April / May 2004

A New Dawn (of the Dead)

Even though it just opened (in mid-March), director Zack Snyder's re-imagining of George Romero's 1979 classic, Dawn of the Dead, has already done very well, and as a fan of horror movies, I'm happy for its success. The remake starring Sarah Polley, Mekhi Phifer, Ving Rhames, and Jake Weber grossed 27.3 million dollars its first weekend, and more notably - especially for a horror film, garnered a slew of terrific reviews. Again, this is good news for genre fans, but the ascent of the new Dawn only got me thinking about the glories of the "old" Dawn, and its creator, the vastly underrated horror maestro and social commentator, George A. Romero.

Back in the day, (the disco decade) Romero stood at the vanguard of American cinema - and for good reason. In the early 1970s, he gave audiences a number of high quality, socially conscious horror films like Jack's Wife (1971), which concerned women's lib, and The Crazies (1973), which targeted the Federal Government for Civil Rights violations in the homeland during an emergency, a toxic chemical spill. Then there was the wonderful character-piece, Martin (1976), an indictment of organized religion and a purposeful de-romanticizing of silver screen vampires.

By the time Dawn of the Dead, a sequel to his 1968 flick, Night of the Living Dead, rolled around at the end of the decade, Romero had already given audiences and critics plenty to think about - and feel really scared about. Yet Dawn of the Dead remains the best known Romero flick of the decade, and perhaps it is easy to understand why. Set in a shopping mall where survivors of a zombie plague congregate, the film concerns many interesting ideas and philosophies, not just drooling zombies and the battle of survival.

The original Dawn of the Dead worked beautifully as an indictment of consumerism, with the zombies acting like crazed shoppers heading for a sale. And before it ended, the film also targeted well-placed jabs at network news/mass media, depicting ratings-hungry producers who in the midst of the crisis broadcasted incorrect information regarding safety centers - just to keep audiences tuned in. The film also railed effectively against science and bureaucracy - for not coming up with a satisfactory plan to handle the zombie emergency.

Perhaps most importantly, Dawn of the Dead tackled the dynamics of this strange apocalypse on a very personal level. One woman with child (played by Gaylen Ross) had to consider abortion as a viable - and perhaps preferable alternative because the zombie plague meant the end of the world and humanity. Other characters couldn't handle the "new" reality of zombie domination and set-up their living spaces as a determined recreation of the old world, even arguing about whether the TV (transmitting only static...) should be left on or turned off.

Gazing back on it, the original Dawn of the Dead was really about humans fighting over the scraps of a dead civilization - and not really learning anything from old mistakes. The last third of the film concerned not a confrontation between zombies and humans, but between one pack of survivors and another (a biker gang.) Both factions were hoping to possess the riches of the mall, even though cash, fur coats and jewelry didn't really "mean" anything anymore. Romero's well-developed thesis was that even in the midst of a crisis, humanity wages war upon itself, a fact that allows others (like zombies) to take advantage.

Today, the new Dawn of the Dead makes much less subtle points about survival and human nature, and comes from a different, though appropriate context. It is a good, solid horror film that reflects the post-September 11th world, yet I do miss the elegance, social conscience and heart of George Romero's vision.

So much of George Romero's unique original vision came out of his indie roots in Pittsburgh, his style of frenetic editing, his casting of unknown actors who seemed like "real" people, and his finely detailed, ultra-realistic and unromantic scripts about flawed people. As much as I appreciate the new Dawn of the Dead, I can't say that it feels quite as authentic as the original, as it is more a product of homogenized Hollywood than the initiative of an inventive, independent film maker. Yes, it is an effective roller coaster of thrills and chills and spills, but I'm not sure that in the long run, it pushes the genre forward. For instance, a more clever (and timely) remake of the original might have been set exclusively in Wal-Mart instead of a shopping mall, because that is the direction middle-America has moved in the last thirty years.

So what's the point of all these musings?

While the new, flashy (and well-done) Dawn of the Dead explodes on screens, earning big money and critical hosannas, the originator of this apocalyptic vision ought to be remembered and lauded too. A sad point of fact is that George A. Romero has been having trouble financing his fourth zombie flick, a follow-up to 1985's Day of the Dead. In this proposed, new zombie film, Romero would carry his themes and ideas even further, examining the re-building of a human society in gated, walled-off communities, while the zombies roam free outside. Imagine the opportunities for social satire and commentary in that setting! My only hope is that this new and popular Dawn of the Dead-lite spurs some fat cat investors to pony up the money Romero needs to complete his original, and far more daring vision of America undergoing apocalyptic transition.

Frankly, that's the film I'm waiting for with baited breath, and as good as it surely is, the new Dawn of the Dead is merely marking time until the real artist paints us a new masterpiece.