Monday, April 8, 2024

Books of 2024: Week 15 - Dawn of the Dead

Cody spent some time in the zombie apocalypse.

The George A. Romero classic Dawn of the Dead is a film that can actually reasonably celebrate its 45th anniversary in two separate years. While its premiere was held at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 and a cut of the film that was put together by co-financier Dario Argento for non-English speaking countries was given a theatrical release in Italy that year, the cut Romero put together for English-language speaking territories didn’t make its way to screens in the United States until ’79. So whether you’re celebrating Dawn of the Dead’s 45th anniversary in 2023 or 2024, or both, you’re still doing it right. It’s one of my favorite movies, so I’m always celebrating it – and as part of the celebration, I decided to dig into the novelization Romero wrote with Susanna Sparrow, a writer he had previously collaborated with on a novelization of his earlier movie, the “vampire or not?” classic Martin.

The story of Dawn of the Dead continues on from the events of Romero’s feature directorial debut Night of the Living Dead, which saw the eastern third of the United States hit by an outbreak of ghouls; dead people who have risen and started walking around again, spurred on only by the instinct to eat the flesh of the living. If the final moments of Night of the Living Dead gave you hope that the authorities might be able to get the outbreak under control, Dawn of the Dead lets you know right up front that you can abandon that hope. The dead are still walking, the outbreak has gotten worse, and society is starting to crumble. 

I don’t know any behind-the-scenes information about the writing of these novelizations, but I get the impression that Sparrow started fleshing Romero’s Dawn of the Dead script out into novel form before he even headed into production on the movie. That’s because while the book closely matches what happens in the film up to the point when the lead characters – traffic helicopter pilot Steven, his (pregnant) TV station employee girlfriend Fran, Steven’s SWAT officer friend Roger, and Roger’s fellow SWAT officer Peter – seek shelter from the zombie apocalypse in a large shopping mall, once they’re inside the mall, there are more differences from the finished film. It makes sense, because Romero wouldn’t have known exactly how things play out in the mall until he got to take over the location himself, with his cast and crew. Scenes were added and changed as inspiration struck in the midst of production.

The overall story is still there in the novelization, though. Dawn of the Dead is one of the great “wish fulfillment” tales, because who wouldn’t want to have an entire shopping mall to themselves, zombie apocalypse or not? Romero and Sparrow tell us how our heroes manage to take over the abandoned mall, closing off the entrances and clearing out the zombies, making a home for themselves in an upstairs area that can only be reached by one stairway, which they hide the entrance to. Then they spend their days wandering around the stores, taking whatever they want or need. One store that’s not in the movie but is in the novelization is a pet store... and it was wise of Romero to leave the pet store out of the film, because it brings up too many questions and uneasy feelings. What’s going to happen to all those animals? How can the characters take care of all of them indefinitely? The book doesn’t answer those questions. Fran does take care of the animals in one scene, but by the end of the book their numbers have been whittled down to just one puppy. It’s best not to think of what might have happened to the others.

The characters are also lacking on the page in comparison to the movie, because actors David Emge, Gaylen Ross, Scott H. Reiniger, and Ken Foree did such great work bringing the characters to life that typed words just can’t live up to them.

Of course, Steven, Fran, Roger, and Peter only have the mall to themselves for a short time. As happens in such stories, things fall apart quickly. The zombies are always a problem... but Romero always lets us know that the flesh-eaters aren’t the greatest threat. The biggest threat to our heroes are other people. The climax involves a gang of motorcycle-riding raiders – and the leaders are different characters in the book than they are in the movie. While we had a couple mustachioed creeps leading the raiders in the movie (with one of them being called Blades), in the book there are three: a blade-wielding creep called Hatchet, a Viking enthusiast called Thor, and a Santa Claus lookalike called Old Nick. Things go about as well for them as it does for the guys in the movie.

One thing that was interesting to see in the book is the fact that the living dead are referred to as zombies throughout. This was slightly surprising, because Romero never thought of these creatures as zombies when he was making Night of the Living (he called them ghouls) and the Z-word is only spoken once in Dawn of the Dead, near the end of the film. But the public had clearly already decided these things were zombies by 1978, and that’s the word that was used for them in this novelization.

If you love Dawn of the Dead like I do, the novelization is worth a read-through. It falls short of the movie, but it’s still a nice way to spend some time in the world Romero created.

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