In the previous two weeks I have written about the movies I believe are the standouts of the zombie sub-genre. In the Cinematic History of the Zombie (Part I and Part II), I have indicated that White Zombie (although not a great movie) was the most influential movie, because it was the forerunner, and then Night of the Living Dead transformed it into gory fare for young audiences looking for a drive-in make-out movie.
Clearly, Night of the Living Dead is more than just a drive-in make-out movie. Its social commentary on the mores of the day adds subtext to an already significant horror film. George Romero’s choices to film in black and white, grainy documentary footage with an African-American protagonist, a white woman co-star, “rescued” by the white posse, screams social commentary, whether it was intended as such or not.
Romero communicated to his dying day that the movie was never intended to be more than “just a horror movie,” regardless of the inherent metaphors. It is important to note that the storyteller can tell his/her story with all of the significance it holds, and the receiver can hear the story and interpret it however s/he needs. In this way, zombie movies continue to resonate in our collective conscience, meaning different things to different people.
Another influential zombie movie was Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972). This movie aired often on late night TV, especially on Chiller Theater and the Creature Feature. My brother, Marc, and I watched this movie endlessly. It was supposed to be a comedy horror movie directed by Bob Clark, but my brother and I didn’t find the movie at all funny.
The story involves a theatre troupe who travel with their director, Alan, to an island off the coast of Miami that is used to bury the dead bodies of violent criminals. They are going there for a night of laughs and frivolity. Once on the island, Alan proceeds to tell his actors the history of the island, and as they walk through the cemetery he regales his “Children” with the narratives of some of the interred.
When they arrive at the caretaker’s cottage, Alan removes a grimoire from a huge chest, and tells the actors that they will assist him in a summoning ritual. The actors are upset with Alan, claiming that they were lured on false pretenses. Alan threatens their jobs if they do not comply and they relent. It seems that this is a common theme with Alan. He is one of those bosses that takes pleasure in cowing his subordinates.
Ultimately, there is a summoning ritual. It initially appears to fail, but if you know anything about horror movies, you know it worked. The dead crawl out of their graves, and they try to do what they did in Night of the Living Dead with the farmhouse. I re-watched this movie which is available on YouTube for free, and despite the grainy footage, it still holds up. In fact, there were some really horrifying parts that I had forgotten. I will include the movie at the end of this post.
One of the important elements of this movie is how it harkens back to the voodoo roots of the mythology with the summoning ritual, something that Romero refused to do. In Night of the Living Dead there is a reference to a comet, but there is no definitive line drawn between the two. Romero felt it was scarier to imply no direct cause for the phenomenon.
In 1978, George Romero did it again. This time he had help from the Italian film maker Dario Argento who co-wrote the screenplay and helped finance the movie. Although there are no actors in common, it is the sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Dawn of the Dead is meant to demonstrate in a larger scale the effect the zombie apocalypse has on society.
In the film, a group of survivors barricade themselves in a mall, believing that they are safe because their needs are met in this vast fortress. The reality is that although the mall can provide for their physical needs, those are not all there is. A biker gang has observed that the mall is occupied. Coveting the wealth of possibilities, the gang invades, forcing the inhabitants to defend the mall. When it is no longer possible, they must flee.
Again, the metaphors in this movie provide social commentary that already have been discussed almost ad nauseum. However, they bear repeating, here. In the Night of the Living Dead, the survivors try to find safety in the farmhouse, the bosom of a family. When most of us feel burdened by the world, we go home. Romero communicates that there is no safety there.
Dawn of the Dead is a response that Romero makes to himself. If you can not find security at home, where can you go? A possible response is the mall.
It is a reality that purchasing things releases endorphins that give humans a happy feeling. Consumerism is a possibility, because human beings have the physical needs of shelter, food, water. In Dawn of the Dead there is no need to purchase these items because the mall has everything you need for free. I don’t want to belabor the point, nor do I want to be reductive, so I will leave that here.
A final word about Dawn of the Dead and the visual effects. Tom Savini had just returned from Vietnam and he had seen plenty of dead bodies. He therefore decided to strive for a realism in the dead seldom witnessed in movies. This movie along with Friday the 13th assured that his name would be venerated by horror movie fans.
Next week, I will continue to discuss the Cinematic History of the Zombie through the 1980s and its standout movies of the sub-genre. I hope you’ve enjoyed this third part, and if you have a comment or disagreement, please do so. If not, press the like button.
Thanks for reading this. See you later. Take it easy. Peace!