Finishing off Death Ensemble’s Tom Savini Retrospective, Phil Fasso reviews where it all really started for the make up effects genius. Taking on another sacred cow, Phil still doesn’t understand how people prefer DAWN to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Back in 2004, I used to talk horror movies with this counter girl at Circuit City. At the time, I was making a lot of money, and spending good portions of it on horror DVDs. Every time I came to the counter, with a horror flick new or old, we would debate not only the flick, but the genre. On one of my many trips to her register, I was speaking fondly of Zach Snyder’s remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, which I had just seen theatrically. I enjoyed it a lot more than the original, and of course, she disagreed. I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Though I haven’t seen her in years, and the Circuit City chain is now an out-of-business memory, I still remember her response: that the new DAWN didn’t have anything that correlated to the biker gang who invade the mall. My retort: this was a blessing. When I came to her counter some weeks later, the 4-disc package of the original DAWN in hand, we rekindled our debate, sticking to our opposed guns. As the years have gone by, I’ve softened some of my objections to DAWN OF THE DEAD, but I still have issues with it.
Chronologically, DAWN OF THE DEAD takes place just a few weeks after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the crumbling social structure within the farmhouse has extended to the entire nation. The film starts off with Fran propped up against a red-rugged wall at TV station WGON. Restless in sleep, she wakes up to the chaos at the station, a mirror to the chaos outside its walls. WGON is urging people to shelters it knows are shut down, just to keep people watching. Relays tell the audience the nation is under a state of martial law. Mr. Berman and Dr. Foster hold a heated, very serious debate, while people run around behind them, one stopping to give Foster bunny ears. Foster’s explanation of the event is chilling: it’s too late to wipe out all the zombies or contain them now. As for what they’re after, Foster says: “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!” Fran’s boyfriend, helicopter pilot Stephen arrives, with the clear mission for the two to get out and survive. He’s got a SWAT team friend who’s willing to help.
The film then turns to an apartment building in the projects. A SWAT team is heading in to destroy all the zombies, who family members are hording under the watch of Martinez, played by Death Ensemble friend John Amplas. Enter our two other protagonists, Roger and Peter. Roger is act-first and think-later type, with a conscience clearly affected by the destruction ahead of them. Peter is a careful planner, who puts his emotions to the side, replacing them with his guns. Once business is done in the tenement, the two meet up with Fran and Stephen, and the four head out in the helicopter. A flight over marauding hillbillies out to party and shoot off heads leads them to the Monroeville Mall, where the last 2/3 of the movie takes place.
Right from the start, it’s evident the Romero-verse has gone to Hell in just a few weeks. We’ve reaped the seeds of chaos sown at the farmhouse, and the collapse of the social structure has come to full bloom. Many of the ideas Romero put in motion in NIGHT are repeated here, to worse degrees. But NIGHT was a film of a different era, with commentary on the Vietnam War and race relations. Coming to DAWN ten years later, Romero’s decided to hone his commentary on a new topic: consumerism.
And here’s where DAWN starts not to work for me. Romero certainly has never been a subtle filmmaker, but at least NIGHT’s commentary was indirect; the war was raging in Vietnam, but the movie took place outside of Pittsburgh. With DAWN, the take on consumerism slaps the viewer in the face: Consumers who go to malls are brainless zombies under the mind control of advertisers and product pushers; and zombies are “consumers” who literally consume people. The protagonists are thrilled their every shopping dream has been answered, once the zombies are out the door. But it doesn’t take them long to grow complacent, and ultimately bored. Considering the objects Romero chose to tackle with commentary in other films, it just doesn’t work for me.
And then there are the zombies. This was Tom Savini’s first major gig as a makeup artist, and the undead don’t hold up well. According to Savini, the staff actually painted them a shade of gray, but they come out a silly blue. If you look around their collars and sleeves’ ends, you can often see their regular skin tone. This takes all the scare out of my downright scariest of all monsters, reducing the zombies to a joke at times. But we’ll get back to that later. The blood doesn’t help things; Savini describes its look as “melted red crayon.” As for the rest of the special effects, they’re awesome. Within the first 20 minutes of the film, a SWAT guy blows off a zombie’s head. Savini’s astute take on this: If this is happening at the front of the film, what could the audience expect as it went on? There’s a classic gag with a machete, and a nice one involving the helicopter. Chunks of flesh get bitten and torn, and zombies rip out innards to munch on.
No discussion of Savini and DAWN OF THE DEAD can exclude his onscreen role as Blades, the head of the biker gang. That damn biker gang will always ruin any chance of me taking this flick seriously. With their eyes on the bounty inside, they invade the mall, and consequently let the zombies back in. They probably would have taken what they wanted and left without any recourse, but for Stephen. Deciding he has to defend the home front, he initiates a three-way battle between his group, bikers and zombies. This leads to a number of disastrous results, not just for the three parties, but for my take on the film. The bikers ride around lampooning the zombies, shooting them with seltzer and, worst, throwing pies in their faces. Savini running around with a machete is one thing, but a moustache comb? Seriously? One biker even stops to check his blood pressure. The whole scene mocks the zombies; the living dead, which were so frightening in NIGHT, are reduced to buffoons here.
Bikers aside, there are things I like in DAWN. The characters and their interactions are well drawn. Action hero Ken Foree is the best, as Peter. He’s the badass who can take control of any situation, and Foree is just as adept in portraying his more sensitive side, as in the tenement’s basement. And Peter’s “no more room in Hell” provided the best tagline of all time for zombie flicks. Scott Reiniger is great in the twitchy role of Roger, always ready to jump to action without thinking things through; his arc is tragic, and it would be hard not to care for the character.
David Emge is adept at playing the bumbling “Flyboy” Stephen, whose ineptitude causes problems as he tries to prove himself worthy of the big boys. The only weak link is Gaylen Ross as Frannie. Very early on, the pregnant Fran tells the boys she doesn’t want to be a drag; but that’s exactly what she is. The laidback performance lacks the verve of the other three. Collectively, the four are a likable bunch at the core of the film, and probably one of the reasons the film was such a success upon release, and revered by multitudes of fans now. What I like best about them is that Romero reflects, through them, just how much more open minded American society had become in ten years. A black guy, a pregnant white woman and two white guys represent a better society, even if the zombies are still there. Given the film’s much happier ending compared to NIGHT’s, it gives us some hope.
The film also boasts some taut action scenes. The film is beautifully shot by Michael Gornick, and cut by Romero. The siege on the tenement is complicated and tense, and proves that Romero was still a great editor, with several things erupting simultaneously. The same goes for the scene when the protagonists stop to fuel their chopper, and when Roger and Peter drive trucks to block the entrances to the mall. Random scenes of the four running around the mall amid zombies also play well. Romero can even build up a scene of Peter playing tennis against a wall, by ending on where the ball drops. But be prepared; between these scenes, the film really slows down, creating pacing issues that don’t exist in NIGHT. It’s a plodding effort at times, but still worth watching for the ramped up action.
Remember that 4-disc box set I mentioned? If you have any interest in DAWN, get it. There are far too many features for me to discuss in this already lengthy review, but I’ll say this: not a bad one in the bunch. The three different cuts of the film, each with a separate commentary from participants, alone make it worth the purchase. And it’s always a pleasure to listen to Romero discuss his films, which he does on the first track as well as on the 75 minute documentary.
When DAWN OF THE DEAD came out, it was box office gold, worldwide and here in the U. S. Fans bought into the live action comic book aspects, the color presentation, and the mall. The film sparked a slew of imitations, a whole subgenre of Italian zombies, and is still ripped off to this day. Even its background zombies are popular on the convention circuit more than 30 years out. Given all that, I’ll still take Snyder’s version. His film eschews the commentary, but provides much better action that moves the plot. Is it emptier? Maybe so, but that’s not a terrible thing. As for the Romero-verse, this will likely always be the most popular. I’ll still take NIGHT, which is more compact, more profound, and doesn’t have any of those damn bikers throwing pies.