Archive for April 1979

Dawn of the Dead (1979)

April 10, 1979

“You got your good guys, you got your bad guys, and you got your dead guys.”
– George A. Romero on Dawn of the Dead

As every horror fan knows, George A. Romero was once slated to direct the movie version of Stephen King’s epic The Stand (the job eventually went to Mick Garris, who made a faithful if pedestrian miniseries). Some fans of Romero and King have long mourned the unmade Romero Stand movie — as if he hadn’t already made it.

Right around the same time King’s novel came out, Romero’s own bleak dystopian vision hit theaters. I submit that Dawn of the Dead captures more of the essence of The Stand (obviously due to synchronicity and not a conscious echo by Romero) than any Romero version of The Stand would have. It is, really, The Stand in miniature — forget about the zombies and this could be the untold story of four Captain Trips survivors holed up in a mall.

It’s obvious that Romero and King both had similar dark things running through their heads, back there in the late ’70s. King’s book and Romero’s movie are spiritual brothers, bookends, companion pieces. In both works, the “malaise” of the Carter administration, Jim Jones, post-Vietnam, and the eerie strains of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” provide the tonal backdrop. The book and the movie are about working-class people dealing with the end of the world. If Romero and King had collaborated on a movie version of The Stand, it would have been as redundant as a King novelization of Dawn of the Dead would’ve been. (Romero co-authored a Dawn novelization, by the way, and it stands in relation to the movie much as Garris’ The Stand does to King’s book: nice effort, but can’t hold a candle to the source.)

Few opening sequences in movie history are as realistically frazzled and hectic as Dawn‘s first reel. We begin in a chaotic TV station, where pundits argue about what is to be done about the growing zombie problem, while the station manager insists on scrolling the names of inactive rescue posts because viewers will tune out if the TV doesn’t show something. Station technician Fran (Gaylen Ross) gets a visit from boyfriend Stephen (David Emge), a stressed-out helicopter pilot, who says it’s time for them to take off. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Pittsburgh, a SWAT team is busting into a slum building to deal with a man who’s taken the building hostage. One of the SWAT guys, the relatively compassionate Roger (Scott Reiniger), runs into a guy from another unit, Peter (Ken Foree). A member of Roger’s unit had gone apeshit and blown away a few of the minority tenants until getting shot himself, and there’s the suggestion that Peter took him down. After dealing with some of the zombies in the building, Roger and Peter join Stephen (an acquaintance of Roger’s) and Fran, and they take off in Stephen’s chopper.

Dawn of the Dead is often referred to as an epic, though nothing much happens. Once the four survivors land on the roof of a shopping mall and decide to stay there for a while, the action is as contained and limited in scope as either of the bracketing Dead films. There’s a lot of downtime, a lot of waiting. Yet all of it works, because Romero, who was his own editor this time out, keeps the scenes clipped and purposeful, wedded to a hybrid soundtrack of library music and a menacing, John Carpenter-esque synth score by the Italian rock group Goblin. (The library music really fails only once, I think — right near the end, when Peter arrives at his final decision about whether to stay or leave. The music Romero uses here is exceptionally cheesy even by ’70s standards; for a brief moment, the movie is awful.)

The added running time gave Romero a chance to dig into the four characters. Stephen, we see repeatedly, is a rotten shot who fancies himself a gunman. He wants to protect and care for Fran, but he’s just not the survivalist that Peter or Roger is. He’s realistically flawed but never really annoying — the tension between him and Fran seems to have a history beyond the movie. Fran, as ably played by Gaylen Ross, suggests a real woman caught in the midst of an unreal situation. Her best moment comes when she’s sitting behind a closed glass door and a lone zombie in a softball uniform sits mesmerized, staring at her as if her beauty, not the flesh and guts that constitute zombie food, were attracting him; Fran sadly stares back at him. Peter is a strong, stoic figure, once again the black hero of a Romero Dead film, though he also gets some telling lines like “We’re thieves and we’re bad guys — that’s exactly what we are.” Even when Peter aims his gun at Stephen, to show him what it feels like (Stephen’s bad aim has almost killed Peter), Ken Foree plays the moment as something that regrettably has to be done, not as a sadistic laugh on the white boy.

The most interesting character, though, is Roger. An experienced SWAT guy, he’s seen a lot of shit, but he still seems to have a laid-back, almost sunny demeanor. He’s the joker in the deck, and also the wild card: at a certain point in a mission involving trucks, he loses his cool and forgets his bag in one of the trucks; this leads to his eventual downfall. Nothing in any of the Dead films has as much pathos as Roger’s knowledge of his certain fate. And he has a moment worthy of any hyperbolic scene in a King novel: the delirious Roger needs to hear that the humans have triumphed over the zombies — “We whipped ’em, didn’t we? Didn’t we? … We whipped ’em and we got it ALL!” In tone and dialogue the scene is so perfectly King-esque that you might see what I mean about Romero’s The Stand being beside the point.

The best part of Dawn is yet to come, though: a gang of marauding bikers, led by special-effects master Tom Savini, find their way to the mall and have a good ol’ time harassing, killing, and defacing the zombies before the tables are turned. Savini has been on hand throughout the movie, behind the scenes, rigging such memorable gags as Zombie Vs. Helicopter Blade and various squib hits. At the climax he goes all out, letting the zombies loose on the bikers, with guts squirting and being shoved right into the camera, in bright red color. (Oddly, Savini — who plays a rather obnoxious, racist biker — doesn’t give himself a spectacular send-off; he just has a zombie throw him off a balcony.) The survivors are halved in number, and Peter, aiming his gun at his head, seems to flash on the fate of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead and think better of it.

Romero gives his survivors a relatively happy ending — an escape of sorts, but to where and to what? The final images are not of escape or humanity, but of the left-behind zombies in the mall as rinky-dink Muzak plays. It’s a chilling premonition of what the cities of America, overrun by the dead, will soon look like. 5

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

April 2, 1979

Had Roger Corman not come to his senses, I might be writing about Disco High. Ever the opportunist, Corman wanted his then-company, New World, to crank out a quickie flick about what he thought was the big fad. But director Allan Arkush knew that disco was on the way out, and managed to persuade Corman that rock and roll was indeed coming back. Reportedly, the film was designed as a vehicle for Cheap Trick, but they were too big at the time, so Arkush settled for the Ramones.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is built around the Queens retro-rock band (they disliked the term “punk,” and in truth they were about as punk as the Stray Cats; it was their audience that was punk), a shrine to them and to general rebellion — though, of course, safe rebellion, meaning that the kids in the film are essentially harmless, up against a school administration so unyielding that it links Ramones music to the death of white mice.

R&RHS owes whatever stature it has to the presence of the Ramones and to a mix of nostalgia and affection; to be honest, it’s not a very good movie on the face of it (it’s written and directed so crudely it makes Animal House look like a Whit Stillman film). But one person does carry you through the mess: P.J. Soles as Riff Randell, cheerleader at Vince Lombardi High School, and the Ramones’ biggest fan. That a girl as perky, bouncy, and blonde as Riff would be madly in love with such songs as “Blitzkrieg Bop” is a pretty good joke in itself. And P.J. Soles, in what turned out to be her only lead role, commands the screen by sheer charisma and enthusiasm. Relegated to mere girlfriend roles (though she was still engaging) in Halloween and Stripes, Soles wasn’t really given room to stretch, though I remember an amusing bit in Halloween where she’s heard in the background nattering on about how it doesn’t matter if you have your books or not. Here, her character has one goal: not to sleep with Joey Ramone, as you might expect of a cheapie teen comedy, but to get him to look at the song she’s written for the Ramones — “Rock and Roll High School,” of course. So we have a ’70s teen movie about a driven, intelligent, rebellious, and creative girl, without making a huge point of it. That alone sets the film apart.

Much of the rest of the movie is lowbrow farce, though imaginatively cast. Mary Woronov, that great perverse goddess, turns up as the film’s chief villain, Principal Togar, who loathes rock music and has two cringing hall monitors to do her bidding. Woronov’s longtime friend and collaborator Paul Bartel comes aboard as a music teacher who eventually lets go of his stuffy attachment to Beethoven and learns to appreciate the Ramones. An early role for Clint Howard allows him some flashy comic moments as Eaglebauer, the school guru, who can get you anything from booze to babes (he caters primarily to the boys, and even has a secretary). No teen movie would be complete without a dull, well-scrubbed couple, and we get that with Vincent Van Patten as an awkward jock and Dey Young as a shy girl with a crush on him. Young is a bit more interesting than Van Patten, who overworks his doofus desperation; we’re meant to sympathize with him while laughing at the mistreatment of a dorky freshman — the movie is a little hypocritical. (And, at times, a little too cartoonish — witness the giant talking mouse, built, I was amused to learn, by Rob Bottin.)

R&RHS was an obvious influence on Detroit Rock City (1999), which shares this film’s single-minded devotion to a ’70s band (the bands couldn’t be less alike, though KISS did cover a Ramones song on a tribute album). Detroit Rock City, though, wisely kept KISS themselves offscreen for most of the movie. Arkush and his writers drag the Ramones into one of Riff’s fantasies, and their fans will be embarrassed on their behalf (particularly since the band only got $5,000 for their participation — $3,000 of which went to hospital bills when Dee Dee Ramone ODed during filming). None of the Ramones can act, so they’re given noncommittal, dead-sounding lines, and they come across (when not performing music) like a shamefaced rock band doing a guest shot on some late-’70s sitcom. Joey Ramone in particular — God rest his soul — was not a screen natural; all of the Ramones, in fact, have a stoic, cool disregard for the camera and give nothing of themselves to the movie audience, but Joey looks especially ill at ease. A longhaired chinless geek who broke through into coolness by way of a commanding voice (much like Howard Stern and Marilyn Manson), Joey throws the movie’s tone off a bit; how can we revere this guy (and we do, if we’re Ramones boosters) and also laugh at the dork getting shoved into a locker who could’ve been Joey ten years prior?

Still, for all its crudities and flaws, this is a fun love letter to one of the true icons of ’70s rock, and it makes sense that the Ramones’ entry into film was in a cheapjack Roger Corman production rather than in pricier garbage greenlit by a Hollywood studio head trying to seem hip. (Corman only cared about being hip inasmuch as it would turn him a profit — he’s always been refreshingly upfront about that.) The Ramones, after all, drew from the same well of B-movies that Corman did (so did their contemporaries KISS, and Rob Zombie after them). And the footage of the band in concert, shot over three days, with a real and reportedly hostile crowd of fans, is capably shot and well-edited.

The movie’s climax, with the band blaring the title track while the school burns, pulled me up short a little in this post-Columbine era; I reflected that such a finale would never see the light of a projector today, and more’s the pity. We may never again see a teen comedy in which a school can explode and the movie can still be considered essentially good-hearted.