Voyeurism & Isolation: Romero's Dawn of the Dead

"Wake up, sucker! We're thieves and we're bad guys. That's exactly what we are.  We gotta find our own way."

Watching Dawn of the Dead in a year where a merciless pandemic has ravaged (and continues to) the globe is a surreal experience.   Romero's masterwork; and easily one of the greatest and most influential horror films ever made, is a clinic on economical storytelling, bar setting gore effects, and a roadmap for guerilla, independent filmmaking.  However, beyond these boons, it is an entirely different animal when viewed through the lense of America in early 2021.  In a time where much of the world is being asked, and in some cases told, to remain in their homes, it's impossible to not empathize with the central premise.  

At its core, Dawn of the Dead is about the psychological cost of isolation and the very real, very horrifying realities that humanity births into the world in the wake of devastation.  One woman and three men escape a crumbling metropolis during a deadly, supernatural pandemic, and take refuge in an abandoned shopping mall.  What follows is an apocalyptic expose on the nature of the human species and a pyrrhic crusade to change it.  There are three distinct cuts of the film: The Theatrical, the Extended Cannes, and Dario Argento's cut.  In viewing them back-to-back, it became instantly clear that the reason Dawn is so powerful (more so in 2021) is because it drops the viewer directly into the lives of its principals.  They are; and by proxy the viewer is also, trapped.   Combine this revelation with the first act in which racist police officers begin to gun down minorities in a major city and the parallels with modern American times are so bright they are blinding.

The evolution of the plot is allusive. What begins as a lighting fast procession of violence soon evolves into a glacial examination of the range of emotions the mind experiences when placed into isolation.  In essence, each of the characters symbolize different stages and concepts of loss.  David Emge's naive Flyboy is a form of Denial, as his comprehension of how bad things are never truly changes.   Even during the climax, it is his inability to understand the danger that is the ultimate undoing of everything.  Gaylen Ross's Fran is Anger.  While never overt (a testament to her incredible talent) from the initial news station sequence to challenging her male counterparts, it’s evident that her character understands the realities of the new dying world and defies them.  Scott Reiniger's Trooper is Bargaining, particularly during the scene leading up to his demise.  It's one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the film and both Reiniger and Foree absolutely destroy everything in their dramatical paths.  Of course, it is Ken Foree's quiet and calculating Peter who is Depression.  Deprived of his friend, his scenes in the final act are wonderful, running the gamut of emotions as things inevitably fall apart.  Finally, in the last few scenes Peter and Fran combine into Acceptance as they fly away into an uncertain future, realizing that everything they fought for was ultimately nothing, while the dead forever rule in their kingdom of commerce. 

This is the brilliance of the film.  It simply would not work unless the audience was trapped in a single location for the majority of the story.  It's one thing to talk about how the film decries capitalism and is a take down on the way media is consumed.  It's probably the main reason the film remains lauded 42 years later.  Beyond this however, is a haunting examination on group dynamics in a situation in which conventional rules do not apply. The expectation is that things could take a dubious turn, but the excellent writing and acting in the introduction clearly establishes that these are people with codes and a defined sense of right and wrong, despite having roguish tendencies.  It is these tendencies that lead to a hedonistic embrace of their  precarious circumstances, chillingly familiar to Amazon Prime sprees that dominated the early weeks of the pandemic.  

Another co-conspirator is Michael Gornick's unobtrusive cinematography.  Wisely avoiding an omnipotent approach, the early scenes are shot almost like a documentary, with the screaming news staff's words being drowned out by the film's initial (Goblin would later do a score for Argento's cut) droning score.  As things transition to the mall, the camerawork reveals itself to be a true chameleon, with Gornick's sweeping shots of the environs juxtaposed with terrifying closeups and unique angles that capture the human moments in unexpected ways.  These tactics enhance the vibe of entrapment that pervades the bulk of the narrative.  The audience is literally living alongside the four heroes and an unmistakable kinship develops.   The viewer forgives transgressions and mistakes and genuinely begins to find hope that after everything, maybe they'll (mostly) make it out alive, but at what cost and more importantly to where?  When the horrors of the Coronavirus recede and people slowly begin to return to "normality", the question is what is there to return to it and will it look anything like it did before?  

Much like Peter and Fran, we are flying blind from the horrors of the past towards an uncertain and unprecedented future.  

--Kyle Jonathan