By John Wenz & Courtney Snyder
Death truly does scare damn near everyone. People are always talking about “fates worse than death” but most folks would discard that as a bunch of horse shit. With age, we outgrow and shed certain concerns, always developing new fears. The elderly in particular aren’t exactly rushing toward the cradling arms of their demise. But for the broken down, the rest in death guaranteed by Christian dogma is a secret, sweet relief. In this, what many scholars have deemed the “post-Christian” era, and the deterioration of its ideals, ethics, and the very crucifixion of its mythos, the fear of no rest even in death suggested by George A. Romero’s Living Dead trilogy is especially poignant, more so than ever before.
After much deliberation and a seemingly never-ending struggle with financiers and American film commissions, “Dawn Of The Dead” came around nearly ten years after its 1968 predecessor, “Night of the Living Dead.”
“Night of the Living Dead” depicts the initial reactions of the plague of functioning, flesh eating dead who eventually overrun the planet by the third film, “Day of The Dead.” While news agencies in the first film theorize endlessly regarding the root of the plague, the suggestion is that radiation from a recently returned Venus probe is most likely to blame. In “Dawn of the Dead,” however, the protagonists reflect on the current events from a theological stand point, and retort, “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth” — supposedly derived from a Macumba tradition, which is a Caribbean folk religion much akin to Vodun (Voodoo).
In “Night of the Living Dead,” survivors band together in a farmhouse, just hoping to survive the onslaught of the staggering undead. In the process, they go through the psychological torment resulting from their mounting paranoia and fear. “Night of the Living Dead” was a successful allegory in the vein of “Invasion of The Body Snatchers,” depicting the climate of concern pertaining to communist infiltration from within. “Dawn of the Dead” is certainly not without an agenda of its own, and humorously coats its gorier components in a sardonic commentary on modern consumerism.
“Dawn of the Dead” not only drags the terrors of its predecessor into open daylight, but also reflects the events in an urban Pittsburgh setting as the plague escalates. The movie opens on Fran (Gaylen Ross), a television station engineer, inundated by smooth, yet frenetic in nature media cuts, establishing the climate. In the studio, a talk show debate ensues between the realists, and those clinging to the belief that the undead are still human. It’s here that a very appropriate phrase is uttered by one of the station’s producers: the shit really is hitting the fan. Meanwhile, Fran and her camera man beau, Stephen, plan to escape the station by helicopter.
We’re also provided with a look at how the plague is affecting the slums of the inner city. A SWAT team attempts to settle the situation as best they can, but things nearly run amok when they are met with resistance from the living tenement occupants, hindered by their antiquated Catholic respect for the dead. The odds seem hopelessly stacked against them as the reanimated corpses run wild, infecting the living with the solanum disease. Here, we meet Roger (Scott Reiniger), a friend of Stephen’s and a SWAT agent, as he witnesses the carnage and the constant strain around him, driven by friendly fire, rabid zombies, and suicide. These scenes are undoubtedly some of the most intriguing in the film, offering varied points of view from a different social class and ethnicity — namely a view from the ghettos, where education isn’t so easy to come by and superstitions die hard.
Roger manages to escape to a basement, where he encounters Peter (Ken Foree), the man who shot troop leader Wooley. Roger tells Peter of his potential escape aboard the same chopper as Fran and Stephen. When they meet up with Fran and Stephen, they come across a group of survivors also trying to escape, by boat. Their destination: anywhere. (Later, inspiration for Fulci’s “ZOMBI” and this film’s eventual remake). The hopelessness of the situation is now set in stone. As we see in the third part in the trilogy, “Day of the Dead,” the living are fighting a losing battle here… if they die, they become one of them.
Fran, Stephen, Peter and Roger take to the air, and soon find themselves in an abandoned shopping mall filled with civil defense rations. They quickly decide to make it their own, and work to secure the building from the constant zombie threat, losing a few of their team members in the process.
Any more than this, and it will spoil the film for you. The bottom line is that the real horror of this movie is that our protagonists end up with a fate worse than death: boredom. Themes of isolation, consumerism, and other topics are brought to the forefront. The film is a brilliant depiction by Romero of what would happen if such a situation were to ever come about.
One element of the film, dated by today’s standards but which leant a modern edge to the film, is the synth-driven rock score by Italian prog rock and electro auteurs Goblin. Each chunk of dark, monotone, electronic sound exaggerates the film’s homogenic, even at times sterile, setting. Of course, this score is only to be found throughout Argento’s cut of the film, replacing the appropriate muzak score found in Romero’s preferred and meatier cut.
Much of the credit for the superior score can be given to Dario Argento, the Italian horror legend who met with Romero and offered to co-produce the film. Argento had worked with Goblin before, on other horror films such as “Suspiria” and “Profondo Rosso,” and suggested the band to Romeo. Although the credit in the film is given to “The Goblins with Dario Argento,” he was really little more than a conceptual director, as the band has stated he did not play any instruments or write any material. The real artists at work were Goblin themselves.
Although only three of their songs were used in the final American cut, the Italian cut of the film contains most of the songs composed for the film; a soundtrack album is available with all of these tracks, plus a few alternate takes. It’s a shame that most of the material was cut from the American version, as the band’s schizophrenic, vigorous music would have done well pumped throughout the entire film. Although Goblin were the sole composers for the film, Argento combed through the De Wolfe film music library for sixty-some-odd cues of other music that are heard throughout the film, including the bizarre piece entitled “The Gonk” by Herbert Chappell. While this music is charming in its own way, a more brilliant effect would have been achieved with a solely Goblin-ized soundtrack. Argento also turned the volume down on the music in the American release, for reasons that remain unknown to us.
Goblin guitarist and vocalist Massimo Morante says of the film: “‘Dawn of the Dead’ was a big hit, and I’d guess the American audience knows us especially by virtue of that soundtrack. I personally repudiate Romero’s version, which is incomprehensibly filled with pompous orchestra music. I suppose he wasn’t very satisfied with our score… and that upsets me, since everyone else thought we did a terrific job. All in all, I consider it a wonderful experience, even if I’m not particularly fond of horror films.”
Goblin’s throbbing, humanlike moog sounds and aggressive guitars and keyboards make this a perfectly executed, near-flawless soundtrack of moody atmospherics. Without Goblin’s contribution, the end result may have been a film lacking its current biting edge, not to mention much of its success.