Well, it’s good to know some of us haven’t lost our sense of humor.
A lot has been written about Dawn of the Dead as a horror movie, or as social commentary, so I won’t waste your time discussing it from either of those angles. Instead, I’ll be talking about it in terms of another genre that it fits just as well into, but that it’s not as often considered part of: the comedy adventure. Dawn of the Dead doesn’t show those cards too early: the opening is marvelously terrifying, panning over a red shag carpet that looks like an extreme close-up of some of the trauma human bodies will experience later in the film. The chaos erupting in the news station as society collapses outside its doors is frighteningly real. If there’s a touch of dark comedy to the producer refusing to pull the dangerously outdated rescue center information because “every minute that those stations aren’t on, people won’t watch us,” well, that’s as horrific as it is hilarious. How can a man value ratings over human lives, let alone when most of the advertisers who’d pay attention to that kind of thing are probably either dead or undead?
The assault on the projects that introduces our other heroes has an equally dark wit to it, but we aren’t getting into full-on comedy yet. The racist cop is a little too vocal in the prejudices that will lead him to call open season on the building’s inhabitants when he should be focusing on the undead, but that comes off as more B-movie acting and writing than anything else. It certainly doesn’t have the brutal efficiency of Night of the Living Dead’s ending. If so, Romero more than recovers: inside the apartments, he delivers one of the most ominous horror-building lines ever ridden through the mouth of the old padre: “When the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing… or lose the war.” If there’s a better one, it’s from later in the same film: “You know Macumba? Vodou. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.’”
Now that he’s established Dawn of the Dead’s cred as a serious shocker, Romero’s free to get silly. Years later, after Zack Snyder had remade the film with the trendier “fast zombies,” Romero would weigh in favor of the slow style in the speed debate of horror nerddom. He appealed to story logic: no ones comes out of the crypt and into cardio training. But I think there’s another reason as well, and that’s that Dawn proves he knows just how friggin’ hilarious the zombie walk is. Just watch how they stumble across the ice rink, like dancers in the world’s most awkward senior prom. Or look at the poor dead dude who just watches blankly as a biker stabs him in the neck. The mindlessly consuming zombies are us, as nearly all previous writing on Dawn has pointed out, but if so, that outlook’s a lot less misanthropic than it might seem. Like the greatest movie monsters, the King Kongs and Frankensteins and Creatures from the Black Lagoon, Dawn’s zombies are pathetically sympathetic, childishly stumbling through a world that they can’t understand. As we’re all taught about real-world creepy-crawlies, this brand of monster is more scared of us than we are of them.
Dawn of the Dead’s real successors aren’t the deadly serious horror shows like The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later. They’re the ones that recognize just how darned goofy zombies can be and the bottomless opportunity the genre offers for violence that plows right past terror and revulsion into Itchy and Scratchy territory: movies like Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead 2 (with the significant alternate title Dead by Dawn), Brain Dead, and especially Zombieland, where the heroes argue over the “zombie kill of the week” (poor, flat bastard) and take advantage of the apocalypse to commandeer an abandoned theme park and party with Bill Murray in the ruins of LA. Return of the Living Dead is a closer sequel in spirit to Dawn than either is to the original Living Dead (which, if you’ll remember, ended with the threat more or less put to bed a decade earlier). Return even borrows one of Dawn’s most inspired Looney Tunes gags, when one of the living whacks an undead head so hard it goes flying off like a tee ball.
For the moment, though, let’s go back to the Zombieland comparison, because both movies, unlike the dourer ones that make up most of the zombie genre, understand that once you get past all the death, the apocalypse would actually be a whole lot of fun. Both movies focus not on a harried group of survivors but a band of adventurers who wouldn’t be out of place in a Dungeons and Dragons game or a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Up until the harrowing climax, the zombies are about as much of a serious threat as Star Wars’ stormtroopers: they’re mainly there so be outsmarted and knocked silly. In one of the movie’s highlights, our heroes cheerfully wheel around shopping carts full of the twice-dead things to the tunes of a cheery Sousa-style brass band. In between the occasional brush with (un)death, our heroes get to live out the fantasy a lot of us indulged in at least once as kids of getting to live in the mall with anything we might want free for the taking. There’s several scenes that make explicit the play-acting aspect of the story, with Steven and Francine’s romantic dinner in the empty restaurant while Peter dresses up as a waiter, or Steven and Peter playing poker with stacks of bills marked to be worth thousands of dollars, but that make the post-apocalyptic equivalent of Monopoly money. There’s even a couple scenes of Francine (and later, the bikers) playing dress-up.
None of these characters embody the boys’ adventure story spirit of Dawn than ex-cop Roger who whoops and hollers through his battles with the zombies. He’s also a reminder of how closely the light adventure and dark horror are intertwined, because that attitude’s what gets him killed. Fear and despair, adventures and laughs – those two halves don’t seem like they should fit together, but like all the great horror comedies, they only enhance each other. Just look at the TV broadcast where the Orson Wellesian one-eyed scientist breaks down shouting “Dummies! DUMMEEEEEZ!” like the alien from Plan 9. (And it’s a depressing sign of where society’s gone in the past thirty years that this emergency broadcast is distinguishable from our pre-apocalyptic news reports only in production value.) Romero has described this as a comic book movie, and if you’ve seen his later film Creepshow, you’ll know what comics he based it on – Tales from the Crypt and all its imitators. Those old funnybook spookshows offered sheer terror and gruesome gore that even the most R-rated films still haven’t equaled – but before the carnage set in, the Crypt Keeper and his cronies were always ready to interject some bad puns over wacky background business that anticipated the same publisher’s Mad Magazine. In Dawn, more successfully than his later explicit homage, Romero lives up to that same showmanship. “I’ve got a real fright-feast for you tonight, kiddies! They’ll be more chopping than shopping going on in this mall tonight! Seems these poor zombies just can’t keep their heads! Heh-heh-heh…”
1978 was the perfect time for this screed/celebration of the Great American Shopping Mall. The concept was still novel enough for exploration – Steven has to explain to a confused Roger that “It looks like a shopping center, one of those big, indoor malls.” The Monroeville Mall offered a treasure trove of day-glo seventies tackiness, with the motorized peacock, fake plastic trees, and sickly-colored light-up water fountains that close out the film as if to say, if this is the best modern civilization can create, the zombies can take it. Depressingly, it actually looks downright homey next to the even-tackier malls that have evolved in the decade since. There’s that fancy restaurant where most food courts now can’t offer anything more upscale than an Orange Julius, and the new-and-used store where the heroes find their ballistic toys offers a way around the production-consumption-waste process that shopping malls thrive on.
Finally, no discussion of Dawn of the Dead as camp comedy could be complete without mentioning the brilliant score by Goblin (or as they’re credited, Dario Argento and the Goblins.) The band had already proven they could create wonderfully shivery “straight” horror scores for Suspiria and other Argento films (sing along with me – Witches! Witches! Witches!) And they certainly bring that to the table here, with the creepy minimalist thrumming that kicks in whenever it gets real. But they also set the mood for the Looney Tunes anarchy of the lighter moments, underlining the truck scene with a mock-military march that sounds like it’s at least partially played on the kazoo, and repeating their circus clown dance theme with the wonderfully Seussian nonsense-name “The Gonk,” a piece of music so bonkers it sounds, if anything, more dignified sung by a chorus of hens in the end credits for Robot Chicken.
On top of all that, Goblin integrates the thick seventies cheese of the Monroeville Mall’s muzak selection (allegedly recorded live over the intercom during filming). Just like the movie’s visual and narrative aspects, the score combines laughs and shivers at a monster far scarier than the unsteady undead – the degradation of modern culture into plastic consumer kitsch.