Why the zombie film at all? The sub-genre does have some obvious appeal. There is violence, gore, often a little sex and nudity, plus some snappy dialogue. It has all of the elements that make a film visceral, but intrinsically none of the things that make a film great.
Here’s why. Zombies are a cipher. In of themselves they are not particularly dangerous. They can be as multitudinous, tenacious, bright, strong or weak as the situation requires. They are a motivating factor to the story being told, but they are not the single element in the equation. The zombie flicks that are most engaging to watch treat the world they are creating as an open sandbox. There are zombies and some people who aren’t zombies…aaaaand action.
“Genre” storytelling has always gotten the shortest end of the stick (my entire college career corroborates this), but if a filmmaker can push beyond those assumed limitations you will discover some surprising works. You arrive at such varied movies as Homecoming (in which the recently dead soldiers from Iraq return to vote and remove the elected officials who sent them there in the first place); 28 Days Later, although not a zombie movie by definition, it certainly is one in spirit (and if you’re watching carefully, a truly great coming-of age story); and Shaun of the Dead, a comedy/spoof/romance…with zombies.
And then there’s Night and Dawn.
As a youth, Night of the Living Dead taught me one of the great tenets of horror films: the monster is never the real monster. We are. Watch 28 Days Later, or The Road Warrior, or The Road or read The Stand and tell me that if things fall apart you wouldn’t be staring down the person next to you for a good while before closing your eyes for the night.
The other big groundbreaker, unlike literally any horror movie before and few after, is that Night openly defied racial mores by casting a strong, black man as the lead. Maybe it was my overall upbringing or the progress our culture has made during the intervening years (or maybe just the seed of thought this movie planted), but it always seemed odd to me that there haven’t more characters like Ben. Far too often when an African-American is featured in a horror film he’s always a gang member or excessively antagonistic. They’re usually more a part of the problem and less a part of the solution. Duane Jones, who portrayed Ben, was a college professor and theater director. He was smart, well-spoken and charming. The character in the original script was almost the exact opposite, but Romero, et al, realized their mistake after Duane read and changed the character into the trail blazer we have today. While not their original intention, Night of the Living Dead to me has always been a story about racial tension. And I think it shows that when it comes down to the wire, your strength of character has more to do with your likelihood of survival than your race.
Dawn of the Dead, my all-time favorite zombie film, shifts its focus and is a story of consumerism and excess. Tyler Durden put it quite eloquently two decades later:
The things you own end up owning you.
The dead in Dawn were already zombies well before the apocalypse began. And our heroes must take care to avoid becoming ones themselves—both spiritually and physically.
There are only a handful of moments in horror films that I find to be truly indelible. One of them happens in this movie. It takes place after the mall has been secured. Fran is alone in a boutique. She has on a beautiful dress and she spends some time putting on makeup, fixing her hair, looking as glamorous as possible. After the process is complete she admires herself in the vanity mirror. She blows a kiss and plays with her derringer—looking very much like a modern day Bonnie Parker—and then it happens. Something inside of her breaks. Her eyes say it all; she is haunted. It echoes her question from a few scenes earlier, “What have we done to ourselves?”
She’s all dressed up and has absolutely no where to go. Everything they could desire is locked up in that mall with them and it is all worthless now. Their lives are empty. Their horde owns them.
This is why I love these films. When dealing with zombies, the most precious commodity of all is the will, the spirit. You can outrun zombies. You can out think them and out fight them. But if you lose your compass, the grace that makes us all human and hopefully decent people, then you can’t hope to outlive them. You are already dead.