Thursday, August 10, 2006

119. Maul Rats

My son and I continued with his consumption (ha ha) of Romero's Dead trilogy with 1978's Dawn of the Dead--and I'm beginning to realize what a weird year 1978 was, both personally and cinematically. As I've written elsewhere--most recently, July 17--it was the year I graduated from college--and promptly took off a year, ostensibly casting about for the right grad school, but in practice engaging in some of my least satisfying loafing of a loaf-ridden life. No wonder I can remember so many 1978 movies, including a number I've written about--Midnight Express, The Fury, Magic--but also, now that I'm thinking about it--and looking it up on IMDb (which explains why the following are in alphabetical order) ...

Animal House
The Big Fix
The Boys from Brazil
Damien: Omen II
The Deer Hunter
The End
Every Which Way But Loose
Eyes of Laura Mars
Foul Play
Go Tell the Spartans
Goin' South
Harper Valley P.T.A.
Heaven Can Wait
House Calls
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kauffman's remake)
The Lord of the Rings (Bakshi, of course)
The Manitou
Movie Movie
Paradise Alley
Same Time, Next Year
Straight Time
The Swarm
Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
The Wiz

Now, these are the ones I went to the movies to see; it doesn't include the 1978 movies I soon after saw on cable or video:

Coming Home
Corvette Summer
Days of Heaven
Gray Lady Down
Pretty Baby
Up in Smoke
Warlords of the Deep
A Wedding
Who'll Stop the Rain?

(I'm not even counting the few--Debbie Does Dallas, The Driver, Faces of Death--I have never watched, but that remain in the job jar.)

I suppose the same dizzying variety would show up in any year, but something about 1978's movies--at the least the ones I watched--combine to produce an uneasy blend of reverence and embarrassment.

And so it goes for Day of the Dead, which I originally saw in the early-to-mid '80s. I'll admit that was close enough on the heels of its original release for me to accept its view of American culture--at least in 1985 the haircuts and music weren't distracting--but seeing it after Alien, released just a year later than Dawn, it did creak a little in the fright and tension departments. Still, I've always appreciated Romero's movies, and have forgiven their clunks and lurches. After all, the man never seemed to have two pennies to rub together, and was doing the best he could.

Or was he? Watching Dawn recently with my son--and after slogging through a few decades of all kinds of living-dead mayhem, which may be a distinct factor here--I was struck by some of Romero's off-notes, especially the over-dependence on a kind of macho posturing that seemed a little too easy even back in the mid-'80s, and that weakens the film today. Even my (now-)thirteen-year-old kept wondering why they were making obvious mistakes, and I got tired of saying, "They think they're tough" or "They're all pumped up from the situation they're in." Yeah, sure. Listen: Even when I first saw it, I cringed whenever the men whooped it up, all excited to have guns and free candy. And worse, the social satire always seemed a bit self-evident, as when they spot the mall from the air and describe it as though it were a relatively new phenomenon: "It looks like a shopping center, one of those big, indoor malls"; and then there's the famous line explaining why the zombies--"ghouls" in the first picture; so much better--are returning to the mall: "Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." That's more than a little condescending--magnified by the cartoonish Muzak that plays over the wandering-zombie sequences.

Now, I'll admit some of those moments resonated; but mostly I think Romero drops this particular ball more than he should have, at least given some of the stronger lines and scenes in the film. Again, as in the first Dead picture, Romero nails certain aspects of the dread of this situation via the media response. With my most recent viewing, I am still struck by the mad insistence of the scientist: "This is down to the line, folks, this is down to the line. There can be no more divisions among the living!" Or another expert's succinct explanation of what's happening: "Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!" I can still hear a down-to-the-bone delirium in these lines. And then there's the occasional wit of the protagonists, especially Peter, as when he quotes his grandfather: "'When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'" Or admiring a rifle they've looted: "The only person who could miss with this gun is the sucker with the bread to buy it." It's no coincidence that Romero has teamed up with Stephen King a few times. Both sporadically display a talent for capturing the honest face of the pulp figure, trapped but grinning--grimacing, more like it--while, literally, all Hell breaks loose.

In the end, Dawn does retain some of its strength for me; but I'm convinced it's in Day--and Land--of the Dead (1985 and 2005--twenty years later! Talk about a franchise with, ahem, teeth) that Romero's voice is most clearly heard--and it makes a wet, tearing sound, as close to lunacy as Romero dares, a place where his urges toward both social satire and inexorable nightmare plant themselves like talons, tenacious and cruel. My son and I are halfway there. "Down to the line, folks."

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