. Meanwhile Tom Berenger is still free. But I'm still locked up in the strobe light hell that Richard Brooks and the Movie Channel put me in all those years ago.

Cable eventually reigned itself in, realized its soft-focus "aerobics" videos weren't helping anyone get fit, and the video rental outlets became stricter about renting hardcore XXX videos to minors, but before that all was put in place, in the early, early 1980s, things got really, really crazy on the TVs of America. And I can't help feeling this little bloody spike in the average American family's movie diet helped usher in the backlash of the Reagan era. It's as if all America suddenly realized its mid-life crisis swingers with cocktails manic elation was just a middle-aged country's foolishness, and thusly turned vindictive, disillusioned. We wanted to see all the sex and violence we had been missing, and suddenly we had seen enough, too much, and it kept coming.  It made us laugh at first, but slowly, over time and sequels, chilled us to the core, robbed our innocence and left us depressed and afraid to go outside at night, even to take the trash to the curb. As thee 70s vanished in the rearview (car radio set to the sad round-the-clock no-commercials John Lennon elegy after his 1980 shooting), slasher movies flooded the screens ahead like a confirmation of our deep suburban dread.

We didn't learn the lesson the older countries like France and England had learned, which was that hot sex, gore, nudity and over-the-top violence lose their 'kick' very quickly; some things are better left unseen, imagined, and deferred, because sooner or later the zombie in the mirror beckons, and you start seeing monsters around every corner of your inner city eye. America's obsession with apocalypse is a mid-life crisis: cougars and Humberts desperate to shed their skin and start over, ageless, without all those ungrateful children to worry about, and provide for. Instead of carrying forth our glorious legacy, the little buggers stab moms and moms-to-be with trowels, and write "Piggies" on the wall in their blood, and watch movies like FACES OF DEATH and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. I know what that portly 'irritating' guy the survivors see on TV in DAWN would say: "Dummies!! Dummies!!"

So in our haste to feign ambivalence, to ride the coaster of cine-trauma, we allowed our minds to be closed-off, faded, warped and jaded en masse. The country fell into a state of depressed, homogenized ennui. The only cure for this disaffection, naturally, was going to the mall. At least the mall gave you something to do, somewhere to go, and you didn't have to explain why you came there. All that mattered was that you needed... something... anything. Moms got outfits and fabric just to return later, just to have a reason to go back, to get out of the house and exchange a receipt with an information worker's sympathetic ear.

Thus it came to pass that 25 years or so later I saw the fourth in Romero's series, LAND OF THE DEAD (2005) at a Myrtle Beach mall multiplex on a rainy Sunday matinee. The theater was about half full, with glazed-eyed popcorn eaters aged eight to eighty. When the gore and the ripping and the flesh eating began in earnest onscreen, the families around me flinched here and there, but no one emerged after the film looking shaken to the core. The old man in front of us, for example, was already complaining about missing the start of 60 Minutes as he and his wife shambled slowly toward the Exit. 

Twenty years ago and those same people would have freaked out, thrown up, been refused admittance due to being underage (no one under 18 was admitted to an X like DAWN, or even an X like CLOCKWORK or MIDNIGHT COWBOY). We were scared of even seeing gore, scared of watching bodies being ripped apart. It's not that the films bothered us so much, but we imagined the sick audiences who must 'get off' on them, the guy in a raincoat sitting behind us, staring at the back of our head like its a melon they very much want to explode and we locked our doors tight to keep out the misogynists and monsters who we were sure watched these films all the time and cheering the violation and suffering of women. Anyone who watches such trash and likes it must be evil. And since people liked them enough that so many of these films existed... we needed to hide.
If today we seem to be rapidly approaching capitalism’s zero saturation point, if man’s devouring of man seems soon to hand, perhaps we will know exactly who to blame; and when we’re ready to wreak our vengeance we will all march on foot towards that giant box-like building that has destroyed our once free spirit, sucked every last drop of mystery out of life, made even old-fashioned malls outdated, devoured Main Street and now the world, and so down the endless parking lot plains to Wal-Mart we will shamble to eat the flesh of our oppressors and loot the stereo section for expensive Blu-ray players that won't work since the electricity is long gone, the grid destroyed, the banks toppled. Until then, we can watch DAWN OF THE DEAD in any of its myriad fine versions, and see how it all began, in a single shopping mall at the beginning of the end of the world, when a few hearty souls took control, and fought the onslaught of American sameness... and lost. Go now, while you still can. Take only what you can handle, and leave only footprints... and place your shoes, your brains, and your tender, still-beating heart in the trash receptacles at each side of the doorway as you exit the theater. Wait for me on that bench while I return this scarf and then we're going home, to dinner, and Mike Wallace.. on 60 Minutes. And be grateful. There are starving children in India, and even some obese ones from Jersey, and they're right outside the door--clamoring, knocking and moaning like the damned--and asking if you want to come over and play Resident Evil. Don't answer.  
1) Tom Waits lyric from "Pasties and a G-String" - Small Change (Island Records)


  1. Words fail... this is the single best piece I've ever read on DAWN OF THE DEAD, one of my all-time favorites! Thank you, sir!

  2. steve prefontaine18 May, 2013

    "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) is a good film but "Day of the Dead" (1985) is Romero's supreme masterwork, of that there can be no question.

  3. Wonderful examination of the culture surrounding this seminal work :)

  4. Always a pleasure to read and re-read. I first saw Dawn at an art cinema in Derby, UK around 88/89, still unavailable on VHS then so was super excited. I was about 14/15. The reels had been threaded in the wrong order so Roger was in turn alive, dead, zombie, alive. I was already pretty snoozy so wasn't sure what was going on.

    Also can totally relate to your Goodbar trauma. I saw it on late night tv mid-90s and felt lousy after watching it. Interesting that you highlight the non-horror rep of the film, I think Stephen King mentions it several times in his book on horror, Dance Macabre. It would be nice to re-edit the film where she just has a drink and doesn't die like that guy who cut Carrie so the bucket never falls...

    1. I have to find that Carrie edit! A Goodbar edit would be nice too. That's also why I love the cathartic end of DJANGO UNCHAINED - it felt like I was getting the re-edit of MANDINGO - a similarly traumatic downbeat end that left me morose and shaken for days - wherein all the white people are deservedly
      blown to bits

    2. I made a similar edit in a dupe I had of ROBOT MONSTER - in reverse - it ends when the Ro-Master destroys Earth with his lightning fingers and walks towards the camera three times for maximum 3D effect (presumably) - I just go right to the "END" card rather than the dippy 'all a dream' ending - so much better

  5. Hi Erich
    After this post I tried several times to track down the details of the Carrie edit online but nothing doing. Cut to this evening and clearing out my worldly goods I find the programme for the now defunct Cinematheque in Brighton, UK. Can't send a pic so I'll just type in what's here and maybe one day one of us can finally see it!
    Carrie (Imuru Shamuto 2003) Shamuto changes the ends of films to the way he wants them. Here Carrie becomes Queen of the prom and is happy.
    Hope you are well and enjoying the Blade Runner year so far.


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