Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dir. George A. Romero
Beginning with a cacophony of overlapping information from disparate angles and voices and perspectives and then clearing out for a dizzying absence of anything- information, communication, direction- Dawn of the Dead is the greatest movie that ever eschewed dramatic beats for aimless confusion. The context we receive at the start reiterates what we already know, but gives it a sense of consequence in disarray- we perhaps take the zombie for granted in intimate settings, so here’s the world collapsing with a series of bangs and screams and sloppy arguments. For the rest of the film Romero and the survivors experiment within the rules established, killing time because there’s nothing else left to do.
There is a tension between freedom and fate that goes hand in hand with the mall setting and the ‘slow zombie’. Before long the stretches of the mall become a kind of playground- with the undead as obstacles to duck under, run through, and confuse like it’s a great day out. It could not be more different than Night of the Living Dead‘s fraught kinetic terror. Joe points out that the mall casts and embodies an illusion of timelessness and non-space, and Romero simulates this daze in his editing. It is performed and arranged without a legible hierarchy- significance is cut the same as the mundane, and some takes linger where others throw us into a new space and tone altogether mid-sentence (again it’s impossible to tell what time or day it is). Romero’s editing is as relentless and uncaring as the seconds hand on a clock. The survivors are free from timekeeping, but not from time itself.
Characters during conflict are paralysed by possibility- the person being attacked is given closeups and POVs so that we are trapped with them, but for the others the frame is fully open- do we grab the zombie and pull them away, or do we go back for a gun? Do we hand them the weapon they’re reaching for, or pick it up and use it ourselves? Do we just run? And then where to- inside that building or that one over there? To the car, up the hill, or down the road? What next? Dawn of the Dead is a strange ‘classic film’ because it is so painfully aimless. There is an analogy for which I cannot remember the source (or even the context lol, but it was probably for the death of God)- there was a fish in a tank and the fish thought If only I could go here and if only I could go there and then one day the glass cracked and the tank broke and the fish flopped around a bit and died.
Flyboy and Trooper see the collapse of civilisation as the removal of (for them) troublesome institutions, ushering in a return to the Wild West- women can stay at home while men run about guns blazing. This is a recurring image in fictional Bleak Futures- many authors struggle to imagine any future that is not a return to 1950s domesticity but with more blood, beards, and plaid shirts. The predictable irony is that these function as escapist texts for their intended audiences, tracking a line between Paleolithic hunter gatherers, 1950s breadwinners, and boys adventure magazines. They imply that there’s a conspiracy in place stopping men from being men, and that a collapse might get us back to the Natural Order of Things. Romero paints these idiots as horrifying manchildren. Paring things back Flyboy proposes to Fran, but no, these institutions have collapsed, remember? Queue white male ennui, the fish floundering.
Fran foresees this happening and tries to ensure that this future won’t be a regressive one- freedom for the others is uninhibited access to the freedoms they take for granted. Peter as a black man is the only other person for whom a return to the Wild West via the 1950s is a thing to absolutely avoid at all costs- when Fran says mockingly ‘It’s a shame I can’t cook you all up some eggs,’ he looks back knowingly, and when she says she wants to be on equal footing with the men and learn how to shoot a gun, he says ‘I know what you mean’ (Flyboy looks like he’s just been told he has to bring his mother to a party). It’s a fair point- whether or not power structures collapse, they will reinstate and support themselves through those who’ve never questioned them.
Dawn of the Dead has this ungainly body of masochistic silliness and a big bruised heart. Its happy bits are the most exhausting and satirically playful, while its darker passages advance things dramatically in a sea of hazy indifference. The film’s status as ‘the great zombie film’ is as strange as if The White Album and not Abbey Rd or Revolver was considered the most popular and important Beatles album, and if the tracklist was slightly different.* The haze is a good means of evoking Sunday afternoon nausea, but moments in the film stand like lighthouses to guide us through. Peter executes a group of zombies locked up in a tower block and he is crying, partly because he looks right down the centre of the ‘rational v humane’ debate, and partly because he knows that these are some of the last people of colour that he will see for the rest of the film. They are caged within a tower block which is a cage in its own way- these people were always doomed.
Romero’s and Argento’s cuts vary in terms of how much Goblin and how much mall music is featured in the film, but whatever the cut, music is used to create subjectivities. When our group gets into the helicopter the music is tense and buzzing, and they fly over a group of people swarming the countryside. Someone says ‘They probably enjoy it’ (gathering together and hunting people), and at this we jump from the helicopter to inspect what is happening on the ground all by ourselves. Down here the music is joyous and the cameras switch to a photo essay style in order to bring us in via observation, and sure enough the people on the ground seem to enjoy doing what they’re doing. We cut abruptly back to the helicopter and the music’s tense again. We remember how Night of the Living Dead ended, and suddenly all these smiling faces look familiar, malicious. This sequence of non-diegetic music, and the Goblin passages, make it clear that the mall music following the group is not incidental to the setting- they’re just living in a lonesome carnival.
Elsewhere edits cut for distance instead of proximity- the conversation between Peter and deathbed Trooper pretends it’s shot reverse shot, but it starts with closeups and finishes out in two separate doorways. We can feel connected, but we die alone. Peter only enters the stage when Trooper’s gone. For the mall we get an establishing shot from the helicopter, but then Romero goes the essay route again, treating its exterior with the apprehensive curiosity that one might treat a just landed UFO. It seems alive, or like it contains some interior life force we’re not quite privy to. Everything that is not beautifully framed is utterly cheap and rushed, and the best shot of all is Flyboy and Fran in bed, him slumped and humiliated, her sitting up. It’s an unsettling thing seeing posed bodies frozen as the film keeps running, and it’s usually reserved for the art house. Here it feels fitting, like a gravestone at the head of their failed story.
Cameras as an artistic tool crop from the physical world, and similarly we expect details and exchanges which don’t service the greater narrative to be edited out of a film. Unlike books, paintings, or sculptures, we are subjected to the film’s own patience or impatience in the way of time-keeping, and we are trained to expect efficiency from mass-produced, linear cinema. An articulate reading of Dawn of the Dead‘s politicised time is open for anyone to attempt, but for now it is fair to say that the film’s approach to duration is akin to slow cinema- Dawn of the Dead begins and ends and things happen in it, but it feels discontinuous. Its time is liberated, its cash and commodities are reduced to nothing, and there’s this hope that establishing new parameters for a better future will mean that we don’t return to barbarism or die of exposure.
*The White Album, Romero/Argento edition
1. Revolution 9
2. Happiness is a Warm Gun
3. Long, Long, Long
4. Back in the USSR
5. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
7. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
8. Rocky Raccoon
10. Back in the USSR
11. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
12. Rocky Raccoon
13. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
14. I’m So Tired
15. Wild Honey Pie
16. Back in the USSR
19. I’m So Tired
20. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
21. Dear Prudence
22. I’m So Tired
23. I’m So Tired
24. Yer Blues
26. Helter Skelter
27. Yer Blues
28. Good Night