Dawn of the Dead is unlike any motion picture I have seen. Of the hundreds, if not thousands of films I've watched, none have affected me in quite the way Dawn of the Dead has. One of the most multifarious films in existence, it brings action, suspense, humor, social philosophy, and drama under one roof. And least I forget: It also has the coolest stomach churning effects around! Dawn of the Dead literally has it all.
What is it about this motion picture that has me coming back again and again even after the initial excitement and shock has long worn off? What has enabled me to sit through it more times than I care to admit and with no sign of growing tired or bored? What has fueled me to try and recapture the experience by tracking down Dawn of the Dead rarities, even going so far as to create this site? As with anything emotional based, the answer is difficult to uncover.
Backtracking might help to solve my riddle of the Dawn of the Dead sphinx. While more than twenty years have passed, I vividly remember the first time I heard of Dawn of the Dead. It was 1979 and I was living in "fabulous" Las Vegas. My younger brother called from our home in New York excited about a new film he'd just seen. Practically ordering me, he said that even if I skip work, I absolutely have to go and see this new George Romero flick. Stuttering with excitement, he told me how amazing the effects were in that you can actually see zombies tearing into people, see them bite deep and rip out huge fleshy chunks of meat. Though it embarrasses me to admit it, I was not impressed. I told him, frankly, that I had no desire to see anything like that, even going so far as to suggest that he stop wasting time with such crap. I was nineteen then and I guess I was under the misguided impression that by turning away from things like this I was growing up. I still had a lot to learn about being myself and about not giving into social pressures of conformity. (To get a head of myself, my first viewing of Dawn of the Dead was one of several incidents in my life that helped to show me this very thing -- for better or for worse!) Needless to say, I did not heed my brother, and missed Dawn of the Dead during its initial theatrical run.
A few months later and back home in New York, I was taking in the local mall (Nanuet Mall). Riding down the seemingly mandatory escalator found in malls of this kind, I over heard a girl in front of me talking to her friend.
"Oh god!" She said pulling a hand to her face. "Look! It's just like Dawn of the Dead! All these shoppers look like zombies." She was shocked and, it seemed to me, embarrassed. It was as if a light had been turned on, illuminating an aspect of her life never before considered.
For the rest of that day (and for sometime after) I wondered what she had meant by her observation. I became curious as to how in the world zombies and the great American shopping mall could hold something in common. Unfortunately, home video was still in its infancy. In those days you either saw a film in the theater or you didn't see it at all. Luckily, Dawn of the Dead is the type of film that lends itself to the midnight movie circuit and I didn't have to wait more than six months after this fortuitous eavesdropping.
Thus, several months down the road, in the cold of February 1980, I found myself sitting in a car in a deserted parking lot with my brother and several friends waiting to see the first re-release of Dawn of the Dead. We were drinking beer (those ridiculous Miller eight packs if I recall correctly), laughing it up, listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and Kiss, fending off flashlight wielding police, and just reveling in the late great days of the 1970s. None of us, save my brother, was aware of the shocking movie experience that was in store not an hour off. Soon we were in the theater, excited and ready for the next installment in the living dead Saga.
The movie began. Immediately I was caught up in its whirlpooling story. The chaos in the TV studio... the squabbling of the SWAT officers... people with nothing in common banding together... the relentless zombies... the Mall... all of it spun before my eyes. And though fantastic, everything seemed real. True, it was an implausible, impossible situation (zombies coming back to life and eating the living-- give me a break!), but the way it was presented it somehow felt... real. Thinking back, I suppose it was around when the story kicked into the apartment complex scene and moved down into the basement that I fell into the story completely. I was overcome with the feeling that what was on screen was not a pre-conceived tale but an event unspooling before me in real time. I've often wondered why this was and think a reason may have been the dialog of the film. It sounded honest to my ears. None of those coy, witty lines that Hollywood writers drop in the mouths of their actors to make the star appear hipper and wittier than the audience. These people spoke in peculiar, regional ways and stumbled over their words just like myself and everyone I knew.
By the time Roger lost his head in the truck I was hooked. I turned to my brother and stated, "This is my favorite film!" And this was coming from someone who had been watching films non-stop since first opening his eyes!
The next day I stumbled blearily into the kitchen (I hadn't gotten home until 3 am). My mother was making breakfast. She stopped and looked at me. Arms akimbo, she asked if I was okay. The truth is, I wasn't. I'd had an experience unlike any I'd had before.
I tried to explain... tried to convey the fantastic images that had gripped me the previous night, the ones still swimming before me, the ones of a lunatic world and a society lost because of its own unchecked passions. I tried to describe the people who had to abandon all petty ambitions and concentrate solely on the one true reality: survival. With a stern face, she demanded to know if I was experimenting with drugs. In a way, I had -- I had become addicted to Dawn of the Dead. It played again that night too, but the shock had been too much. I found I couldn't go through it again.
It took nearly eight months for the film to come back around. During the interlude I let the images spin and affix themselves to my brain. I'm thankful now that I had that long time between initial screenings. In this way I was able to mull on the film as a singular experience and not dilute it with a blast of multiple viewings.
Since that second viewing I've watched Dawn of the Dead numerous times, in numerous formats, and in numerous versions. What is it that keeps me coming back repeatedly? There are several reasons; reasons I share with other fans I have met over the years. Common reasons seem to be like of characters, Romero's film techniques, Savini's effects, humor blended horror, identifiable locations, and the survival aspect. In regards to the last mentioned reason, many fans of Dawn of the Dead, I believe, view life as a game of survival, a game hidden under complicated rules of social edict. Remove those rules, take away the covering, and you find that life is just a survival game. We kid ourselves that life is not like this, that we hold the common good in our hearts at all time. While this is true to a point, there is the beast of self-preservation lurking behind the corner at all time. In Dawn of the Dead social rules are stripped away and the fierce face of survival is revealed. Dawn of the Dead does not critique this important aspect of life, and indeed some characters behave admirably, but the film does make it able to see the frail coverings we have dressed our world with. For many viewers, this is the most horrific aspect of the film.
While writing this web page I've given a lot of thought to Dawn of the Dead and something that struck me is the unique approach Romero took in presenting his zombie trilogy. While most films revolve their stories around only those characters central to the story, Romero's film focuses on common people caught in the grip of a larger epic. When watching Dawn of the Dead one doesn't get the feeling that the tale of Peter, Roger, Fran and Stephen are the most important ones going on; theirs is just a story. If Romero were to have pitched it to a big studio I have no doubt that they would have demanded characters central to the heart of the plot, perhaps, as is typical, getting the president of the United States involved or some hotshot, playboy scientist who discovers the cure at the end.
Luckily for us, Romero kept away from this tired approach. So, by dealing with peripheral characters, what we get is the feeling that there are hundreds, thousands, if not millions of other tales spinning simultaneous, each just as unique and compelling as the next. And isn't this just how life really is? Stand at the head of any major train terminal in any major city and contemplate the masses. It is just this approach that makes Dawn of the Dead so much fun. For which of us hasn't at one time found their mind wondering about life under the zombie plague? The possibilities are endless.
Still, whatever the true reason for this Dawn of the Dead fascination is, it eludes me. No matter how much I watch, think, read, or talk about, there's something about Dawn of the Dead I just can't put a finger on. And, to tell you the truth, I like it this way. For, until I discover the secret ingredient of the spell, I'll be watching, and enjoying, for a long time to come.