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No More Room in Hell: ‘Dawn of the Dead’ Remains a Masterpiece 45 Years Later

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Red.

Vivid. Shaggy. The image is bright and engaging but suffocating too. The frame is papered with the color and, indeed, foreshadows the bloody palette from which the remainder of the film’s runtime will be painted. Rather than a betrayal of what’s to come, the domineering shade foretells the imminent delivery of a new world, birthed from the remains of what came before: a new dawn.

The sun first crested on Monroeville Mall’s legions of the lumbering undead in April of 1979 in the US with Dawn of the Dead (1978), shepherding George A. Romero’s bitingly satirical, deeply unsettling, and grossly gore-fueled vision of consumerist America into the public consciousness and forever warping the DNA of genre entertainment. It is this glistening sunrise that went on to usher forth a day, a land and eventually an empire of Romero’s own manufacture, solidifying the ideas he had begun to explore in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and introducing concepts and themes that would go on to inform his series of resurrection sagas all the way through 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

Night of the Living Dead commenced Romero’s sprawling chronicles by not only redefining its central monster for genre enthusiasts the world over, but expanding the creative and emotional possibilities of what the flesh-hungry undead could metaphorically represent. Offering a microcosmic perspective of society, encapsulated in a small country farmhouse by way of a collective of disparate individuals of differing race, sex, class, and privilege, Night asks its viewers to consider the practical and emotional rituals modern society assigns to death.

A decade would come and go before Romero again returned to the damned world of the animated deceased with Dawn of the Dead, a film which follows the logical progression of a crumbling America attempting to quell a threat that they are neither prepared for or able to understand en masse. Where Night leaves viewers in the black and white fog of moral dysphoria, Dawn repositions its decaying humanistic queries to the bright light of day, drawing its events with the vital colors that paint the sunrise sky.

Dominant. Textured. Virile. Red. Everything’s red.

So it is that Dawn of the Dead begins.

The red reveals itself as the textured trappings of a wall, which in turn stands adjacent to a newsroom that is in complete and total disarray. Staffers bustle about, shoving hastily scribed documents into the hands of those meant to communicate crucial information to the masses, simultaneously questioning their resolve- and their sanity- as their eyes quickly scan the preposterous copy. More interesting still is the dichotomy in the space between those that have chosen to flee and those that remain steadfast in their resolve to stay put and keep the cameras rolling.

George A. Romero’s second expedition into the burgeoning world of the walking dead roots itself in the public domain of mounting misinformation. While the film finds sanctuary inside the confines of an abandoned shopping mall, it is the televisions humming in the background, the exasperated pundits arguing in the periphery, and the devastating updates delivered by exhausted scientists that form the somewhat impersonal tapestry which forms the backdrop of Dawn, not all that dissimilar from the backwater hunters making their way jovially across the countryside in Night.

Romero trades out a small rural farmhouse for the sprawling square footage of retail Mecca in Dawn, transposing his societal allegories about race, class, religion, and sex to the kind of escalator laden, multi-story shopping center that would go on to redefine consumerism in the 1970s all the way through to the new millennium. Where Night of the Living Dead faced the realities of hardheaded convictions about the pageantries of death and the self-imposed importance placed on control and leadership in every functioning facet of a bigotry-infused, patriarchal society, Dawn burrows ever deeper into the psyche behind the “American Dream” as the world shambles ever closer to its ghastly fate.

Four people find safe harbor in the Monroeville Mall, working together to clear the place of unwanted, flesh-hungry guests and redistribute its seemingly limitless resources. Unlike Night, Dawn finds its still-breathing cast members cooperating as a unit, repositioning semi-trucks, clearing the complex of its rotting inhabitants, and bringing the comforts of home to their storage space converted living room.

Ken Foree is Peter and Scott Reiniger is Roger, two police officers turned deserters who saw an opportunity to escape not only the clutches of the ravenous rotting wretches but a chance to evade the disintegrating moral landscape of increasingly destabilizing civilization. They initially meet amongst the chaos of a police raid on a low-income housing building as Roger attempts to reconcile his duty to uphold the law against the blatant racism and anti-humanitarianism exhibited by his fellow supposed protectors of the peace.

Peter is black and Roger is white. Roger’s response to both the human perpetrated and otherworldly horrors of the first act are not dissimilar from Judith O’Dea’s Barbra’s more internalized reactions in Night of the Living Dead. Unlike Duane Jones’ Ben in Night however, Peter is able to snap his counterpart out of his unnerved detachment, offering a racially cognizant world-weariness that allows Roger to sift through the remains of his broken worldview and find fresh purpose in the act of survival. One aged priest hobbling through the wreckage summarizes this complicated perspective best, saying, “when the dead walk, señores, we must stop the killing or lose the war.” It’s a statement that both summarizes humanity’s last desperate grasp at survival while prophesying the species’ imminent and perhaps inevitable doom.

“When there’s no more room in hell,” Peter says sometime later while overlooking the mall’s flesh-hungry occupants, “the dead will walk the earth.” Told to him by his grandfather who had been a priest in Trinidad, Peter’s words echo with mysticism and truth. Civil society has imploded and the path to its inevitable destruction is cobbled together by the sins of its players, each transgression regurgitated through the actions of those who have managed to forge ahead. Like Night of the Living Dead before it, the characters here offer windows into the various perspectives which comprise the American consciousness and how each toxic or progressive viewpoint factors into both the disintegration and proliferation of the other.

In short time, Peter and Roger meet up with Fran and Stephen. Played by Gaylen Ross and David Emge respectively, the two represent the kind of fledgling family unit that the guiding principles of the “American Dream” might demand be protected at all costs. Still, their romance is foundationally unsound, built for and by a world that traded in comfort and order, unable to weather the harsh conditions and ideological challenges that the apocalypse carries with it. Peter and Roger may serve as the unofficial protectors of this co-dependent vestige of their bygone world, but it is clear from the start that what they seek to shelter is more hollow than whole.

Dawn of the Dead mines this emotional chasm as the characters go through the motions of a life. Initially, there’s fun to be had in their inexhaustible shopping spree. Trying on clothes, sampling snacks, and snagging furniture for their new homestead atop the market center keeps them occupied and, more importantly, entertained. But over time that sense of enthusiasm disintegrates amongst the empty calories inherent in a retail feast. Their sense of self-worth so wrapped up in the various things they seek to collect, keep, and consume reveals itself to be no more meaningful than the novelties society has trained them to crave with such fervent desperation in the first place.

Alongside the consumerist commentary, Romero explores the interpersonal, patriarchal dynamics that dominate the dying world around the core characters. Peter, Roger, and Stephen discuss Fran’s pregnancy as though her and the baby’s fate were theirs to decide. Later, Roger assists Stephen in planning a marriage proposal that Fran is clearly uninterested in. As the film progresses, Stephen slowly realizes that Fran is not his property and the antiquated values tied to her relationship with Stephen become damningly clear to Fran. Their survival is secured in the home they have made for themselves, but, as is made apparent from a somber scene where Stephen and Fran share a bed together, the couple’s once connected sense of shared meaning and partnership is yet another casualty of the world’s untimely expiration.

Alternatively, the relationship between Peter and Roger is a genuine one, displaying the power of platonic love between two men who otherwise seem indifferent to emotional connection. Regardless of how much Peter strives to keep Roger’s head above emotional water, Roger’s carelessness and tendency to give into his psychological consternation lands him incapacitated with a corrosive bite that will inevitably claim his life. This culminates in the film’s most poignant moment as Roger wistfully requests that Peter stay with him to make sure he doesn’t come back. He will try not to, Roger promises and repeats, both men knowing full well that no amount of trying will stop what is undoubtedly going to come.

The unavoidable truth of the situation is, in many ways, the underlying threat of Dawn of the Dead, resulting in a series of events that never feels safe or directional. Even at its most benign, when the characters allow themselves whatever reprieve might be available to them, the instability and ever-gnawing threat of devastation always lingers in the shadows. The zombie menace is the impetus for their dying world, but it is not the sole perpetrator of the human race’s undoing.

So it is that a nomadic group of opportunist marauders destroys in minutes what Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran took months to build. Unable to resist his own bruised ego, Stephen engages the mad gang in arms, sealing the fate of their mall made home and further solidifying the ever-weakening fragility that accompanies entrusting others with one’s own livelihood. Now the only two left, Peter and Fran attempt to make peace with the place and each other, fighting not for their creature comforts, but for their continued existence.

Having learned to fly the helicopter against Stephen’s consistently selfish wishes, Fran heads toward the roof. Peter, on the other hand, experiences a crisis of conscience, questioning the purpose and value of the life he has fought so hard for. However, when the end is staring him dead in the eyes, he chooses life and triumphantly makes his way through the crowd of grasping appendages and snapping jaws to the helicopter. It is only when the adrenaline fades and the monotonous hum of the helicopter blades overtakes the dull roar of moaning that Fran and Peter realize there is nowhere to go and little hope for any semblance of a meaningful escape.

The ending in some ways reminds of a scene that occurred much earlier in the film, wherein a fellow traveler converses with Stephen just before he leaves the news station with Fran, Peter, and Roger. Stephen asks where the man is headed. The man says that he and his travel mates are going to try and make it to the island. When Stephen asks which island specifically, the man simply replies: “any island.”

The answer, and indeed the ending itself, suggests that perhaps the idea of a destination is enough. Maybe that’s all life really is – a quest for the idea of what one believes one wants out of it. Regardless, the harsh realities of that sentiment come into sharp focus when the constructs of society are unceremoniously stripped away.

George A. Romero was an urgent filmmaker. Everything from his thematic messaging to his guerilla-style execution begat an imperative weight to what he had to say about our culture, our country, and our shared consequences. And nowhere was this tenor of priority more heightened, sermonic, and damning than in his career-spanning series of undead epics, encapsulated perfectly in Dawn of the Dead.

Dawn was neither the beginning nor the end of Romero’s exploration of humanity’s unfolding de-evolution, tracking both the degradation of the world of people and the germinating civilization of the not-so-recently deceased. Day of the Dead (1985) carried this idea forward, introducing Bub and the concept of a trained or even familiar zombie. Land of the Dead (2005) stretched this even further, showcasing an all-zombie community with shared ideals and goals that extended to the pages of George A. Romero’s graphic novel Empire of the Dead. Empire went on to further examine these phenomena as well as the sway other supernatural forces might hold in a new world fresh with decay and the power struggles that will always arise around “intelligent” life’s quest for privilege and interpersonal sway.

Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009) repackage and repurpose much of Romero’s ideological concerns in more simple and overt ways, leveraging found footage in the former as both a cost-saving means of creation and a vehicle to deliver a raw, unfiltered message to a modern audience. Survival wraps Romero’s ideas in an oddball western melodrama that celebrates the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic voice and ideas while staying true to the exploration of humanity that once resided in the rotting flesh of the mobile corpses at the top of the new world food chain. His final film, Survival of the Dead ensured that, to the last, Romero was using his platform and ideas to explore the many different facets of genre storytelling and how his vision might be able to be manipulated to meet the demands of multiple subgenres and audiences.

Still, it was with Dawn that the master storyteller began to dive deeper into the meaning behind humanity’s decline and the parallel rise of zombie-kind, suggesting that a lack of foresight and willingness to accept and grow with change may lie at the feet of humanity’s undoing. Big, sweeping, and yet strikingly intimate and introspective, Dawn of the Dead proved unequivocally that Romero’s grand exercise in undead cinema was not only deserving of multiple chapters and iterations, but required them to be properly examined and explored.

What starts with red ends in the pleasant perusal of the mall’s various offerings accompanied by peppy, if not slightly repetitive, elevator-style music. The birth of a new world is a tumultuous process, accompanied by the painful ejection of what had come before. However, when all is said and done, it is the small things that bring comfort, even at the end of the world. So it is that the zombies shop – or, at least, they attempt to.

With that, a new dawn arises. While the ecosystem of consumerism that drove and defined much of America’s economic and social strata might be an artifact of a bygone era in the world of Romero’s dead series, many of the consumers who powered that system remain vertical (even if they stopped breathing and developed a healthy appetite for fresh flesh). The mall’s relevance is no longer tied to its contents but to the feeling those items once had the ability to affect. An important lesson to be sure, but, regrettably, one too obtuse for either the dead or the undead to fully comprehend.

Like the sleep-deprived Fran pressing her head against the strikingly scarlet shag as she seeks sojourn from the mayhem of the world around her, Dawn of the Dead stumbles to life with a jolt and never finds much solace in its goings on, highlighting the inescapable and very human truths that resonate just as strongly today as they did upon the film’s release. George A. Romero was an urgent filmmaker, it’s true, and that urgency permeated everything he created, however the quality was rarely more evident than it was in his ghoul-led operatics. Vibrant, violent, and vital, it is in that festering world of flesh-starved fiends that he was able to explore the deepest channels of the human condition and reflect its best and worst attributes back to his audience with humor, Horror, and heartbreak.

Beautiful. Terrifying. Engrossing.

Red.

Like a sunrise, its fire illuminating the sky and making way for something altogether new. Whether we like it or not may be relevant to us, but not to the sun. Not to the sky. A new sun will always dawn. Whether humanity has a place in its light is entirely up to them.

Through Romero’s uniquely attuned lens, it is the dead’s world, after all, we’re just living in it.

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