I wish I had a cooler story about the first time I saw George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. I'd like to say I snuck in to see it at a midnight show in Times Square back in 1978. I'd like to say I saw it in the gloriously appropriate surroundings of one of those cavernous shopping malls where the film was set. This simply isn't the case, however. I was born in the West of England in 1974, so to be honest, even saying that I'd caught it at the infamous Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, London, would be a falsehood. My first viewing of Dawn of the Dead was on a bog standard VHS version put out by 4-Front video in the early '90s. I watched it on a sunny afternoon in my bedroom after having rented it illegally from my local video shop. This was no random rental though. I was already sold.
Dawn was a film I had obsessed over since I was six or seven. I had read all about it—seen the poster in the old issues of Starburst and Fangoria, pored over the essays about it in Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies and John McCarthy's The Modern Horror Film, noted the warnings of "extremely violent content," the claims of it being "the most violent film ever made" and boggled over the three and a half star rating in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. I had to see this film. For a large portion of my teenage years, I simply couldn't.
In the UK, Dawn was virtually unavailable. In the early '80s, before video classification was properly regulated, the nascent video stores of the country were seemingly awash with blood, distributing unrated versions of horror films by the bucket load. When the right wing press alerted Scotland Yard to the situation (touching off what was later tagged the "video nasty" scandal), pretty much every movie title to feature the words "blood," "zombie," or "dead" were seized up. It was a witch-hunt of stupefying proportions, leaving a whole generation devoid of classics like Evil Dead, The Exorcist, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
While Dawn was never on the official hit list, there was a period when it was nowhere to be found on video shelves across the land. Ironically in this time I watched the original Night of the Living Dead on television and the uncut Day of the Dead on video (in a bizarre case of double-standards, it being far more explicit than Dawn). By time I saw Jonathon Ross's Incredibly Strange Film Show on Romero and his oeuvre, with countless clips of the film, I felt like I was an aficionado in waiting.
Then one day, there it was, actually available to rent. Without any ceremony, I watched the film as soon I'd handed over my £3 and run back home. Not waiting for it to get dark, I simply shut the curtains and curled up on a beanbag in front of my 14-inch telly. Two hours later, two things struck me.
One, it wasn't quite the full "splatter fest" I was expecting. Several images that were imbedded in my brain from either seeing B&W stills or reading grand accounts of carnage seemed to be absent. Where was the machete zombie? Where were the scenes of guts being ripped from still-living humans? Where were the zombie kids? What was the big deal with the screwdriver incident? More pressingly, whither the exploding head? It slowly dawned on me that this wasn't the full-blooded version, but with the film's pace, use of montage, and the occasional odd sound edit, due to the scattershot approach of mixing score and library music, it was difficult to ascertain exactly what was missing. And, two, I realized that none of that mattered; this was much more than a horror film. This was an epic, this was a western, this was a grand action adventure. Admittedly, it was all on a budget, but this just made it all the more admirable.
When you study Dawn in detail, the ambition of the enterprise is staggering. It's not only a great horror film, but also a peerless example of independent filmmaking. The sheer scale of the story, the use of locations, the marshalling of extras and staggering number of set-ups is an awesome feat for a low budget film. Not only that but Dawn goes far beyond the template of Night and many other horror films of its ilk, by setting the proceeding in the course of one long night. Dawn flirts with being a proper epic in terms of its timeframe alone.
One of the more disappointing elements of last year's remake was that the mall felt like a holding pattern for 14 hours, not making any great contribution story-wise. In the original, the mall is the characters's castle and keep, their makeshift home, as far as they know, until the end of time. That the fabled location doesn't appear for a good 25 minutes is also amazing, coming after a memorably chaotic opening in a TV studio on the brink of collapse, a bleak episode in a zombie-infested tenement and an eerie pit stop at a deserted airstrip. The incidents within these chapters would top most other films of its ilk, but Dawn is barely getting started.
Not only is the film paced differently than other horror films, but you truly get to live with the characters, coming to know them so well that you don't want any of them to die (not even Roger). That's a remarkable feat for a so-called "splatter fest." Given that most horror films have the rhythm of a porn film, with some kind of splat every 20 minutes, Dawn's diversion from the norm, makes it seem truly revolutionary.
There are countless shots or moments that still make my neck hairs tingle; mystery handprints on the condensation of a cockpit, the Lowrie-esque matchstick zombies shambling toward us on the ice-rink, rednecks shooting down silhouetted creatures on the brow of a hill, the break-taking montages that accompany bleak television discussion, with zombies walking down up escalators and chewing on cash registers. Romero's mix of documentary style and commercial montage tip the film from a B-movie into some kind of anthropological study.
The music that runs throughout from the Goblins's magnificent prog-electro score to the random needle drop suspense music to the insane use of jolly trad-jazz Muzak, lend the film an otherworldly feeling. This is bolstered by the use of locations you've never seen since and, for the most part, actors you haven't either. This timeless feeling gives the whole film a sense that it been beamed in from another dimension, that we're watching an alien broadcast in shades of bluey gray, blood red, and never-ending plaid. Many films you want to get lost in, Dawn you want to hole up in.
Hell, even the flaws make it lovable, be it the one zombie doing a terrible job in a wide shot, the truly goofy hero music for Peter's last minute escape to the helicopter or even the odd wooden line reading (the cameraman in the opening who solemnly intones "Our responsibility is finished"). Some of these odd details or mistakes seem to make it all the more real, like when Stephen fluffs his hammer swing at a zombie and collapses in a girly heap. It's exactly what I would do.
The one other major influence this film wields over me is the sense of the apocalypse becoming some adult playground, that for all the bleakness and uncertainty, there are chances to play out long held fantasies, the knowledge that essentially you can do anything, however juvenile. This is best illustrated by Roger's gleeful slide down the center of the escalator when they run through a deserted department store. Along will the faux bank raid and the general fun had while confusing the hell out of zombies (in the excellent strategic middle section of the film), forms at least part of the spark, which later made the Romero template perfect for video games.
Certainly my inspiration for making Shaun of the Dead came partly from playing the CAPCOM Resident Evil games from the mid '90s. These managed to capture the spirit of George's film better than anything else in recent years. Not only was the eerie tone just right, but they stuck rigidly to the central zombie action logic: that one can generally outrun a zombie, but one can also easily become unstuck if one gets cocky. This in turn, sparked not only another dusting off of my Dawn VHS, but then further wandering into what-if territory. Not only was I wondering how I would get from my flat to the local shop in the wake of a zombie attack, but also just how one would cope with a zombie in the garden one hungover Sunday morning . . .
Making our bloody Valentine to George with Shaun of the Dead has allowed me to bond, not only with my colleague Simon Pegg about our love for the original Dawn, but also with actors and filmmakers the world over. Now I realize that I am far from alone in my obsessions over The Gonk, postbox-red blood, and all things bluey gray and shambling.
As I write, my belated fandom has just paid off a thousand fold, having just returned from Toronto, where I played a blink-and-you'll-miss-it zombie cameo in the latest Romero epic Land of the Dead. The experience of being covered in latex and directed by George was overwhelming to say the least. I can now claim to be a tiny zombie cog in a huge machine, much like those tireless Pittsburghers when they did their zombie bit way back in 1977.
That's if I make the cut . . .
Whatever, it was a perfect way to top off what feels like a five-year pilgrimage to the Church of George. And while Dawn of the Dead remains undoubtedly the granddaddy of the zombie genre, it sometimes seems a shame to damn it with the perceived faint praise of the Z-word. It's a great end of the world film full stop. It's a great horror film full stop. It's a great film. Full stop.