Dawn of the Dead (1978)

After directing Night of the Living Dead for release in 1968, George Romero spent the better part of the next decade in and around Pittsburgh making independent films that dead with quirky horror plots.  In the mid 70s, Romero started work on his next zombie movie after being given a behind the scenes tour of the state-of-the-art Monroeville Mall.  Not a bad place to survive a zombie apocalypse, he must have thought.  With financing (about $2.2 million in current dollars) secured from Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, production began on Dawn of the Dead -- largely on weekends, when the same Monroeville Mall could be closed for shooting.

Much of the storytelling strength of Dawn of the Dead lies in the sure-handed development of its core question: What's the most likely way to survive if there are thousands of flesh-eating undead walking the earth.  The short answer: Get yourself a great big fortified storehouse, hunker down, and keep quiet.  If only things were so simple. . .

The plot begins with two pairs of characters.  There's Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross); he's a chopper pilot for the local television station, and she's a news producer.  Romero's opening scenes focus mostly on Fran as she attempts to maintain journalistic standards amid the growing social chaos of the zombie crisis.  It's clear from the way the reporters and production staff are arguing with each other that, in the end, the media may be the last place to turn in a real crisis.  Stephen finds Fran -- they're a couple, apparently -- amid all the hubbub and suggests they chopper it out of town as soon as possible.

The other pair of characters is more interesting, two friends on the police force -- the confident, intelligent, and strong Peter (Ken Foree), and the nervous, somewhat shrimpy Roger (Scott Reiniger).  We meet them in the middle of a zombie-sweep at a low-income apartment building, where Peter does what needs to be done, Roger hesitates, and a few of the other fascists on the force are more than happy to kill anything that moves. In the end, as well, law enforcement may be one of the last places to turn.  Roger, who knows Stephen, suggests that he and Peter say fuck the police and skip town.  Sounds good.

The four make their escape at night, refuel with a little zombie harassment, and eventually land on the roof of a relatively rural shopping mall.  Breaking in through a skylight, the find the service complex behind the scenes in the mall to be zombie free.  They lock and barricade the doors, engage in some gruesome zombie housekeeping, and disguise their hideaway just in case someone comes looking.  Roger is bitten during this process, which makes for a sad moment later when Peter has to decommission his zombified friend, but survival comes at a cost.

Everything in the mall, of course, comes at no cost.  As the months pass, Peter, Stephen, and Fran eat the finest (preserved) food, booze it up, wear mink coats, sleep on satin sheets, listen to classical music on a top-of-the-line stereo system, and make the most of the hundreds of retail outlets providing their every need and want. As you might imagine, it's not all it's cracked up to be. Peter, a leader and a man of action, ends up trapped and bored because of the success of his survival plan.  Francine gets tired of being treated like a girly-girl, even though she's pregnant.  Stephen, who's really kind of a putz, agrees to teach Fran to fly the chopper, but one still doesn't manage to like him much.  A fine, quiet scene comes about two-thirds of the way through the film when, after another delicious meal amid the luxuries, Fran asks, sadly, "What have we done?"

What they've done, of course, is survive. Survival in a true crisis often requires a real and antisocial selfishness, a cold ruthless approach to addressing immediately threats, and, in the long term, a radically proscribed existence to keep the dangers at bay.  It's an almost inhuman way to live -- an insight granted by The Last Man On Earth and I Am Legend.  But the problem, usually, is people.  They get bored, they get lazy, they get reckless, or they just get mean.  Remember those helicopter lessons Stephen was giving to Fran?  Well, that reckless act attracts the attention of a roving gang of meanies in the form of bikers.  Harleys, not Schwinns.

And here's where Romero shows that he understands how to make an entertaining film.  In Act One, set up your premise and get the plot ball rolling with a good dose of action and a generous glimpse of the monsters.  In Act Two, slow it down a bit and let the characters deepen the narrative in a thoughtful manner.  In Act Three, close with a rip-roaring finish that messes with the heart and the head.

The bikers break in to the mall, suspecting there's someone hiding in there, but really just to do some good-natured looting.  Of course, in all the ruckus, they bring a fair number of zombies behind them.  And Peter and Stephen can help but sneak out of their hideout to check out the scene, leading Stephen to deliver my favorite line in the film: "Hey, that's our stuff!" Then Stephen (the putz) starts firing his gun at the bikers.  Now it's Stephen and Peter against the biker gang against the zombies.  Stephen is overwhelmed by zombies, Peter makes it back to safety, temporarily, and the bikers retreat with their armloads of summer sausages and aromatic soaps.  In the end, Peter and Fran attempt to flee in the helicopter, but let's not give away the ending, shall we?

Aside from the fine, fundamental storytelling in Dawn of the DeadTom Savini for his makeup work.  Savini, a Vietnam vet who strove for a gruesome realism in his work, developed the blueish hue for the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, as well as a whole range of mangling, dangling, and gnawed fleshy parts.  One of the great visual contrasts in the film is the outright pretty artificiality of the mall and the ugly, deformed presence of all those zombies.  The effect is somehow subtle at first, almost unnoticed, which probably says much about how even normal people can shamble through the mall at times.

I won't be the first to write it, but Dawn of the Dead is an excellent zombie film, horror film, just plain film, that holds up well after all these years.  With a great concept that is well-executed and outstanding effects, George Romero's return to the land of zombies sets the standard in terms of balanced tone, entertainment value, and social satire that most other zombie movies should strive for.


The Omega Man (1971)

"Eat lead, you undead commie bastards!"

I really wanted to like this movie. I know there are some high-profile fans of The Omega Man (Tim Burton) and that it's often seen as a prime example of camp or satire or some species of so-bad-it's-good. I love a rousing apocalyptic romp. My family has owned a copy of Planet of the Apes since 1982, and I think Charlton Heston is awesome. But, brothers and sisters, I can't say I liked much about The Omega Man.

The Omega Man isn't good camp because it's not artificial or ostentatious enough, nor does it put almost everything in quotation marks, as I remember reading somewhere about camp. Good camp is the old Batman television series, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Moulin Rouge, and the Presidency of George W. Bush. The Omega Man can't be bad camp because there is not bad camp – there's just bad.

The Omega Man has some satirical elements, of course, poking fun at materialism, gun culture, the media, revolution, and how all old animosities can fade away once the world ends. But these objections are too easy, and pulled off in such a graceless way that even the Heston's wry growliness amid the rubble overreaches. And the film isn't in the so-bad-it's-good neighborhood because there are too many glimpses of competence amid the stupidity.

"We shall kill you with our flair for ferocious rhetorical nuance!"
The plot is loosely based on Richard Mathisen's novel I Am Legend, focuses on an Army scientist (Heston) who, as the world is being destroyed by biological warfare, desperately injects himself with an experimental vaccine. It works, but Heston's character is the only normal man left on Earth – or at least in the city of Los Angeles, which will have to do. He spends his solo time driving fast through the streets, armed to the teeth, killing off members of The Family when he can find them. The Family are what's become of the bioweapon survivors: light-fearing, sore-festering, black-robe-and-mirrored-sunglasses-wearing creeps, led by the former news anchor and current postapocalyptic windbag/madman Mathias (Anthony Zerbe). The members of The Family are just plain goofy looking, and I was awfully pleased when Heston got to kill a few here and there, though it didn't seem a fair fight. In his spare time in the evenings, Heston's character enjoys wiping sweat from his naked man-torso and drinking scotch, maybe breaking up the monotony to eat some beans and fire a few rounds at the Family from his fortified fourth floor balcony. Wipe, glug, pow, pow.

In Act Two, Heston meets a fine young woman, Lisa, played by Rosalind Cash, who has not yet been infected, and he takes her back to his place. Turns out, of course, there's a small group of survivors living outside the city. Maybe Heston could come and visit? Maybe he could help them find a cure? Maybe, baby, but how does that song go? “If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy. . .” It doesn't matter that Heston's a old white Army dude and Lisa's a foxy girl with an Afro. It's the end of the world, people. Bow-chicka-bow-bow.

Anyway, the sex might be good, but the movie really goes downhill from there. A cure is found, and the Family almost get Heston, but then they don't, then all that good lovin' makes Heston vulnerable, and he gets caught, wounded, and dies in a fountain, laid out dead in his best Christ-pose. Jesus, it's bad. He died so that others may live, see? Yawn. At no point are the baddies scary. At no point are you disturbed or even grossed out. There's a couple of chuckles here and there, but mostly the whole rigmarole is annoying. If you like Heston, you'll enjoy bits here and there. If you like zombie movies, you'll dislike The Omega Man. That's my final word.


Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Writing about the mother of all zombie movies -- the film that changed not just the horror genre but may have helped usher in the original MPAA ratings system -- feels a bit intimidating.  Much has been written about George A. Romero's seminal zombie movie, and in no way can I cover every possible reading of the film or provide a full survey of its history or related trivia.  But, like Ben holed up in that remote Pennsylvania farmhouse, I'm going to do my best to survive!

Night of the Living Dead still has the capacity to shock because it goes into taboo territory, to include story elements or images that for the most part are strictly off-limits.  In this way, NLD reminds me of a much older film, Tod Browning's Freaks, a pre-Code movie (from 1932) that challenges the audience by using many real-life sideshow performers as characters in what is basically a gruesome revenge tragedy.  With NLD, screenwriters John Russo and George Romero plotted a story that moved into territory that violated social values and taboos.  Many people have written about the filmmakers' intention of commenting on the times, but I don't think that's exactly how many zombie films work.  Rather, much of what an effective zombie film does is to show how human nature reveals itself when the social fabric unravels, civilization collapses, and existence is reduced to a kill-or-be-killed scenario. Whatever values and habits survivors hang on to -- or whatever new ones they develop -- unfolds in them.

The primary taboo that zombies violate is the eating of human flesh.  As many will know, one of Romero and Russo's original titles was "Night of the Flesh-Eaters," and, of course, NLD was inspired in part by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, in which the apocalyptic scourge comes in the form of vampires, blood-suckers existing a degree of magnitude beneath flesh-eaters.  And although one could make much of cannibalism as a commentary on the excesses of consumer capitalism, cannibalism has a much more fundamental history as an idea that Western civilization defines itself in opposition to.  It's not so much that zombies are eating your flesh, it's that, in a sense, they are eating everything we've come to identify ourselves with.  Again and again, zombies are shown as outside (a room, a house, a mall, a wall) and trying to get in. The barbarians are at the gate.

Certainly, 1968 was a year of cultural anxiety in the United States.  Richard Nixon was elected President, in part, by running as the candidate of law and order.  Coming as it did out of this moment of perceived chaos, Night of the Living Dead builds some of its  tensions out of cultural elements.  The media is shown as slow to perceive what's really going on, referring to the growing hoards of cannibalistic ghouls as "mass murderers," still applying the old framework.  The federal government may know what's going on, but they are not going to be forthcoming with the general public.  Local law enforcement is handled for the most part by dangerously cocky rednecks with guns, and they'll happily deal with the walking dead as long as the coffee's hot and the ammo plentiful.

Ont the ground, where the main plot of Night of the Living dead unfolds, matters are far more gruesome.  Opening in a rural cemetery where Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O'Dea)  have reluctantly come to visit the grave of their father, Johnny teases her graveyard-fearing sister with the now famous line, "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" Before you know it, Johnny is downed by an indigenous zombie and Barbara runs for for her life, finding refuge in a rural farmhouse. She is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who, seeing that she's in shock, takes it upon himself to secure the house, boarding up the windows and doors and locating a gun.  Although the pairing of a white woman and a black man alone in a house might not seem problematic for younger audiences, at the time, it would certainly have raised some eyebrows.  The fact that Ben is perfectly comfortable taking charge -- asserting himself physically when necessary -- is all the more socially provocative. We're a long way from the island automaton of Carrefour in 1943's I Walked With A Zombie.

After a time, as night falls, Ben discovers that a handful of people have been hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse.  There's a teenage couple, Tom (Wayne Keith) and Judy (Judith Ridley).  More notably, there's a family whose daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon) has been bitten by a zombie, and she's dying despite the care of her weary mother Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and her panicky, overbearing father Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). Harry would rather everyone stay cooped up down in the cellar, door bolted against the gathering hordes.  As Ben makes clear, once everyone's locked into the basement, there's no way out.  Some of the best moments in the film happen between Ben and Harry, exchanges full of racial subtext, with Karl Harman showing some fine acting chops for imperious douchebaggery in the face of Duane Jones' urgent confidence.

The plot ball rolls along quickly after this point.  After a time, everyone agrees to Ben's plan.  They'll gas up the pickup truck they have at one of the farm's outbuildings and make a run for a nearby refuge. This goes badly. Teenagers are burned alive and then eaten in gory detail; Ben just makes it back to the house, where he and Harry struggle over the only gun, even as the zombies are climbing through the doors and windows.  Harry gets himself shot, but stumbles back to the cellar, where he finds his daughter Karen, now a zombie, ready to eat him. Helen manages to free herself and retreat to the basement as well, but undead Karen stabs her over and over with a trowel, presumably antecedent to making a meal of mommy. Barbara, who had been staying alive to this point, sees her brother Johnny among the invading zombies and is carried off.  Karen, escaping from the cellar, makes a move for Ben, but he slips down into the basement and locks himself in. As a bonus, he gets to shoot the animated corpses of Helen and Dickhead Cooper.  In the morning, the zombies are cleared out by the redneck/NRA hordes, who happen to take out Ben with a head shot.  He could have been a zombie, after all. Game over.

The reversals pile up faster than the motionless bodies of zombies in the last half of the film.  Still concerned about your brother?  You'll be carried off and eaten, and Johnny will nibble on your knees.  Idealistic teenage love?  That'll get you blown up and eaten.  Take a gun away from a black man?  That'll get you shot.  Look after your children?  They'll kill you and eat you.  Stay loyal to your husband?  He'll get you killed and eaten by your own children. Assume the authorities will come to your rescue?  They'll end up assuming you're part of the problem shoot you in the head.  Forget the zombies, it's people who are the problem. Romero and Russo pile up the unthinkables-- murder, cannibalism, miscegenation, patricide, matricide, racial revolt, martial law, even incest -- to the point where viewer's might miss them on a conscious level, but their effects would nevertheless be felt.

Produced in black-and-white in and around Pittsburgh on a very limited budget, using regional actors, and for a grand total of $114,000 (about $750,000 in 2011), Night of the Living Dead should be understood as an independent film in the the purest sense.  In contrast, the year's top-grossing films in similar genres were Rosemary's Baby (which I've never cared for) and Planet of the Apes (which I adore), although both of these deal with themes of paranoia and revolt.  The realism of the film's look -- especially its prominent gore -- combined with its uncompromising presentation of taboo -- provoked a remarkable range of reactions from audiences and critics.  Regardless of critical or public opinion, Night of the Living Dead is the film that spawned most of the zombie movies to follow -- in part, because of its innovation, and perhaps because of its (oops) entry into the public domain. As a true original, it should be mandatory viewing for all zombie fans, if not all students of American cinema.


Navigating the Living Dead

Up next in Mort-Vivant's exploration of the zombie movie canon is George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the groundbreaking and poorly-copyrighted work that has spawned a whole family of living dead movies.  For the most part, I'll follow the main line of Romero's movies, with a few digressions here and there.  In the meantime, I leave you with this excellent genealogical chart for figuring out what goes where in this particular corner of the zombiverse, courtesy of paultagonist.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The contemporary zombie movie makes a protean appearance in the 1964 Ubaldo Ragona/Sidney Salkow film, The Last Man on Earth.  Starring Vincent Price and a cast of all Italian actors, this adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend has many of the elements that, a generation later, define the parameters of the world of the zombie apocalypse.  Produced on a low budget and differing significantly from Matheson's novel, The Last Man on Earth is nevertheless successful in its stark imagery, sustained mood, and the precise, restrained performance of the great Vincent Price.

In the year 1968, the world is three years into a plague that has killed billions, and turned untold numbers into vampire-like creatures who shun sunlight, hate mirrors, and are repelled by garlic.  Shambling, stupid, and weak, these undead don't pose much of a threat to our antihero, Dr. Robert Morgan (Price), who roams the city by day exterminating the sleeping undead, then holes up in his fortified house at night.  

At the start of the plague, three years earlier, Morgan had been researching a cure, not realizing that he was in fact immune, having been bitten by a vampire bat in Panama some time before.  As Morgan seeks to find a cure, the plague is killing people by the thousands, and the government has decreed that bodies of the recently deceased are to be burned to prevent them from returning as the undead. Mogan's wife and daughter succumb to the plague.  His daughter's corpse is burned, but Morgan manages to arrange a burial for his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli).  But she, now undead, claws her way out of her grave and shows up at Morgan's door one horrible night.  Morgan must lose his wife all over again.

Back in the apocalyptic present, Morgan, who has survived by creating a regimented existence for himself, struggled to sustain his ongoing project of ridding the city of undead.  For Morgan's character -- and Price plays him as a weary mix of grief, hope, obsessiveness, and black humor -- to continue the work must at times appear to be a futile task. There are millions of undead; his quest is absurd.  If he were to find a cure, how would he go about implementing it?  Every now and then, it appears Morgan has a lachrymose evening in his wife's crypt or a boozy night watching home movies, but he's up the next day to turn wooden stakes in the lathe and go a-killin' all over again.

This changes, naturally, when Morgan discovers a young woman, Ruth (Franco Bettoia), off in the distance on his daily rounds. Morgan chases her down, convinces her to come back to his house, and, after a time, she reveals to him that she, too has the plague.  The difference is, however, Ruth is part of a group of survivors who are under treatment and have managed to avoid the whole undead thing.  They are starting a new society, and Ruth, in fact, was sent to spy on Morgan, who's managed to destroy some of the new breed in his daily rounds.  When Ruth falls asleep, Morgan takes a chance and gives Ruth a transfusion of his blood, which, containing antibodies for the plague, cures her.  It is, however, too late, as the militia of the new breed arrive to rid the world of Morgan, who is seen in their eyes as a monstrous remnant of the old world.

For viewers seeking gore and gruesomeness, keep in mind that the film was made in 1964, so, being under the motion picture code, there was no way to go beyond the consensus censorship of the period.  The undead are extra pale, have shadowy rings around their eyes, and extreme cases of bed-head, but are otherwise intact in appearance.  They talk a little, and say things like, "Morgan! Arrr! Come out, Morgan!"  They can hit things with sticks and throw rocks, but generally have a hard time getting around given the rigor mortis in their joints.

The most frustrating aspect of this otherwise effective film, in truth, is the new breed -- the hybrid undead, so to speak -- who appear in the last twenty minutes of the film. Their presence in this post-apocalyptic world is so poorly explained and unexplored -- though their hatred of Morgan is clear enough -- the waste of a good idea becomes all the more nagging the more one reflects on the film. Another understandable annoyance is the poor dubbing in post-production, a flaw no doubt inevitable as all the actors but Price must have been speaking their lines in Italian-accented English.

Neither of these shortcomings detract from the strengths of The Last Man on Earth.  It presents a compelling dramatic situation made all the more tortuous by the internal conflicts Morgan faces both as a scientist and a family man;    The settings of urban environments starkly empty of people are all the more chilling for the effective use of black-and-white film.  First and foremost, Vincent Price's performance will be a surprise for many in its emotional nuance and control -- there's not a moment of camp and scenery-chewing to be found.  Most of all, The Last Man on Earth, as it offers the first glimpses of what would become a whole richly explored genre of horror film, carries with it the suggestion of yet-unexplored areas of the premise.  Just how long can a survivor last -- and why bother?  How strong are the bonds of family between the living and the undead?  If the undead develop a culture of their own, how does it happen, and what does it look like?

Richard Matheson, the author of I Am Legend, preferred this version of his book to 1971's The Omega Man, but ultimately didn't care for the casting of Price or for some of the director's choices.  Matheson helped with the screenplay, but used the pseudonym Logan Swanson in the film credits rather than his own. It would remain for George Romero and others to work out the movie world of the zombie apocalypse in the years to come, but The Last Man on Earth is still the first word.