DAWN OF THE DEAD (76) (second viewing: 74)

Directed by: George A. Romero (1978)

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reininger, Gaylen Ross

The Pitch: In a world overrun by zombies - legions of the living dead, feeding on human flesh - four survivors take refuge in a deserted shopping mall.

Theo Sez: Spent the first half-hour looking out for zombies to appear from behind every closed door and around every corner, before realising it's Not That Kind of Movie (a sad comment on how degraded the horror genre's become in the 25 years since) ; in fact, the zombies end up being quite sympathetic - they're dangerous but without any real malice, running entirely on instinct, primordially intent only on food - whereas our heroes aren't always very likeable, preening and gloating as they fight (unlike the zombies, they delight in their killing) and totally addicted to the joys of consumerism. "Let's go shopping!" is the battle-cry (the film is set in a mall), while the Living Dead stand outside forlornly, gazing at the goodies and pawing at the glass doors : they're the disenfranchised, as made clear by an opening scene where SWAT troopers raid a housing project looking for zombies, making little distinction between them and the block's poor ethnic-minority inhabitants - though they're also, it's made clear, "just like us", haunted by vestigial memories of being human. The film, shot in that creepily unadorned 70s style, isn't actually 'scary' at all, certainly not in the sense of sudden shocks (the two child zombies are probably the only 'boo!' moment) - more a gnawing tension, and increasingly chilling realisation of the kind of world it offers : civilisation broken down, nothing left but useless consumer goods as a last line of defence against the inevitable end (I don't think we're left in much doubt that the zombies, lumbering and easy-to-kill though they are, will eventually take over the planet). Graphic violence has been much overstated ("Romero has a message, but it's drowned in buckets of blood," claims Danny Peary mysteriously in "Guide For The Film Fanatic"; maybe I saw a TV version or something), though the satire quotient is also not as as high as some people say : it's a slow, sober, almost elegiac film - decadent Modern Man face-to-face with his single-minded, half-forgotten animal nature - exciting in parts but also wry, humorous (one zombie even gets a cream pie in the face) and even philosophical, somewhat hampered but also lent a touch of the epic by its excessive length. Not as starkly effective as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but still : a zombie movie with a desolate air, going to the heart of audience identification, looking on - equally appalled and sympathetic - at denuded humanity at its most unabashedly savage? Definitely a sad comment on how degraded the horror genre's become in the 25 years since... [July 2017: Rewatching this after >15 years (with an audience this time) was a mixed experience. I'd remembered it as working on two levels, text and subtext, but it really doesn't: the zombies are no threat at all - except in the sense of being not just 'the Dead' but Death itself, coming for you slowly but surely (the same unnerving paradox tapped more recently in IT FOLLOWS), easy to avoid 99 times out of 100 except for that fatal 100th time - our heroes are clearly kill-happy clowns (coming as they do from the ranks of the cops and the media, both shown as unscrupulous and unsympathetic in the early scenes), 90% of the violence is committed against the zombies who are obviously equated with the poor and disenfranchised, etc etc. The first hour especially (once they get to the mall) was bizarre to watch, since the film clearly works only as subversive statement - yet Romero cuts fast and generally behaves like an action filmmaker, making you wonder if he's playing an elaborate joke or does indeed think that he's having it both ways. And then, as a final punchline, my audience (all of them younger) later claimed to have enjoyed it as an ordinary zombie movie, one of them even telling me that "You can't analyse these things too much", so now I'm totally fuckin' tortured. Have 15 years of 'fast zombies', monster zombies and zombies-as-Other degraded the genre - and desensitised the audience - so much, or am I just too old to enjoy the kills as kills now? Can the (bold, smart) subtext stand on its own, or even as a brilliantly perverse contradiction to the text? Final note: the moment when Blond Boy comes up against a mannequin who looks just like him - confirming his inner vacuousness - was borrowed wholesale by Bonello in NOCTURAMA.]