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.