Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Film Appreciation - Attention All Shoppers

Cody Hamman buries George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) in Film Appreciation.

After making his feature directorial debut with the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero didn't immediately have any intention of revisiting the flesh-eating ghoul variety of zombies he and co-writer John A. Russo had created. He moved on from Night with the sophomore slump drama There's Always Vanilla, the troubled Season of the Witch (a.k.a. Jack's Wife or Hungry Wives), and then got his career back into an upward trajectory with The Crazies and Martin. In the mid-1970s, an idea occurred to him for how he could delve further into the world of Night of the Living Dead, and soon he was thinking trilogy. Trilogies are all the rage these days, Romero was ahead of his time.

The concept Romero put together for the second installment in the Dead series was inspired by the Oxford Development Company's construction of a large indoor shopping mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. A story of people taking refuge in the mall during an apocalyptic event seemed the perfect way to follow up Night of the Living Dead.

Word that Romero and his producer Richard Rubinstein were looking to get a sequel to Night made eventually reached Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, who was gaining recognition for the giallo movies he was making in the '70s. A fan of Night, Argento came on board the project to handle some of the international distribution, and invited Romero to write the screenplay in Italy. As Romero wrote, assistants would come by every couple days to take his script pages, translate them into Italian, and show them to Argento. Thus, Argento earns a "script consultant" credit on the finished film.

Romero and Rubinstein managed to secure the Monroeville Mall as a filming location, and for several weeks (with a break during the Christmas season to avoid having to deal with the holiday decorations) the production took over the mall for several hours at night, from the time it closed until a little while before it opened for the business day. Filming in a mall after hours and filling the place with zombies is just about the most fun moviemaking situation I can imagine.

The movie begins at the WGON news studio, where assistant station manager Fran (Gaylen Ross) awakes from a dream to return to her nightmarish reality: judging by a line of dialogue, it has been at least three weeks since the unburied dead began returning to life and feeding on the flesh of the living, their victims then also rising as ghouls motivated by an instinct to consume human flesh.

Although authorities seemed to be getting things under control at the end of Night, things are certainly not under control now. The living dead outbreak has spread from eastern third of the United States and is now all over the country. All over the world, for all we know. And yet, there are still people who find it hard to accept that the dead are returning to life, as evident from the heated conversation an on-air personality named Berman and an official called Dr. Foster are having in the WGON news room, and the reactions from the disorderly crew.

This sequence is a brilliant, intense opener, and not only does the dialogue exchanged between Berman and Foster bring anyone who missed Night up to speed on what's happening in these movies, it also establishes that society is crumbling, everything descending into chaos. In fact, things have gotten so bad that the latest order from the government is that people may no longer occupy private residences. Martial law is in effect in every major city in the U.S., and citizens will be moved into central areas of the cities.

The madness in the newsroom also works to establish Fran as a strong heroine. Like the TV channel seen in Night, WGON is running information on rescue stations at the bottom of the screen. When word reaches Fran that many of those rescue stations are now inoperative, she orders that the information be taken off the screen so viewers won't be sent to stations that have closed down. She does this despite the protests of the manager, who doesn't want people to tune out.

Fran also believes that it is her responsibility to endure the situation at WGON to keep viewers informed on what's happening. When her boyfriend, WGON traffic helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) approaches her with the idea of escaping from the city in his chopper, Fran at first refuses... until a co-worker tells her that their jobs are done, the emergency networks will be taking over the airwaves.

A major problem in dealing with the zombie phenomenon is the fact that people haven't been able to bear dispatching their living dead loved ones. These ghouls can be killed by destroying their brains, and if someone can't handle that on their own the bodies of the dead are supposed to be delivered over to the National Guard for "organized disposition". Some people aren't doing that.

The film's other two lead characters, Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger as SWAT team members Peter and Roger, are introduced in a sequence of action and horror in which SWAT raids an apartment building where the occupants have been harboring the dead. Due to the murderous actions of an overzealous SWAT member and the amount of zombies within the building, the raid is a disaster. Roger is planning to go on the run with Stephen and Fran, and the things they see, and are forced to do, in this building are enough to convince Peter to join them.

Amidst all the bloodshed and headshots in this sequence, including a head exploded by a shotgun blast, an effect famously provided by special effects artist Tom Savini, who rose to genre stardom with his work on this film, one of the most memorable moments for me is a monologue delivered by a one-legged priest who welcomes Roger and Peter into the basement, which is filled with the dead.

As the four leads fly out of the city and over the countryside, Romero gives a further look at what the living dead situation is like. Places abandoned, corpses strewn around, cops on the run, zombies at every turn, National Guardsmen and redneck volunteers doing their best to exterminate every ghoul they come across (and having fun while doing so).

We also begin to learn that Stephen has a major character flaw. He tries to come off as tough and capable, he tries to live up to Roger and Peter without having their training, but he's really not suited to be a man of action. At times throughout the film he proves to be dangerously inept.

Spirits are low by the time the chopper is flying over a massive building which Roger recognizes as a shopping mall. Landing to check it out, they find an upstairs area full of water and canned food. Survival supplies provided to the mall from the Department of Defense. One of the owners of the Monroeville Mall had revealed to Romero that the place really had an area and supplies like this, which is what got Romero thinking of the mall as a Dead film setting in the first place.

Once the characters enter the mall, it's where the entire rest of the film is set. The public area of the building is infested with zombies, drawn to the mall by instinct; it was an important place in their lives. That explanation, spoken by Peter, and the shots of the zombies mindlessly milling around inside the mall enables the film to be taken as a satire of consumer culture in addition to being a horror movie and a comic book style action/adventure film.

The adventure tone really kicks in once the characters decide to make the mall their home. With the amazingly cool musical score by Argento and the Italian band Goblin rocking on the soundtrack, Peter and Roger block off the mall's entrances with semi trucks acquired from a nearby shipping yard while Stephen keeps an eye on things from his helicopter flying overhead and Fran is stationed on the roof of the mall with a rifle. The entrances secure, the characters gather weapons from the gun store inside the mall (movie magic - this store wasn't really in the mall) to go zombie hunting with.

Unfortunately, Roger gets reckless while they're doing all of this and gets bitten by a couple of ghouls. Once you're bitten, it's a death sentence. All you can do is take yourself out or wait to suffer a painful death and become a zombie yourself. It's tragic, but the fact that Roger is bitten on the leg does provide an element of fun in that his friends then get him around inside the mall by pushing him in a wheelbarrow. The image of an armed man in a wheelbarrow, accompanied by three others carrying weapons, getting around inside a mall full of the walking dead is like something straight out of a comic book panel.

The conclusion of Roger's illness is a scene that often brings tears to my eyes. On the edge of death, he tells Peter not shoot him until he's certain that he has become a zombie. "I'm gonna try not to." Just thinking of it is enough to get me choked up.

Living in a mall, having full run of every store and access to an abundance of everything they need, the characters are living out a wish fulfillment scenario. I would love to have a shopping mall all to myself! But they're doing so under the worst possible circumstances. The world is coming to an end outside, the parking lot is full of the living dead. Emergency network broadcasts become more and more rare, with the people on them having no real answers. There are personal issues among the characters - not only the pain and sadness that comes from the loss of Roger, but also relationship problems between Fran and Stephen, and the scary complication that Fran is pregnant. As time goes on, they're no longer able to derive any fun from their living arrangement.

There's also the constant threat of someone other than the zombies trying to get in. The threat of scavengers. As always in a Romero Dead film, the greatest danger comes not from the ghouls, but from other people. Other people cause things to fall apart as the film builds to a climax that features members of a real biker gang (and Tom Savini as a villainous character called Blades) tearing around in the place on their motorcycles. It's astonishing that the Oxford Development Company allowed Romero to film this inside their mall.

The scope of Dawn of the Dead is epic, and it's incredible that Romero and his crew were able to accomplish what they did on a budget of just around $640,000 (including deferments). It is very effective in getting across the feeling that the world is dying, through things like the TV reports as well as shots filmed in fantastic locations that show the effects of the zombie plague on a large scale: The mall empty of any living creature aside from our lead characters. Shots from the mall that show no signs of life other than the zombies shambling around. The Nation Guard and volunteer sequence with a large countryside filled with no one but zombies and people dealing with them. Even a single shot, as the helicopter first takes off, of lights shutting off in a distant skyscraper. The film looks huge, and to think they pulled this off as an independent production with a relatively low budget is jaw-dropping.

The film is also epic in length, although the length varies because there are several different cuts of it. Romero went into production armed with a script longer than any script should ever be, and the cut that was taken to the Cannes Film Festival runs 139 minutes long. Romero later pared it down to a running time of 127 minutes for the U.S. theatrical release, and that's the cut he prefers. For European markets, Argento did his own cut that runs 119 minutes.

Those are the three major versions, but there are other cuts floating around out there, most notably a fan edit called the Extended Mall Hours Cut that combines the Cannes cut with the extra footage that's in Argento's version to bring the film to a length of 155 minutes. I really enjoy watching the Extended Mall Hours Cut, because when I watch Dawn of the Dead I like to spend as much time in its world as possible.

Dawn of the Dead is a movie that has everything, it's an excellent blend of tones. Watching it is always an enthralling experience. It has shocks and scares, it has laughs, it has action that gets the blood pumping and horrific scenes that feature pumping blood, it's fun and it's melancholy, it is deeply emotionally effective. The characters are great, wonderfully portrayed by the actors, and Ken Foree gets to deliver one of horror's greatest lines when Peter puts forth a theory for why the world is ending this way: "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth."

Dawn is one of the most popular and highly regarded horror movies ever made, and yet I had been a fan of Night of the Living Dead and The Return of the Living Dead for years before I discovered that it even existed. Blame it on me being a child in the pre-internet days. I first found out about Dawn (and the third in Romero's trilogy, Day of the Dead) in a zombie-centric issue of Fangoria released when Return of the Living Dead 3 was coming out. Reading about Romero's work was fascinating to me, and the brief descriptions of Dawn and Day captured my imagination. I needed to see these movies, but none of the video stores in my town had them. It was another year or so before a new store opened that happened to have copies of Dawn and Day on their shelves. I rented them as soon as I saw them there... And thus began a fandom that has lasted for over twenty years now.

Thanks to horror conventions, I have crossed paths with many of the actors from this film, and like many of its fans I have taken every opportunity to visit the Monroeville Mall. When I first visited it, I had only ever watched Dawn on VHS, so while I was there I went to its Suncoast store and bought a DVD copy of the movie in the mall it was filmed at. The cashier said nothing about it. I stopped by the mall at least one other time, and in 2008 went to a horror convention that was being held at a convention center right at the edge of the property. In association with the convention, a screening of the film was held within the mall, and although the conditions weren't ideal (it was a DVD projection on an inflated screen, the image washed out by the fact that the lights in the mall couldn't be turned off) and many fans complained, I still felt that watching Dawn inside the Monroeville Mall was awesome.

Watching the movie, I recognize several spots that I myself have been in. I've been in that elevator, I've been on that escalator, I've climbed those stairs and crossed those foot bridges, I've been in the food court that replaced the ice skating rink, I've ridden up and down that road behind the mall, my dogs Zeppelin and Cheech have peed in that patch of grass. The mall has been renovated since I was last there, many of things seen in the film are now gone, so I'm glad I got to see them with my own eyes while they were still there, as they were in the movie.

Night, Dawn, and Day aren't just three of my all-time favorite horror movies, they're three of my favorite movies, regardless of genre. The stories of how these movies were made are also some of my favorites to hear about, and of all the movies I wish I had been on the set of, Dawn is up there near the top, maybe in the #1 slot. I can't even express how amazing what Romero accomplished with this film is to me. All I can do is watch it repeatedly and continue to feel that amazement every time.

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