Why 17 days? Because 17 is my favorite number.
May 25: Alien
June 1: Phantasm
You might say that the Spring of 1979 was a pretty good season for horror movies. I might say that too … if I’d been allowed to see any of them. I was 16, all three films above were rated R, and I had the only parents in five counties who strictly adhered to the NO ONE UNDER 17 rule administered by the MPAA. I managed to sneak into the Crest Theater to see Alien shortly after my birthday, but it would be another two years before I caught Phantasm on HBO, and even longer for George Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead. In the meantime, I would see and hear a lot about Romero’s film: articles in horror magazines about the film’s original X rating; photographs of exploding heads and ravenous undead munching on body parts; tales of the film’s most memorable set pieces--zombie husband biting his wife’s shoulder; helicopter blade lopping off the top of a zombie’s skull; biker getting his arm stuck in a blood pressure machine while zombies chew it off at the shoulder. On and on it went.
By 1984, the age of the VCR was in full bloom. Before Blockbusters or even local mom-n-pop video rental stores, the big rent-to-own businesses were discovering a niche market in VHS rental. At last, I had access to the forbidden movies of my youth. I stumbled across Dawn of the Dead on VHS at the Colortyme in Emporia, Kansas, where I was attending college. By this time, the film had taken on almost mythic proportions. Whenever I’m forbidden by circumstances to see any movie, I tend to romanticize the as-yet-unrealized viewing experience, so renting Dawn of the Dead was akin to sipping from the Holy Grail of horror, at least to my goofy 21-year-old eyes.
The plot of Dawn of the Dead is pretty simple: America is in a state of national emergency as the dead are becoming reanimated and eating the living. Four desperate survivors--pregnant newswoman Francine (Gaylen Ross), her helicopter pilot boyfriend Stephen (David Emge), and SWAT team members Roger (Scott Reininger) and Peter (Ken Foree)--seek refuge in an abandoned shopping mall being overrun with zombies. They secure the mall, dispose of the dead within it, and settle in, turning the upstairs offices into a well-furnished apartment, courtesy of the mall’s many retail stores.
Many critics have noted Dawn of the Dead’s spot-on jabs at consumerism, particularly in the earlier scenes when zombies stumble about the mall with dull, blank faces. But few ever note how blind consumerism bleeds over onto our protagonists, how they set themselves up like royalty sequestered in a castle. This leads to a peasant revolt of sorts in the third act. When marauding bikers discover the mall, they break down the doors, vandalizing the stores and allowing zombies to overrun the premises. At this point, the mall’s resources are far from depleted, and yet our four intrepid heroes find themselves fighting the bikers for possession of the mall rather than joining forces with them to ensure everyone’s survival.
Perhaps the most haunting character arc in the film was that of Stephen. Although a skilled pilot, and the only man in the party with a woman, he is initially presented as awkward and unsure in the presence of alpha-males Roger and Peter. In the quartet’s early adventures, Stephen makes costly mistakes which almost prove deadly, earning harsh rebuke from the two seasoned soldiers (at one point, Peter knocks Stephen to the ground and points a rifle at his head). Slowly, however, Stephen comes into his own, adapting to his new responsibilities and proving himself a vital member of the team. Stephen is the character with whom I most identified, so I always give a little cheer the first time Peter tells him, “You did all right there, flyboy,” like John Wayne giving his stamp of approval to one of the young cattle hands in The Cowboys.
As such, Stephen’s final fate, and his ultimate loss of humanity, is more disturbing to me than any of the film’s graphic violence.
In 1986, I finally got a chance to see Dawn of the Dead on the big screen, it was at a midnight movie at--you guessed it--a shopping mall. As I walked out of the theater and into the darkened mall at roughly 2:00 in the morning, it almost felt like the back-end of major paradigm. Time of night, location, exhaustion, beer … all of these contributed to my early march towards becoming a neo-consumerist zombie myself.
Perhaps that’s why I found an all-night diner and ate three hamburgers in one sitting.
Previous Days of Halloween:
Day 1 – Baby’s Breath
Day 2 – Phantom of the Paradise
Day 3 – The Shining (miniseries)
Day 4 – 28 Days Later
Day 5 – 28 Weeks Later