Sunday, August 24, 2008

DAY 300--DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979)

The year is 1991. A young man stands in the Horror section of his local video store, an area that will have a significant impact on his life. He's sixteen years old, and his passion for all things horror is fierce (so intense it's given him a horribly pretentious attitude about anything remotely mainstream, a phase he'll thankfully outgrow). The film selection--surprisingly eclectic for a small hick town--is an embarrassment of riches; the trouble isn't finding a gem among the dreck, but which unseen classic or hidden treasure is on the agenda tonight?

You see, celluloid terrors were strictly verboten during his formative years. Although he'd always been a monster-happy kid, the kind who was consistently disappointed when Scooby-Doo and the gang discovered the ghost was just Old Man Crenshaw, his mother's death when he was nine turned his favorite entertainment into a morbid, unhealthy obsession (including a laughably misguided "intervention" with the family minister, an early lesson in the cluelessness of adults). So when his friends at school were discussing horror du jour like CHILD'S PLAY or PUMPKINHEAD he was sorely out of the loop.

But things are different now. Parental strictures have loosened, and with this newfound freedom he can finally indulge in the pleasures of movies he's read about in FANGORIA and GOREZONE, or seen profiled on THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW. Already this year he's logged THE EVIL DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, RE-ANIMATOR, and BLUE VELVET, all of which will remain lifelong favorites. But tonight's film, George Romero's 1979 landmark DAWN OF THE DEAD, will be more than a mere movie-going experience.

It will be a revelation.

It's when this young man discovers that he really, really likes zombies. Loves them to their shambling, rotten core. He's not content to simply watch anything with ZOMBIE or DEAD in the title--in his dreams he outruns the undead masses through the Monroeville Mall. In his waking hours he scribbles zombie tales of varying degrees of mediocrity, hoping to recreate that initial cocaine-like rush. It's the beginning of a mania that he'll carry into adulthood, when he neglects his patient, understanding wife in the pursuit of a half-assed blogging quest.

That DAWN is a remarkable film is not enough. True, he loved the brooding, apocalyptic feel (and having grown up in Pennsylvania farm country, the setting strikes an even deeper chord with him) and the avaricious fantasy of living unchecked in a deserted mall. The charms of actors Ken Foree (who left him mute and fumbling when he bumped into him in the hallway of a Baltimore hotel), Gaylen Ross, David Emge (who has the greatest zombie-stride in horror history), and Scott Reininger were not lost on him; Romero's social commentary was (at the time, he was more concerned with Tom Savini's make-up than satire). But what happened during that first screening was a fusion at the DNA level, a meeting of celluloid and flesh, when the dead became a part of him.

Growing up, he can see that DAWN OF THE DEAD is not perfect. He's surprised to realize just how ineffectual Ross's character really is (and wonders if Romero made Lori Cardille so tough in DAY to compensate for her and NIGHT's Barbara's weakness), or to notice just how many mannequins stand in for zombies during key moments. Or how much the "optimistic" ending never quite sits right with him. But these minor quibbles do nothing for his unabashed devotion anymore than his wife's irritating habits affects his love for her (not that she has any).

He wouldn't be the person he is today without DAWN OF THE DEAD. Some may call that a pity, and perhaps they're right. But there isn't much you can do when the dead come to claim you.

(POSTSCRIPT: 365 Days of the Dead was originally intended to conclude with DAWN, as it's my definition of the ultimate zombie film, but I moved it up a bit, since I didn't want to end the project on a movie I wasn't going to say much about.)

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