In a new book in Auteur’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series, author Jon Towlson explores the excesses of George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead.
After the 1979 Dallas Film Festival screening of Dawn of the Dead at the Bob Hope Theatre on Southern Methodist University Campus, George A. Romero was accosted by a group of outraged silver-haired women in their diamonds and jewels. These Junior Leaguers had walked out of Dawn’s first U.S. public showing less than fifteen minutes into the movie, and had been lying in wait for the director outside the picture house. “You’re not fooling us!” they protested. “That film was just a schlock movie disguised as art!” To their surprise, Romero appeared to agree with them. “There’s no disguise involved,” he demurred. “It’s just schlock. In fact, it’s superschlock.”
George A. Romero long contended that Dawn of the Dead was nothing more than schlock, a combination of (as he told Starburst in 1982), “all the schlock classics that we have had over the past 20 or 30 years”. For him, the social satire that critics praise Dawn for was always part of the surface excess, “very frontal, very obvious…it is criticism from overstatement. It’s overkill and obviously so. It carries things to an absurd degree that we know is absurd”. Perhaps it was that very excess that divided the Dallas audience, twenty per cent of whom left in disgust (with those who remained violently hissing those who were leaving). In his on-stage interview with Roger Ebert following the showing, Romero remarked, “you can say the movie is an observation about materialism, and so forth, and what have you really said? The point is that people come out of the film having experienced some very extreme emotions, and it’s up to them to interpret what happened”.
Arguably, excess is at the heart of Dawn of the Dead, integral to its meaning, not only in its scenes of gore, its (custard pie) in-your-face social satire and its bawdy pop-kitsch style but in the production history of the film itself. Romero took Dawn into areas of extremity and in the process made perhaps the greatest horror film of the 1970s, a culmination of the American Nightmare cycle (“all the schlock classics”) that began in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead.
One of the most perceptive comments made about Dawn is by a fan called The Red Duchess on IMDB who describes the film as a ‘reckless, hubristic, over-ambitious masterpiece whose excess is reined in by its Langian formal precision’. Romero’s commitment to his craft was evident throughout his career, but the excess of Dawn had been equally deliberate. Romero started filming in November 1977 with a detailed screenplay that had, in his words, a “very pedantic kind of structure”. But when Romero edited the first half of Dawn together during a production shut down over the Christmas period, it seems he experienced a change of heart. Rather than wrap the movie and just use the footage that had been scripted, Romero and his cast and crew started to improvise whole new sections, adding more comedy, more action-adventure, more of an irreverent tone. Monroeville Mall’s gaudy ‘70s pop atmosphere had only become truly apparent when photographed, and Romero clearly wanted to go with this new vibe to Dawn which seemed to him to speak of the times. And Dawn’s message was of the times. Every cultural and political commentator in the ‘70s was bemoaning the consumer age, the effects of which had, according to social psychologist Erich Fromm, ‘created a climate of violence and destructiveness in the West’. Even the President of the United States, James Carter, was driven to admit (in a speech to the nation on July, 15, 1979) that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Dawn’s excesses meant the film almost did not get distribution at all. Clocking in at well over two hours, when the average length of an exploitation movie back then was ninety minutes, Dawn was simply too long and too strong for the industry to take. The running time in itself caused a number of distributors to back away. As Romero later complained in an interview with Film Criticism, “the industry can’t handle a long running time…they want people in and out of the theatre in under two hours”. Dawn challenged industry wisdom that horror films could not be epic.
In the U.S. Romero held out not just for final cut but for the extreme gore scenes to stay intact. The threat of an ‘X’-rating made Warner Brothers and American International Pictures walk. Eventually United Film Distribution Company (UFD), a subsidiary of the United Artists Theater Chain, agreed to distribute it uncut and unrated. Dawn’s huge financial success pretty much ended the ‘X’-rating in America, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed in 1980: ‘When the ratings system started 10 years ago, most theaters refused to play unrated films, but this is no longer true. Anything that does business will be booked’. After Dawn, once-wary distributors were lining up to release their films unrated, with titles like Bad Timing (1980), Zombie (1979) and Mother’s Day (1980) all being released without ratings.
As Romero told Starburst, “Dawn is a celebration of schlock, not in a negative sense, and that was really all I was trying to say…I don’t feel that in reflecting a negative human condition you in essence have to make a negative film”. Indeed, following movies like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Dawn marked a point of departure in the ‘70s apocalyptic horror cycle. It was, as film critic Robin Wood observed, ‘perhaps the first modern horror film to suggest – albeit very tentatively – the possibility of moving beyond apocalypse’. Before Dawn, horror movies seemed to end in total despair. Dawn was by contrast exhilarating in the way it gave audiences a glimmer of hope for humanity. Certainly, it remains one of the most optimistic horror films ever made.
For more information on Dawn of the Dead by Jon Towlson visit our website.
Jon Towlson is a film critic and the author of Global Horror Cinema Today: 28 Representative Films from 17 Countries (2021); Candyman in Auteur’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series (2018); The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936 (2016); Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Auteur’s ‘Constellations’ series (2016); and the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award-nominated Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present (2014).
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