Pittsburgh’s entry: “Dawn of the Dead” (197


Okay, I’m officially sick of waiting for the people upstairs to get up to get organized on publishing blogs on their website, so from now on, each entry of “Pittsburgh Against the World” premieres here for as long as the series lasts.
For those of you just joining us, this is the series where we look at the movies made in “Little Hollywood” and see if the city deserves it’s reputation, by comparing it to other movies made anywhere else in the states. So far, Pittsburgh has taken on Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the score is Pittsburgh: 1 Other states: 0


This round: Horror


Among the movies shot in Pittsburgh, horror may be the genre that stands the tallest, largely due to George Romero’s acclaimed “Living Dead” series. From the creation of “Night of the Living Dead,” he has used locations all over the city for settings (though a couple, including “Night,” were perhaps filmed a bit too far past the outskirts to count). Today’s entry, however, might be his best in the whole series.



The Movie:


I’d probably have been at least a little skeptical, before seeing “Dawn of the Dead,” if I’d heard that one of the greatest horror movies of all time features a gang of bikers breaking in to rob the Monroeville Mall, hitting zombies with pies, and then winding up in a gunfight over who was there to rob it first. Such is the bizarre genius of Romero.


It’s 1978, and the zombie apocalypse is upon us. There is no explanation, no knowledge of these creatures, other than their hunger for human flesh and their ability to spread the zombie plague with just one bite. But the movie’s tagline (pictured above) is offered as an ominous suggestion.


The movie is never just a video game of survival that viewers don’t actually have to play. It explores the implications of this Armageddon without slowing down the action, forcing characters to address whether there is any future for them at all. It is not, for example, a good time to be pregnant. What’s more, in what seems like an extra mile in modern times, characters like the police squad, in an early scene, have to force themselves to go through with shooting the zombies, not becoming as desensitized as the audience until near the end of the first act. (Though we also see a group of rednecks banded together who happily use the approaching creatures for sharpshooting games.) The movie sets out to explore human nature and succeeds.


The main plot takes shape when four people, two competent officers and a couple less capable of fending for themselves, flee their location in a helicopter, arriving at an abandoned mall. It’s infested with zombies, but upon entering a secluded storage room through the roof and helping themselves to some packaged food, they come to think that they might have a good thing here. Spread out, the zombies are easy to outrun and can’t get through shatter-proof glass, so convenient shopping is a matter of some misdirection, a couple secret passages, and locking the doors behind them.


In fact, after they lock the zombies outside in the second act, the movie puts the horror on hold for a stretch and plays as a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy, one that any middle class citizen can appreciate. The four have a shopping mall all to themselves, with all the food, sharp clothes and appliances they could ever want, and they indulge themselves with no need for guilt. They even have some fun collecting stacks of money, under the pretense of “you never know!” Sure.


Meanwhile, they also try to keep up with the news, as politicians propose nuking major cities and solving the food shortage by “eating the opposition!” Still, while scoring political jabs in a setup one wouldn’t think leaves much room for politics is a nice touch, the director’s strongest and subtlest commentary is in the arc that the four undergo in their new surroundings. Over the weeks, they go from hopeful, to something resembling happy – with the occasional pessimism – to self-entitled. Still, even with them, Romero makes room for some gleefully direct lines. (“Hey, let’s get the stuff we need! I’ll get a television and a radio.”


None the less, the most pulse pounding scenes also come from inside the mall. We’re tensely aware, as they dodge through the crowds of walking dead and race to shut the doors in time, that they’re playing with their lives and are one bite away from losing. Some – just a few – of the dark corridors and backrooms they hide in conceal a lone zombie who wandered in away from the crowd, not easy to see coming by itself. And as one of the characters finds out the hard way, the game is never easier to lose than when you’ve been winning it for too long.


It’s inevitable that it all must come crashing down on them, but in a nice bit of storytelling, it’s not the zombies themselves that secure their victory, nor is it (entirely) a stupid mistake. When an armed bike gang drives by, they discover the mall and its occupants and decide to help themselves, so the main characters summon the zombies back into the mall to chase them off. This is condemnable enough, but when the zombies prove ineffective, they decide to go even farther. It’s well done, though it does start to succumb to what I like to call “Lord of the Flies” syndrome: many stories seem to find the notion popularized by “Lord of the Flies” – that human nature deep down is utterly ruthless and selfish – so powerful, that they eagerly have their characters sink to disgusting lows, with only so much care for logical/feasible progression. It can all just be blamed on (ominous music) some… thing in people, some… need!


I resist the urge to say that “Dawn of the Dead” proves how much life there is in this zombie series, or that it’s a small wonder the series has been resurrected so many times, or that it’s a zombie film made with brains. And, of course, it’d be too easy to tell you that it will leave you hungry for more. But if I did, it would all be true. It’s a zombie film masterpiece if there ever was one.

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