Film discussion

Discuss This! – Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Forty years ago, George Romero, the Godfather of the Dead, released the sequel to his zombie-defining breakthrough, Night of the Living Dead, with the help of Italian maestro Dario Argento, who would help secure financing in exchange for international distribution rights. What came of this collaboration is a film that many consider to be the greatest zombie film ever made, further cementing Romero as a political and social director who demonstrated that horror isn’t just intestines and ripped limbs (though there’s plenty of that too!)

Decades later, deep within the zombie fandemic that continues to rise up from beyond the grave, Romero’s classic continues to comment on society, displaying just how influential and timeless it has become. So join Set the Tape‘s own Jenn Reid and Greg Mucci, who realize that there is no more room in hell, and must walk the earth to discuss the zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead!

Greg: So first off, zombie lover or hater?

Jenn: Lover! I’m a long-time zombie fan, although I don’t love every zombie film or television show out there. 

G: So where does Dawn of the Dead rank for you within the lexicon of zombie films?

J: It’s not one of my favorites, actually! Don’t get me wrong, it’s good. It’s just kind of slow in parts and I think the social commentary in Night of the Living Dead is way better! Dawn isn’t one I revisit as often.

G: We’re on the same wavelength with this! It’s my least favorite of the trilogy, and I think I’m in the deep, deep minority who would place it behind Land of the Dead. It’s a great film, but the 2nd act is just so…empty? I don’t know. It’s stretched thin, and really could be 30 minutes shorter. This is probably where everyone reading closes their browser…

J: The hate mail starts now!

G: But I really gravitate towards the chaos of the beginning and the end! Everything that transpires within the apartment complexes I think is socially aware while being claustrophobic and tense.

J: Yeah, the apartment building scenes at the beginning are really good. There’s a lot of action and that’s also where the social commentary makes the most sense; I really know what Romero’s trying to accomplish here and it works.

G: Speaking of, do you feel Romero’s work is intentionally aware of its social and political commentary? Because I believe he’s stated numerous times that with Duane Jones’ casting in Night of the Living Dead that it was purely done because of his abilities as an actor.

J: I was just going to ask: Do you think they felt they had to include that because of the response to Night? I know Romero claims that he didn’t mean to make a statement with that film (which is total bullshit).

G: Yeah, I don’t know how you couldn’t see the commentary, given the political activism and social tension of that time. I would think it would be clear as day that you were creating commentary by having the lone black man executed by a militia of armed white guys. And yet, Romero has stated before that the setting of a mall was used primarily because of its practicality. I mean, if I’m wrong, please world, blast me on Twitter @reelbrew!

J: I think the mall setting could be practicality, but it’s like with Night – casting a black man in that role made the film *so* political you can’t feign ignorance to it, and having these characters retreat from the issues of the world at large to hang out in a mall and live like kings for a while is definitely some sort of commentary about consumerism.

G: Consumerism, and also how empty our lives become through the consumption of these material goods. By the end, Roger and Flyboy are literal zombies, and Francine is a metaphorical zombie, adorning herself in makeup and gowns. I mean hell, they all wear fur coats at one point!

J: Hang on one sec!

*5 minutes pass*

J: Sorry about that! There was a bug in my apartment and it gave me a heart attack!

G: So our next film is William Friedkin’s Bug, right?

J: No bugs! But what I was *going* to say was that Francine is such an interesting character – the men treat her like such a burden at the beginning, yet she’s the first one to be like “we can’t live in the fantasy world of the mall, guys”

G: How Francine is treated bothers me, right up until she asks for a gun. It’s like Romero doesn’t know what to do with female characters, because she’s almost exactly like Barbara, even down to the pseudo melt-down. When she finally does ask for a gun, the film is able to give her an agenda of her own.

J: Oh totally! The scene where she overhears the men talking about giving her an abortion, and she’s kind of upset about it, but doesn’t do anything? I want her to act, not just react! But also, why does Roger, a police officer, know how to perform abortions?! It’s very peculiar.

G: Yeah, she’s very sedated throughout the film. It’s like women in the zombie apocalypse of Romero’s world are heavily prone to trauma, while guys are steadfast. And maybe all men just think they know how to perform an abortion. I mean, they all act like they know every woman’s body.

J: Ugh, what was he going to do, just stab her in the vagina and hope for the best?

G: I’m getting Nymphomaniac flashbacks, and I need an adult! Now that you mention it, Dawn of the Dead was this close to going off into exploitation territory! But I love that when Francine starts asking to be treated like an individual, Flyboy turns into the biggest diva. Him and Roger are the worst. For co-existing with a very limited number of characters, I found Ken Foree’s Peter to be the only tolerable character.

J: I love the way he says Flyboy too! It was always just a little condescending. “What say you, FLYYY BOY?”

G: He knew damn well that he was the captain of that group. Guy’s a boss!

J: Peter is definitely the most dynamic of all the characters, and in turn gets the greatest line of all time! TWICE!! “When there’s no more room left in hell, the dead will walk the earth!” They bring him back to do it in the remake!

G: It’s the best line in the movie! Foree steals scenes without ever raising an eyebrow or breaking a sweat. Though I can’t remember for the life of me what his role was in the Zack Snyder version…

J: He’s on television near the beginning, when the news is trying to make sense of what’s happening.

G: Ohhh yeah! He’s pretty much the guy with the eye-patch , who I feel has an interesting backstory in there somewhere.

J: Yes! Where is the spin-off for eye-patch guy? Wacky scientist studying zombies? That could be its own movie!

G: I’d watch the hell out of a mocumentary series where it’s wacky eye-patch scientist taking kids out into the wild to teach them how to survive and study the dead. PBS may have just found its next Mr. Wizard!

J: Most definitely!

G: If you could take away a life lesson from Dawn of the Dead about surviving in the zombie apocalypse, what would it be?

J: Don’t let biker gangs know about your hideout? What about yours?

G: That sounds like a reasonable takeaway! Probably don’t use a blood pressure machine when there’s a horde of zombies around you.

J: Also sound advice.

G: This one biker tries to use this standalone blood pressure machine in the mall, and his friends like “nah man, people are shooting at us!” and then later, he tries using it when the zombies are loose and yeah, he gets torn to pieces. It’s the strangest bit of cinema!

J: Listen, he hasn’t had the chance in a while! Gotta stay healthy!

G: Extreme health: blood pressure or die! I do feel like this film’s 40% dudes shooting, 40% exit wounds, and 20% zombies clawing at display windows, which might sound unfair, but there’s a lot of each.

J: Very true! Although once the zombies stop clawing at display windows and start clawing people open, I’m into it. And even though the zombie make-up is relatively non-existent, I love the effects of the zombies just literally ripping at someone’s stomach until it tears open.

G: The ability of the zombies to scratch and sniff its victims is one of my favorite things! They aren’t particularly strong, but it’s like they muster up a ton of persistence and eventually break skin.

J: It’s got to be the most brutal way to go, just blunt hands pulling you apart, not even a bite until they’ve got your organs!

G: I really adore how colorful the blood is here, like it’s some Warhol pop art that plays off the banal colors of reality.

J: Yeah, but the makeup effects here are basically the make-up crew yelling “white paint on your face, now you’re a zombie!” Which is kind of shockingly quaint considering how the zombie has evolved in pop culture. Now it’s like white eye contacts, veins showing through the skin, gore, etc.

G: It’s a true minimalist display, which is kind of refreshing next to lets say, The Walking Dead’s zombie of the week, which is usually this shambling masterpiece of makeup. Here, it’s all about the mannerisms, the idea of them, though Romero does give us those iconic one-off’s in a way, like the Hari-Krishna zombie.

J: Another unique, random side character that clearly has a backstory!

G: Romero is the birther of the icon zombie; ones that despite their status as dead, are somehow still an individual in a sense, which Peter Jackson uses in Dead Alive with the greaser zombie, the priest zombie, and the nurse.

J: That reminds me how in the remake, they’re picking off zombies from the roof and only identifying them by what celebrity they look like — it’s almost similar in that it’s picking out distinct looking zombies, but the total opposite because it’s not even “get the Hari-Krishna,” it’s “get the lady who looks like Rosie O’Donnell.” Their identity is now twice removed!

G: So true! It also plays with this idea of who we are after death, how we’re remembered. With Romero, it’s like he’s saying we’re remembered by what we wear, which for some is what they believe.

J: And it’s also that you can have some hint of yourself once you turn into a zombie – a lot of Romero’s zombies seem to have some memories of their old life, like recognizing people, places or objects.

G: If you were bitten and turned, what is one thing that screams Jenn Reid that you would want to carry over to zombie Jenn?

J: Hopefully I’d still be nice to my cat!

G: There’s a 95% chance you’d eat your cat.

J: I mean, if I died suddenly at home, there’s a 95% chance she’d eat me, so I guess it’s only fair.

Are you a fan of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead? Let us know in comments below.

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