In many ways Romero quickly became a victim of his own success with Night of the Living Dead. Following a short series of misfires and flops he was only once again considered on “top form” when he returned to the “Dead” series. This is not to say that he made bad films in this period. Far from it in fact, Martin is now considered one of his best films and perhaps even outdoes Night itself in its densely packed 100 minutes of screen time; but more on Martin later.
From a popularized standpoint it was only when Dawn of the Dead came out in 1978 that Romero again was considered a force to be reckoned with.
In the ten years between Night and Dawn horror cinema had changed considerably. Gone were the 50’s inspired suspense that permeated most 60’s and early 70’s films to be replaced with a more visceral, in your face, approach that had been popularised by such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left.
Not to be waylaid Romero took an exceptionally unusual approach to 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Instead of the slow, deliberate construction of Night Romero opted for a much brasher and comic-book inspired style for Dawn. The un-expecting audience were presented with a myriad of changing tones that included serious talks on the “merits” of abortion through to a pie fight with the un-dead.
Despite all the changes Romero’s style was as strong as ever, his use of character and subtext was just as considered and packed no less of a punch. However Dawn is far less densely packed than its predecessor, its themes of consumerism and domesticity taking most of the intellectual screen time.
Though fewer themes are touched upon it would be an error for a viewer to consider Dawn as less of a movie than Night. The movies focus is like the sight of one of the sniper rifles often seen in its action scenes, it is accurate and very little is wasted. Through this well considered accuracy Dawn views its ideas as a boy would an ant through a spyglass, the concept “the family” is scrutinised and explored then turned on its head and the process is begun again.
The much discussed concept of “consumerism” is really a secondary theme in Dawn, it leads on neatly from the primary notion of “the family” and it allows the viewer to explore the primary theme through its inclusion.
In essence Dawn’s characters comprise a family unit and those familiar with Dawn might jump to the conclusion that Stephen and Francine are the parent figures in this faux family; but there is some compelling evidence to suggest a far more interesting construction.
Strangely, considering both its genre and the time it was made, it could be argued that Dawn presents us with a matriarch who is both male and Afro-American.
Peter is focussed completely on the families’ security and as such he is the lynchpin on which the family revolves. He is cautious and considers every action carefully. Roger on the other hand is brash and seems to consider little but it seems clear that it is the meeting of these two minds that creates the situation that is necessary for this family to exist.
It could be argued that Peter has a practical and rather simple view on his behaviour during the crisis and when we first meet him in the corridors of an apartment building overrun with the dead his actions seem to betray little compassion. We quickly learn that this is not true, that Peter cares, but his caring is controlled and that he is completely capable of doing what is necessary in order to keep things “together”.
When he meets Roger for the first time it could have easily ended in disaster but its Rogers ability to adjust, perhaps a sign of his frivolous nature, which saves the day. Instead of fighting over Peter’s treatment of a colleague in his National Guard unit the distressed Roger adapts and offers an olive branch to this complete stranger.
So this couple decide to run, Peters practicality and sense of family knotting together with Rogers spontaneous ability to adapt.
Stephen and Fran, an established couple as the movie starts, are far more complex creatures. They are typical teens (despite being twenty-something’s) who seem riddled with angst and self-doubt. Stephen finds himself following though at first glance he appears to be in charge of their relationship. His control of the situation is a veneer and a particularly thin one at that and as his time with Peter and Roger continue we see cracks in his personality grow into fissures.
It is when Fran, who seems to be constantly complaining about her treatment, is found to be pregnant that Stephen begins to show his ability to step up and take command of the situation; but even then he is nearly convinced to “do the right thing” about the child and have it aborted.
Fran convinces him to break away from Peter’s suggestion and it is then that Stephen and Fran become more like equals in their partnership.
There are many other elements of the story that adhere to the notion of them as family. In both cases the “man” dies first, leaving the “woman” to fend for herself, just as it tend to be in real life. The relationship fraught with the most conflict are the “mother” and “daughter” in the guise of Peter and Fran; though much of it is unspoken it’s clear that they are vying for matriarchic status in the group.
The two “men” on the other hand get along without complaint, they have the easy relationship that becomes apparent when a matriarchic family groups males bond. They have few worries and spend much of their time “playing” at social dominance rather than actually exhibiting any.
Perhaps it could be considered that the dual themes of “consumerism” and “domesticity” are concepts that begin as allies within the movie, but grow with time to be uneasy bedfellows; much as they are in any family structure.
(“What you own ends up owning you”, as Fight Club’s Tyler Durdan would say.)
The mall in which the group takes up residence begins as a place of security and comfort, just like any home, but its when a marauding group of bikers arrive to ransack it that the family has to defend what is theirs. Something they have walked in and “taken” has taken emotional hold over Stephen and despite Rogers warning to the contrary Stephen takes steps to defend what is “theirs”.
The dead may be driven by an unthinking desire to consume, they take no nourishment from what they eat, they actually need no nourishment at all; but it is the living who consume with a voracity that even outstrips the word “desire”. To the warring groups in Dawn even their own survival is outweighed by their need to “own things”.
So it is fitting that the families “son” should be the one to rip the family apart by his actions, by his need to keep what he believes is his property. With his “father” out of the picture and his “girlfriend” pregnant he takes fatal steps to be “the man of the house”; tearing the house down in the process.
After such strong introductions to the “Dead” Movies it is clear that it would take something of a genius to continue in with the same level of quality; and to many Day of the Dead, released in 1985, signalled the end of the depth and character exhibited in Night and Dawn.
Day did not show the same kind of densely packed subtexts, not are its characters as iconic as Ben, Peter or Fran; but Day is in many ways a much more accomplished film than many viewers may think.