Of all the film genres out there, horror is perhaps the most transient. Rom-coms will always work with a variant on the ‘meet-cute’ formula, in the same way that most thrillers focus on the 'wrong man' scenario. By contrast, horror has to remain contemporary in order to maintain its edge. To be truly effective, it needs to visualise the terrors of modern society, and reflect the issues that keep us awake at night.
The genre itself might have been through more phases than David Bowie, but every once in a while a film comes along which transcends its 'of the moment' setting and resonates for subsequent generations. The fashions may date, and the effects may start to wrinkle around the edges, but the subtext remains as relevant as the day it was filmed. And in light of the events of last week, I can't think of a more compelling example than George Romero's Dawn of the Dead
Horror is no stranger to dreck. Its annals are littered with chancers, losers and bullshit artists, convinced that a handful of topless screamers and a bucketload of offal would be enough to secure their place in the horror hall of fame. Which makes Romero's unflinching social commentary and rich subtext all the more unique. This was a man who invented the modern concept of the living dead (shuffling and shambolic, with a taste for human flesh) in 1968, whilst also adding a groaning voice to the discussion around the civil rights movement. The critics may have balked at the indecorous ghouls chomping on grue, but it was Romero's harrowing portrayal of man's inhumanity to man that really horrified his audiences.
At one point, news producer Francine looks down at the undead crowds, drifting aimlessly towards the mecca of consumption. "Why do they come here?" she asks incredulously.
At the end of Night of the Living Dead, it seemed as though we were winning the battle against the undead hordes, as the military were deployed, alongside a redneck militia, to clean up the country. Ten years later, and Romero checked in with his pasty-faced progeny to find that they had claimed the upper hand. And were busy chewing on its fingers.
Dawn of the Dead opens in a TV news studio that's struggling to stay on the air. Amidst the hysteria, a lone voice of reason is being rudely shouted down for attempting to understand the issue. Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose in the poverty-stricken projects, where the African-American underclass have effectively been barricaded into their homes. As the military attempts to enforce marshall law, many of the soldiers seem incapable of differentiating between the living and the dead residents.
The rest of the film follows our four main protagonists as they attempt to flee the city in a helicopter, eventually taking refuge in the Monroeville mall, east of Pittsburgh. They set up camp in some disused office space, and eventually clear the mall of its shuffling inhabitants. At one point, news producer Francine and her boyfriend Stephen look down at the undead crowds, drifting aimlessly towards the mecca of consumption. "Why do they come here?" she asks incredulously. Stephen replies "Memory, a kind of instinct. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."
From that point onwards, Romero's film undergoes a subtle shift in tone. Suddenly, it's clear that we're watching a pitch black parody, rather than a straight-forward horror piece. Bright colours, jaunty music, and a bunch of slapstick that manages to culminate in a custard pie fight. There's still plenty of gruesome limb severing and disembowelments. But there's also a scene where someone gets separated from their arm, leaving the bloodied limb stuck in a 'check your blood pressure' machine. I didn't say any of it was in good taste. But at the heart of it all, is the lament that the afterlife promises no peace or serenity, just an eternity of shuffling from store to store, thumping impotently at the windows.
So what's Romero's point? Well, for a start, he knows that when civilisation breaks down, a mindless society pre-conditioned to consume, will instinctively head for the shops.
However, it's not just the zombie underclass who waste their days decaying in the aisles. Our four heroes soon feel the need to cosy up their domestic environment and start browsing for home comforts. We're treated to countless scenes of Frannie and her cohorts rifling through the stores' stock, trying on fur coats, and pushing a shopping cart round the delicatessen. By the time a bunch of greasy bikers attempt to lay claim to the shopping mall, the gang's makeshift pad looks like the inside of a show-home, albeit one that could easily play host to Abigail's Party. And yet their conspicuous consumption does nothing to kill the ennui from which they're all suffering. They're just going though the motions, waiting for real life to intrude - to the point that they're almost glad to re-engage their survival instinct once their inner-sanctum is penetrated by the bikers.
So what's Romero's point? Well, for a start, he knows that when civilisation breaks down, a mindless society pre-conditioned to consume, will instinctively head for the shops. But consumerism isn't limited to the lower classes - it infects all of us. And those who look down on the uncivilised masses as a mindless rabble aren't immune to the need to accumulate possessions. They just exhibit slightly better taste when the ransacking starts.
Looking at the recent spate of civil unrest, it's tempting to suggest that Romero saw it all coming. Lawlessness, violence, judgement and looting, perpetrated by an underclass that was just doing as it had been told for several generations. Not to mention a news media that was devoid of answers, and unwilling to address the root causes. To paraphrase Peter, the closest thing Dawn has to a hero, "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk to Carphone Warehouse."
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