A news station in Philadelphia. A doctor is trying to be heard above all the hubbub. Zombies are on the loose, but we can deal with the problem if we all act sensibly. In fact, if the government had listened to scientists, we wouldn’t be in today’s mess. He is interrupted by the tv host and heckled by the staff. Reminder: Dawn of the Dead was released over 40 years before anyone had heard of the Coronavirus.
Cut to: a housing project, where a police swat team is trying to deal with a zombie infestation. One bad apple cop seems more interested in shooting the Black and Latino residents than the zombies. Fortunately, a Good Cop shoots him before he does too much harm. Soon the Good Cop is boarding a fleeing helicopter together with one of his colleagues plus the pilot – who works on tv weather, and the pilot’s girlfriend, a tv executive.
In this Brave New World, a new hierarchy emerges. One of the cops, Peter, takes charge, even though he is black. His partner, Roger, knows how to hotwire a car, so has useable skills and becomes second in command. The effete pilot Stephen is left to linger in the background, but at least he is given a gun, unlike Fran who is not just an exec, she is also a gurl.
Dawn of the Dead is often lauded as being a great radical film, though it comes from a different political era than its predecessor Night of the Living Dead, which was forged in the white heat of a rising social movement. Both films have black leads, but this was far more scandalous when Night was released in 1968, than after a decade of Blaxploitation films had made cinema audience more comfortable seeing black actors.
When Night attacked the Vietnam war, Dawn was more about consumerism – the zombies feel drawn by muscle memory to a shopping mall, because, basically, this is what we’ve become. But who is being attacked here? Consumerist capitalism, or stupid working class people who can’t stop buying stuff? Even the heroes get drawn in, trying on fashionable clothes and raiding the tills for cash, even though it has become worthless.
I would argue that the politics of Dawn of the Dead sail closer to Libertarianism than some of its radical supporters would like to admit. Whereas Night was produced during social upheaval, Dawn was filmed in the fag end of the Carter/Callaghan governments which would lead to Reagan and Thatcher leading the “free world”. This means that it carries a pessimism about the possibility of social change which was missing from its predecessor.
Dawn of the Dead was released as the US was still coming to terms with losing the Vietnam war. Early shots of armed hicks photographing themselves shooting zombies are reminiscent of similar scenes from Vietnam (or, at the very least, from Vietnam films). And, just 3 years after the airlift of Saigon airport, this film also ends with a helicopter fleeing a baying mob.
On three occasions, DotD clearly defends individualism and the American Way against the Mob (otherwise known as working class people acting together). We’ve already seen the first when it is tv workers who heckle and try to get in the way of science. Secondly, there are the Zombies, who are referred to as “People Like Us”. They are sometimes dressed garishly – as Buddhists and nuns, but also as overweight bumbling idiots – a clear contrast to our heroes, the cop, the tv exec and the pilot.
And then there is the biker gang which raids the mall in the second half of the film. The gang tries to loot nearly everything – but when someone’s hand hovers over a shirt and tie, he throws it back in disgust. And yet at all times, we are encouraged to see the gang as Other, as a threat to order. This is what happens when the police are unable to keep us in our place.
Does this make Dawn of the Dead a bad film? By no means. The fact that it opens itself up for such political analysis, shows that despite the cartoon violence it is more than just a blood and gore film. And much of the violence is hilarious, as is the plot, despite the creaky scenery and acting which isn’t going to win any Oscars in a hurry.
I guess I’m having an argument with people who say that we can overlook Dawn of the Dead’s ropey quality because of its radical politics. My argument is quite the opposite. This is a heap of fun, which is to be enjoyed despite the politics. Sure, writer/director George A Romero was vaguely left/liberal, but to try to make this a justification for enjoying the film is to seriously miss the point.