1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director / Screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.

Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.

Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.

The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.

Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.

Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.

There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.

Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.

Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis,  if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.

But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.

This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.

Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.

Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.

Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.

Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.

The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.

Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.

The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.

The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.

Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.

Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.

Standard
2000s, Australian cinema, Drama, Foreign, Historical

Van Diemen’s Land (2009)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jonathan Auf Der Heide

By Roderick Heath

Western civilisation’s remarkable capacity for setting up hells on earth at suitably distant places from itself in the Age of Enlightenment saw the primeval landscape of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known until 1856, become a place synonymous with harsh extremes and brutality. There the English invaders and the aboriginals engaged in a genocidal war of possession, and some of the harshest penal colonies were erected to banish the domestic losers of the British Empire’s great age of expansion and industrialisation. Thus, the best Australian movies—as opposed to the most popular—usually have a hint of deeply uneasy existential fable to them. Van Diemen’s Land, an oddly unheralded work, is a return to subject matter for Aussie films that was rendered groanworthy by repetition in the colonial revivalism of the ’70s and ’80s: the Convict and Settlement era. But Jonathan Auf Der Heide, an actor making his feature directorial debut, chose to tell an infamous story, one that inherently resists being romanticised. Auf Der Heide expanded Van Diemen’s Land from the short film Hell’s Gate, which dealt with the story of Alexander Pearce and the seven other convicts who escaped with him from the penal settlement of Sarah’s Island, Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pearce’s subsequent cannibalisation of several of his fellows became one of the most bloody and colourful tales in the already bloody and colourful history of that island.

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Pearce’s story, which saw him nicknamed “The Pieman” in later mythology (there’s even a Pieman Creek, named after him, near which the film was shot), recently came back to attention both through Auf Der Heide’s film and the nearly simultaneous Dying Breed, which used the legend of Pearce as the background for a The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) knock-off. Van Diemen’s Land immediately posits itself as a meditation on the terror and beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, which is distinct from the Australian mainland in several ways: heavily forested and possessing a climate similar to Europe.

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Auf Der Heide makes his models and debts, to Herzog and Malick, fairly plain early in the film, but for once, an Aussie director with an eye for artful foreign models chooses them as is appropriate to the material, and moulds them to his own purpose. His film is shot through with a deeply convincing and gruelling sense of physical detail, especially in the early scenes that concentrate, with little dialogue, on the working men, their axes hewing into wood and shoes squelching in mud, hauling great logs into the harbour. There are also notes of black wit to leaven the bloodcurdling, unblinking approach to physical violence, and a cunning approach to the characterisations of the escapees, who are introduced as the anonymous members of a labouring gang. Auf Der Heide commences with a jolt of disorientating humour, showing a huge mouth sloppily chewing on a badly cooked pie, before revealing this is actually an officer, the overseer of a detachment of convicts. It’s more than just a grim joke, though: food is the chief dramatic stake and object of power in the following narrative.

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Several of the convicts are Irish, victims of imperialism in subtle and overt manners, but that’s a point Auf Der Heide avoids proselytising into the ground, as finally, their backgrounds and identities place a distant second to their immediate capacity to live and kill. That he illustrates the point indirectly by having Pearce’s voiceover meditations spoken in his native Irish Gaelic rather than in the English he needs to communicate to most of the others, and the bare tolerance of the Irish, Scots, and English members of the party, which erupts occasionally into brawling, say enough. The Gaelic also carries a strong whiff of something more primal, barely reconstructed by a modern, viciously repressive milieu: the “freedom” that the convicts give themselves, even at its direst end, is only a variation on their lives. Pearce (Oscar Redding, who cowrote the script with Auf Der Heide) is initially indistinguishable from the rest of the men detailed to fell trees at the outset. His crime, for which he was deported to the other end of the world, was the theft of three pairs of shoes—a very Jean Valjean sort of misdeed, but one Auf Der Heide doesn’t tap for any sympathy. Pearce doesn’t mention it until very late in the film, and it becomes more like the ultimate absurdity, the pretexts for which men are reduced to less than men. There’s also a dark echo to his crime, which Auf Der Heide indicates by offering shots of the shoes the men wear and that get dumped along the route: six pairs of shoes, including Pearce’s own, get him to where he finishes up, alone and depraved.

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Pearce, along with Bodenham (Thomas Wright), Travers (Paul Ashcroft), Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter), Kennerly (Greg Stone), Little Brown (John Francis Howard), Greenhill (Arthur Angel) ,and Mathers (Torquil Neilson), make a break when they’re sent to a remote edge of the harbour to fell trees under the supervision of Logan (Adrian Mulraney), an infuriatingly garrulous overseer who offers pronouncements like, “There’s freedom in work!” With a mixture of bonhomie and self-satisfaction, Logan offers the crew a share of the decent meal he had partaken of the night before: none of the men take him up on it. Greenhill tackles Logan when the coast is clear, and the men strip him naked to augment their own clothing with vengeful delight. Dalton has to threaten Mathers to make him stop hitting the overseer who asks, “Where are you going? There’s nothing out there!” There is something out there, however: where the men see nothing else, they see each other, alternately as companions in freedom, competitors, enemies stranded together, and, finally, food.

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Van Diemen’s Land, whilst offering information in carefully parcelled amounts, essentially reduces historical horror story to a virtually metaphysical simplicity: is it easy to reduce a man to an animal, or is it the man who is truly dangerous? Threat is inherent long before any violence makes itself plain; it’s even inherent when Kennerly says to Logan, with subtly genuine malice, that one of his fellow convicts would much rather be home than stuck with the likes of him. Kennerly and the injured Brown eventually split off from the party; having witnessed Dalton’s killing and deserting to try to make it back to their jailers before they starve, they sense that either way lies probable death. Auf Der Heide leaves the fate of the two men unstated (they did actually make it back to the penal settlement, only to both die in hospital). Dalton seems to be the practical leader at first in restraining Mathers and directing the party. Kennerly is the dominant personality at first, with his earthy humour and sexual anecdotes, but his style soon proves abrasive when he mocks one of his fellows for trying to hunt an animal (“You’ll never catch it! Them imaginations are too fast!”) and starts a brawl amongst the convicts.

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The initial plan, to try and make it to present-day Hobart and catch a ship away, gives way to a numbing, physically and spiritually corrosive pounding through bushland that’s seemingly as inhospitable as any desert. The men know far too little about survival in such circumstances to live off the land, and as the ructions deepen and the certainty that starvation looms for all of them, this near-inevitably translates into homicide. Dalton is the first victim, assaulted by Mathers and Travers and strung up to bleed to death. The axe that the convicts brought with them from their tree-felling labour becomes the totem passed between them, a tool of power and murder that some wield more easily than others. Pearce, in fact, initially stands back from the killing, and only develops and comes into specific focus as exceptional because in his quiet, reflective, foreboding nature lies a nihilistic potential to reject humanity with a completeness that eludes his other, more volatile and reactive fellows. “God can keep his heaven,” Pearce decides towards the end, “I am blood.”

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Unlike some other recent attempts to create a more probing, unremitting approach to the often awesome violence involved in the country’s first hundred years of white settlement, like Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Van Diemen’s Land presents violence free of apologia and Grand Guignol. Particularly in Pearce’s murder of Travers, Auf Der Heide presents the killing in all its unvarnished shades of feeling and physical difficulty, whilst managing to avoid being too theatrically literal (dismemberments are all offscreen). There’s a confrontational, questioning quality to this film that’s all too rare to Aussie films, apart from odd examples and the better works of Rolf de Heer.

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Early in the film, the convicts and their overseer travel upriver, tracing the edges of the bristling, choking landscape into which they’ll soon desperately plunge. Later interludes where the camera drifts through the mist-clogged, darkly thatched landscape, Pearce’s sonorous Gaelic epigrams suggesting the lurking psychic unease, allow Auf Der Heide to have his cake and eat it in twinning the deeply corporeal, immediate problems facing the characters and the almost cosmic hopelessness of a situation where only bestial reversion can offer survival. There’s an eerie moment later in the film in which Pearce and his last fellow survivor, Greenhill, stumble out of the forest into a grassy plain where soft rain falls. You can almost feel the psychic relief, even if it’s only temporary, before Pearce has an hallucination of Dalton’s shade, accompanied by Dalton’s “Cooee” cry, as if that’s only just echoed back to him. Earlier, Bodenham is killed when his fellows realise that he’s completely left them behind, psychically, staring distractedly into the trees, so that Mathers, after a long pause, lifts the axe and swats him on the head.

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The last section of the film plays out like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) stripped of all pretences of motivation other than naked survival and hate. Travers mocks Pearce, whose first actual killing is of Mathers when Mathers tries to convince him to take care of Greenhill, because Pearce committed his killing without any hypocrisy but only in recognising who the weakest member was. But Travers is bitten by a snake, and after days of helping him limp through the forest, Greenhill, having shepherded him to the point where he can’t move anymore, carefully leaves the axe propped for Pearce to take up to finish him off. But Pearce isn’t in the least bit merciful to Travers after his mockery, and with the words, “Your soul to the Devil!”, rather than quickly kill him, chokes him to death with the axe-head. Travers and Pearce then have nothing to do except wait for the time when one will kill the other. Pearce fools Travers into showing his hand first, and when Travers awakens the next morning with Pearce standing over him, he can only wait for the blow to fall and then eventually demand, “Get on with it.” Pearce’s final pronouncement on the subject, that he sees God as dancing over humans with an axe, is the end of his progression back into a heart of darkness as he chew on Greenhills’s flesh. Auf Der Heide smartly ends the film there, as there’s nothing more to be said apart from a written postscript that tells of Pearce’s recapture, the disbelief of his confession by the authorities, and the bleak postscript in which he escaped again and needlessly killed another convict in order to eat him.

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The juxtaposition of cancer-like neurosis blooming in the primordial forest and intense mortal and spiritual straits is a contrast more familiar from classic New Zealand than Australian cinema (Utu, Vigil, The Piano), though Van Diemen’s Land certainly expands the contemplation of the fearsome Aussie landscape seen in films like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. (1975). That Auf Der Heide’s debts are apparent and yet that his film still never feels laboured is an admirable achievement, and whilst Van Diemen’s Land would undoubtedly be a slightly too tough and taciturn experience for many audiences, it is purposefully so. In fact it’s as marvellously coherent, in the fullest sense of that word, as any Australian film I’ve seen in at least the past two decades, all the more admirable for choosing its firm focus and then taking no short cuts. It is, of course, inherent in the story, but Auf Der Heide nonetheless manages to communicate the way in which landscape and occurrence are linked in a much more profound way than, say, Philip Noyce’s similarly odyssean Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). Peculiarly enough for a film made by an actor, there’s an incredible avoidance of rhetorical showboating and anything but the most necessary emoting and semaphoring of internal meaning, making the collective acting all the more impressive. More than any other recent work I’ve seen, Van Diemen’s Land suggests the recent upturn in Australian cinematic culture might be more than skin deep.

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2000s, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Trouble Every Day (2001)

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Director/Screenwriter: Claire Denis

By Roderick Heath

Claire Denis is one of the best directors working today, a maker of films that are poetic and cryptic, humanist and yet lacking illusions, fascinatingly artful and creatively evasive. Trouble Every Day is both a key Denis film and her most atypical work: the ugly violence and horror-movie motifs she explored in her much-discussed 2001 film stand in contrast to the fonder instincts she displayed in her other notable films of the decade, including Friday Night (2003) and 35 Rhums (2009). Some feel Trouble Every Day was the film that gave new impetus to the visceral, attention-seeking, but largely silly wave of extreme Euro-horror. But Trouble Every Day takes its place in Denis’ canon with ease, not only in style, and in the multifarious ways it explore human intimacy, but also in the extension of the notion presented more tangentially in Beau Travail (1999) of the human body as both an object of fetish and warfare.

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In terms of pure story breakdown, Trouble Every Day toys with the essential ideas of many late ’70s European horror films, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Ruggiero Deodato, in which interloping white westerners who have travelled into foreign lands return infected with a taint that drives them to nihilistic violence. The literal plot is, however, only presented in tangential, hinted terms, the key occurrences having occurred long in the past, and the familiar patterns of those model stories are partly inverted. Trouble Every Day, both more exactingly grotesque and personal than many undeniably but often juvenilely brutal films, is also far more attuned to its protagonists as physical and moral entities.

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Denis commences with a series of what appear barely connected events that all contain the threat of horror. A young woman (Béatrice Dalle), wandering the desolate outer suburbs of Paris, eyes a truck driver with evident sexual interest, and he responds; later, a motorcyclist (Alex Descas), coming across the man’s parked truck and the woman’s van, penetrates the vacant lot nearby and finds the man’s mangled body and the woman dissociated and caked in blood. Simultaneously, a newly married American couple, Dr. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his bride June (Tricia Vessey), arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, but only after Shane has locked himself in the plane toilet and had a panic attack whilst conjuring visions of June drenched in blood.

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Denis’ peculiar, eliding film grammar, alive to the minatory pleasures found in the focused tranquility of a commute home from work, or the cigarette break when at one’s job, meshes here with her bizarre story to create a rare texture. The long prologue, consisting of decorous dissolves between shots of Paris at sunset, romantic and yet dark, sonorous, to the music of The Tindersticks (their soundtrack is generally admired, and rightly so), remakes Denis’ Paris as a depopulated, drowsy, faintly forbidding place, and much of the rest of the film is shot either early in the morning or in the late evening. Her purpose, to both evoke and undermine the romantic glaze of the city as one for lovers, is slow to congeal, but ineffaceable once done. Gallo’s own debt to what he learnt (or mislearnt, as some might have it, from Denis) for his own The Brown Bunny (2003) is evident in how he tried to counterpoint textures of grief, expressed in lingering images of ceaseless travel, with grossly intimate physicality and brutal discoveries.

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Denis explores bodies with the eye of an astronomer craning closer and closer to see all the multitudinous shapes and intricacies charged with mystery and beauty. Here it contributes to the slow conditioning of a sense of uneasy eroticism, her camera playing over the minute pores of Vessey’s skin as Shane suffers from initially inexplicable, repeated spasms of anxiety as he fondles himself, pops mysterious pills, and avoids intimate contact with June: at one point he locks himself in the hotel bathroom to masturbate rather than conclude sex with her, to June’s pleading, despairing reaction to being locked out.

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Slowly, the facts begin to solidify. The young woman glimpsed at the start is Coré Semenau, and the motorcyclist was her husband Leó, a doctor and former research fellow of Shane’s. Leó has dropped out of sight in the scientific research community because of his wife’s mysterious illness. Shane visits a lab where Leo used to work in attempting to find them, and he meets the sceptical reaction of one of Leó’s former colleagues about a theory of his that Shane is interested in following up on. A lab assistant, Malécot (Hélène Lapiower), contacts Shane later and gives him a lead as to where Leó and Coré have retreated. It is a large, old house that’s been fortified by Leó to try to keep Coré locked up, but every now and then she escapes, and he has to track her down, inevitably finding her next to another mangled body. In one of several hazy flashbacks that punctuate the film, Shane recalls an icy conversation with a fellow scientist, Friessen (Marilu Marini), in which he explained how he and Coré had an affair when they accompanied Leó on a jungle research expedition, and Shane also stole some of Leó’s data to advance his own career. But the darker secret soon reveals itself when two young men (Nicolas Duvauchelle and Raphaël Neal) break into Leó and Coré’s house, believing that because of the security it must contain all sorts of riches. One of them instead finds Coré, making a hot and sultry come-on, and he joins her in bed, where she commences to eat him. And that’s not a euphemism.

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Denis’ films are often about patiently withheld secrets and veiled truths of great importance. Here, the hidden crux is monstrous. Coré and Shane both have a disease that drives them to acts of cannibalistic sadism when they engage in intercourse: desire portrayed as a literally carnivorous act. Shane’s keeping his disease partly controlled, but in his new, frustrating marriage he’s clearly being driven closer and closer to the edge of total enslavement to the disease that Coré is gripped by. The story evokes some classic metaphors and images of sexual anxiety, particularly in the scenes of the young men trying to penetrate that mysterious house and gain access to the woman who is raw passion personified, and, in the mythic tradition, the price to be paid for this transgression is not small. In its own hypermodernist way, then, Trouble Every Day is about taboos that are ancient and figurations that are primal. When the young man who will be Core’s last victim finds her eyeing him from behind wooden slats, he’s violating a sanctum, a common fairytale motif, and unleashing the contained yet always straining feminine libido (the similarity to Michael Cacoyannis’ vision of Helen contained in The Trojan Women leapt out at me).

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The subsequent visions of Dalle—large teeth dripping gore like one of H. R. Giger’s aliens, laughing and toying with her prey who’s unable to fight off her supercharged strength, as she bites off his lips and slides fingers under flaps of skin, all the while giggling like a child—aren’t easily forgotten. Perhaps even more affecting, however, is the agonised spectacle of the perpetually unspeaking Leó trying to take care of his wife, who he loves in a deep, easily apparent fashion, in spite of all good sense, and Shane’s increasingly frail efforts to keep his wife from becoming the object of his own latent predatory tendencies. Questions of how people use each other, laden sometimes with both hate and love, bubble throughout. Denis’ taciturnity as an artist is actually one of her great strengths, and that’s readily apparent here as her galvanising efforts escape the facile inchoate provocations of Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier in trying to keep pace. Shane’s hunger for money (which he confesses through silence to Friessen) and for Coré, both of which meant fucking over (Afro-French) Leó, condenses forms of betrayal and exploitation, but Denis leaves this as a suggestive aspect of her drama. Simultaneously, whilst Denis is undoubtedly making an excellent horror movie, her approach both teases apart the fibre of old-fashioned mad scientist and vampire movies and restores and emphasises sensitivities usually excised from the gruelling modern genre. Shane’s mixture of unrequited passion and intense guilt is part and parcel with his disease, gnawing him from the inside out as much as the disease makes him and Coré gnaw on other people, and Shane’s killing of Coré, after she’s set fire to her house is part mercy killing, part self-defence, and part last-ditch effort to kill the animal in himself she embodies.

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Denis’s fascination for layers of society interacting half-consciously in modern metropolitan life sees her segue now and then from the main drama to follow the maids in Shane and June’s hotel, women of various ages and states of being, and especially pretty, young Christelle (Florence Loiret-Caille). Denis follows Christelle as she’s dropped off in the morning by her boyfriend, pinches unused perks left in hotel rooms, and sprawls on the Browns’ bed when they’re both out for a cigarette. She catches Shane’s eye, and he catches her, so that when Shane tracks her into the maids’ locker room, the thrill of a quickie is nigh, but this turns inevitably into another grotesque assault, punctuated by the nightmarish image of Shane’s blood-smeared face rising from between Christelle’s legs and then kissing her, forcing her to taste her own blood. It’s as genuinely horrific a scene as cinema can offer, but one that, in ironically treading close to pornographic detail, avoids the pornographic thrill of a lot of modern horror movies, in which sexualised violence is presented through conveniently shallow characterisations. The idea that true terror lies at the end of a simple workday shift is all too resonant. Denis tries to encompass her bottom-of-the-barrel fantasia in just such a way that makes every cruel and kind act count, and in this way, Denis both heightens and reinforces the emotions that underpin many of her other films; but also the threat of damage individuals can do to each other hovers in those other works and explodes here.

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Denis’ style might have felt a bit abstract, some of the power in her approach left untapped in trying just a little too hard to avoid the usual, if it wasn’t for the offhand wonder of moments like that in which June automatically helps Christelle make the bed in June and Shane’s hotel room, a telling moment of interaction; June’s not someone who’s used to or comfortable with being waited on, and also not one to let her bridal couch be usurped by anyone else, a point that has dreadful ramifications. Or the heartbreaking tenderness with which Leó cleans Coré after one of her murders. Or the polite yet remorseless way Friessen orders Shane out of her lab. Or the dark suggestiveness of Leó, and the audience, knowing what he’ll find when he spies blood dripping from stalks of grass in another of the vacant lots Coré uses as her killing ground. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Shane and June visit Notre Dame, Shane acting like the monster of traditional movieland as an overture to a magically romantic moment high in the towers, closing in for the most tender of clinches as the June’s headscarf blows away, a moment that renders her confused and despairing later reaction to Shane’s retreat to the bathroom to jerk off all the more palpable.

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In offering a melodramatic set-up, Denis doesn’t quite deal with how this upsets the usual balance of her style, and outsized horror grazes against fragile humanity, contributing to the finally icy, alien chill the film gives off. I suppose that’s a comparatively small complaint, considering the undeniably powerful and quite brilliant film Denis wrought. The effect of Trouble Every Day sinks deep into the bones and doesn’t let go for hours after the chillingly curt coda. Denis manages to conjure what is at once a psychologically, physically, and metaphorically immediate sense of hell being other people.

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