It feels like there are lots of uninteresting observations you can make about Romero’s higher budget return to the zombie film, Dawn of the Dead (1978). I’ll be keeping a wide berth in particular fae mentioning that well flogged war horse of the film studies student ‘the other’. Dawn of the Dead sees Romero persevere with his undead social commentaries but where Night of the Living Dead (1968) was understated and restrained (no doubt a result of its budget), Dawn of the Dead is blown-out, slapstick, heavy handed. It’s really difficult for me having just spent two and a half hours of my finite free time re-watching a pretty blatant condemnation of consumerism appendaged by circus-soundtrack zombie comedy montages and fucking pie fights to write a measured review instead of shitting all over it.
Dawn of the Dead structurally adheres to Todorov’s theory of narrative insofar as a state of equilibrium at the start of the narrative is disrupted and then either reclaimed or reborn at the conclusion. However, as Dawn of the Dead opens in post-outbreak chaos, the disruption or ‘disequilibrium’ isn’t the actual outbreak or existence of zombies but is instead the characters’ decision to set up shop in the mall. The state of equilibrium at the outset which is ultimately returned to is one of upheaval, transition and flight. It’d feel contrived to force the action of the film into the middle stages Todorov’s theory of narrative (disequilibrium, acknowledgement and reparation). Romero’s characters find shelter from the equilibrium the film opens in and the disequilibrium so to speak is really harmony and shelter being secured. What provokes the escape from the mall is the same thing that attracts the characters, the zombies, and the bike gang to the mall alike: the colonization of the mind. Just as the zombies retain some mechanical-memory which draws them to the mall, both the bike gang and the protagonist group retain a sort of mechanical-memory of capitalism as they clean out the tills in the bank despite both the presumable and logical collapse of global commerce and a new immediacy of survival. As a colonial narrative, and in keeping with Romero’s original reinterpretation of the zombie as something that isn’t exteriorly controlled, the method of control is interiorized. In Night of the Living Dead the media explains the reanimations extra-terrestrially. In Dawn of the Dead a failing and sequestered media, in turn going through the learned motions of a pre-outbreak and pre-film reality, doesn’t offer any explanation (unless a missed it while crackin’ stripes!!). The protagonist group’s efforts to settle in the mall can be read as an attempt to reinstate that pre-film hegemonic reality separate from its effective collapse in the film studios and tenement buildings of the cities. In an atmosphere of structural collapse these efforts seem lonely, cynical and bleak and to be fair the film is at its most compelling when it shows them growing bored with the mall and its products. When Flyboy attacks the biker gang in the spirit of territorialism and defending the colony it marks the end of the group. When their microcosmic replica of pre-outbreak hegemonic culture (including a sneering ‘black butler’ scene) falls prey to the same hysteria and emotional knee-jerking that characterized the TV studios and raided apartment building at the film’s opening, the structure once again stressed to its logical conclusion collapses. This is dramatized by the new wall they boxed themselves in with being brought down by the reanimated Flyboy. But the destruction of structure also brings liberation from the stasis and cynicism and boredom of the mall. Although the characters fly off with very little fuel into an uncertain narrative ‘equilibrium’ it is still liberation. Better to fly intae the abyss than rot at the feet of mammon.
Maybe Romero’s masterstroke is that as the purse strings loosened he chose to reflect that in a slip of focus. In a final, damning middle finger to consumer capitalism he made an unwatchably shitey, patronizing, heavy handed shit show of a film. He sacrificed the focus and edge of Night of the Living dead in favour of the slapstick and the obvious. If it feels insulting how hard the themes are drilled home (particularly in the presence of some sophistication) it is only to hold a mirror to the insulting triteness and vapidity of consumer culture. Or, on the other hand, maybe he’s just not a funny guy and he has a really low opinion of his viewers. Need to hammer that shit home or they’ll be lost. Fuck knows. Either way I thought it was shite, shite, absolutely shite. And if there’s an undead army of cinephiles waiting to batter down my door and tell me how wrong I am, save your breath and enjoy your fucking circus music, pie fights, and patronizingly heavy handed thematic force feeding.