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~Better Off Dead
You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!
~Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
The blood of these whores is killing me!
~Blood for Dracula
There's a lot of pollution between here and the North Pole.
I kick ass for the Lord!
Don't tell me I don't know what Vietnam was like!
I wouldn't suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!
I knew a guy who was dyslexic, but he was also cross-eyed, so everything came out right.
To know death, Otto, you have to *beep* life in the gallbladder.
~Flesh for Frankenstein
Don't piss me off, junior, or I will repaint this office with your brains!
~Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives
Eat a bowl of *beep*!
~Night of the Demons
I'd buy that for a dollar!
Anyway, how's your sex life?
It must be weird, not having anybody cum on you.
And you can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
An exemplary work of '70s cinema
The other night I watched the second of George Romero's genre-defining zombie apocalypse films, Dawn of the Dead. It was the first time I had seen the movie since I was 17 years old, a fresh-faced newcomer to the horror genre; at the time, although I did enjoy the movie, I felt that its high camp factor and primitive effects (most clearly evidenced by spatters of fluorescent red blood and neon blue zombie flesh) ultimately detracted from the visceral impact of the truly chilling scenario that Romero had postulated.
However, re-watching Dawn of the Dead as a seasoned veteran of all things bloody and macabre, I now recognize Dawn of the Dead not only as a masterpiece of the horror genre, but also as a quintessentially dour slice of '70s cinema and an uncomfortably probing examination of human behavior in the midst of a collapsing civilization.
Dawn of the Dead's opening sequence is one of the most effective and unsettling openers ever committed to celluloid. In the first shot, a woman awakens from a nightmare lying on the floor of a chaotic television studio. Frantic employees are scrambling to broadcast the locations of rescue stations, while an irate talk show host and government scientist heatedly argue about the nature of the ambiguous disaster unfolding beyond the walls of the studio. In this sequence, Romero masterfully creates a mood of apocalyptic fear and unease (aided immeasurably by Goblin's haunting electronic score) by carefully choosing what to present to the viewer and what to withhold. Throughout the duration of the scene, we witness the tense faces and angry outbursts of human beings stretched beyond the breaking point; we overhear that people have begun fleeing the studio to unknown fates, that the station has been broadcasting the locations of compromised rescue centers for hours, and that a state of martial law is in effect throughout the country; and because the action is confined entirely to the TV studio, the viewer is forced, like the frightened station employees, to uncertainly guess at the scope of devastation, further enhancing the sense of dread and uncertainty. It's truly a remarkable sequence and one that any aspiring filmmaker with a shoestring budget should look to for inspiration.
Of course, much has been made of the fact that Dawn of the Dead doubles as both zombie gorefest and trenchant social commentary, with most of the attention being directed toward Romero's critiques of Americans' capacity for mindless consumerism and violence. While I actually find much of the social commentary hackneyed and overwrought (in case any viewer hasn't been paying attention, they are reminded several times that the mall in which the protagonists hole up "must have been an important place" to the zombie hordes trying to get in), where I think Romero exercises tremendous subtlety and intelligence is in his exploration of the different ways in which ordinary human beings respond to a truly unthinkable catastrophe: how their deep-seated prejudices surface and are suppressed, how they attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy in a situation that bears no resemblance to their regular lives, and to what extent they cling to or discard their moral values when faced with the very real threat of extinction. As not merely a character study but an incisive study of humanity itself, Dawn of the Dead is virtually unparalleled, and the claustrophobic settings and the relentless fog of the unknown that pervades every frame imbue each character's actions with added significance and tension.
That all being said, in terms of executing his bloody tour de force Romero does make some questionable choices. Seventeen-year-old me was correct that the film's high-camp factor does occasionally undermine the gravity of Romero's dystopian vision and clash rather absurdly with the many moments of skillfully constructed character and story development (the zombie pies-in-the-face scene should have never made it into the final cut). On the other hand, the cheesiness also adds to Dawn of the Dead's low-budget, "blast from the past" cult movie charm. Moreover, there are plenty of genuinely horrific moments (and horrifically genuine moments) to ensure that the pathos of the characters' plight is never overshadowed by the vividness of the fake blood or the occasional clumsiness of the acting and editing. Dawn of the Dead is an unsettling portrait of the end of human civilization that is both ambitious and intimate in scope, that is both scathingly cynical and movingly sympathetic, and that will appeal equally to the high-brow art house crowd and mobs of sleazy gore fiends alike. There's a reason this one has stood the test of time.