Free Life 36, April 2000, Dawn of the Dead, Reviewed by Sean Gabb
From Free Life, Issue 36, April 2000
ISSN: 0260 5112
Dawn of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero,
USA, 1979, 140 minutes
This film was recently shown on BBC2 in its "Forbidden Season". Though described in The Radio Times as "the Citizen Kane of horror" and promised in its entirety, several minutes from it appear to have been forbidden by the controllers. The cinema version, which I saw in June 1980, I remember as much nastier - more blood, more cannibal scenes, and even some zombie children at the airstrip. Never mind this, however. The film has been trimmed of a few superficial horrors. But the effect has only been to bring its political message into sharper focus.
And its message is one that might have been written by Jared Taylor, the Editor of American Renaissance, and have inspired the murder of Stephen Lawrence. For Dawn of the Dead is best seen as a white separatist parable, in which the zombies represent the blacks and hispanics and the heroes represent the white race.
Of course, there are objections to this exegesis. In the first place, the critics all agree that the film is a satire on American capitalism. Indeed, Mr Romero himself says so. In his ten minute introduction to the BBC2 showing, he mumbled very earnestly about "materialism" and Ronald Reagan. In the second place, the zombies are played indiscriminately by black and white actors, and the leading character is black. But there is no need to spend much time on either of these points. It stands to reason that Mr Romero should try to conceal his film's true meaning from the PC dictatorship that rules America. He covered his true meaning back in 1979 by using a black actor for the lead; and he keeps it covered today by echoing the critics - people, in any case, who can be relied on to miss the point of everything they watch. For myself, I cannot conceive how any reasonable person could sit through Dawn of the Dead and not come away struck by its advocacy of racial segregation where not supremacy.
It opens in the middle of a huge crisis. America is being overrun by zombies. It seems that a plague has killed about half the population, and these have risen from the dead to prey on the living - sometimes to eat them, sometimes just to infect them with plague so that they in turn die and become zombies. Since these zombies have no intellectual capacity, but are driven by a few basic instincts, it should have been possible to destroy them at the beginning, or at least to contain them. It is plain, however, that the authorities have taken no firm action until it is too late. The opening scenes are shot in a television studio, where a chaotic debate is in progress. This is intercut with news bulletins about how the President has just sent another package of tough measures to Congress, and how communications with Detroit have just been lost. Armed police are roaming the streets, shooting at zombies - who need head shots, by the way, before they lie down. But even now, when the danger has become obvious, the fight for survival is being sabotaged. Too many people believe that the zombies are human beings, and refuse to kill them or give them up to be killed in the common interest. In one scene, a woman embraces a zombie, insisting that it is her husband: it bites a lump out of her neck. Even worse, there are people so twisted in their outlook that they side with the zombies against humanity. About a minute after the biting scene, a priest exults over the growing numbers and strength of the zombies and laughs at the armed policemen who are risking their lives to save his.
Though the authorities keep insisting that people should remain in the cities while taking precautions, it is obvious that no built-up area is safe: the zombies are everywhere. No doors can keep them out. They are dragging people from their cars. The heroes - two television people, male and female, and two policemen - realise that the cities are no longer the havens of civility that they were built to be, but have become more dangerous than any wilderness. They take a traffic helicopter from the studio roof and fly out into the country. They have limited fuel and no idea where they are going. They just fly in hope of finding a place where they can again live in safety among their own kind. Looking down, they see the roads choked with military and other official vehicles streaming out of the city. As ever, the rulers of America are happy to recommend one course of action while doing something quite different for themselves.
Further into the country, we find the redknecks at work. They have no delusions about the humanity of the zombies, and are slaughtering them without mercy - but, sadly, without much efficiency. They have the right instincts, but lack the sort of leadership that would ultimately save them. We see the redknecks drinking beer and playing rock music as they load and reload. But the zombies are stumbling towards them in an unending stream. Sooner or later, the bullets will run out, or the night sentries be overpowered, and another outpost of humanity will have fallen to the outsiders.
Moving on, our heroes come to vast shopping mall powered by a nuclear generator. After looking without success for helicopter fuel, they realise that they have found their promised land. It is a place filled with every good and desirable thing. There is food and clothing and shelter and electricity, and weapons and ammunition, all in endless abundance. Like most other promised lands, however, it is already occupied. Unable to appreciate or enjoy what they have taken, zombies wander round in a parody of human activity. But despite their superior numbers, they are no match for human ingenuity. The zombies have a limited capacity to use tools: the humans have the entire contents of a gun shop. Those zombies still in the car park outside are excluded. The reinforced glass doors are locked, and lorries are parked just in front of them to prevent any build up of brute pressure against the glass that might force an opening. Those inside the mall are exterminated in a carefully planned offensive. Their bodies are neatly stacked in some of the cavernous freezer rooms. The bloodstains are washed away. By the time the humans have done their work, the mall has become once more a safe and pleasant resort.
The middle scenes of the film are taken up with the idyll in the mall. The television woman grows big with child. The men make full use of the resources available. They mark out as their living quarters a suite of upper offices that have access to the helicopter parked on the roof, and furnish them with commendable taste from the shops below. They then build a false wall between the corridor that leads up to their living quarters from the mall. As in the great extermination just passed, we see them using the minds that are their real weapon against the numerous but lower beings who would otherwise destroy them. Indeed, we see their humanity displayed even more prominently than in the extermination. That was an act of immediate need. This is a preparation made wisely but without any immediate danger. They are settlers who have cleared their land and secured it against aggression, and who by virtue of their work have earned a fully moral right to the enjoyment of its fruits.
The zombies have not gone away. The world outside the mall is teeming with them. They have overrun one less secure human settlement after another. The television broadcasts become yet more chaotic, more filled with pointless argument - and less technically accomplished. The manned studio of the opening scenes has dwindled to a hand-held camera in a bunker. The broadcasts become increasingly infrequent, and then stop. The airwaves fall silent. Though they have not the means of breaking into the mall, the zombies remain outside, squeezing themselves past the lorries, pressing their faces against the glass doors, howling with brute lust for the warm human flesh they see inside but cannot reach.
I was not at first sure about the Hell's Angels who eventually break into the mall. They do not represent the lefties - they are too well-organised. They do not represent the Jews - they are not bright enough, and they affect no compassion for the excluded zombies. But then I realised: they are the Soviets. They lack the comforts of civilisation, but they have the sort of command structure that is very effective for surviving without natural defences, surrounded by zombies - those numerous but lower beings. They smash their way into that mall simply to plunder it. They make no effort to keep the zombies out who follow them in, nor to use their presence for any constructive purpose. Of course, the Hell's Angels are driven out: they lack the organisation and firepower for victory. In the retreat from the mall - and Mr Romero here may be predicting events that have yet fully to happen - many of them fall victim to the zombies, and we see their bodies devoured.
But despite their victory, our heroes have not won. The battle has allowed the zombies to retake possession of the mall. Still worse, one of them has been so badly wounded that he dies alone in a liftshaft and emerges himself a zombie. I am still not sure what this represents. Perhaps it means that we must be continually on guard against our own relapsing into lower ways. It might be so, considering that another of the heroes has already died and then been destroyed to prevent his becoming a danger to humanity. Then again, it might represent an intellectual conversion to the ways of the enemy. Jared Taylor et al. are continually lamenting the inability of white people to remain racially aware, and their tendency to protect and advance outsiders. Whatever the case, the new zombie smashes down the partition wall, and leads the others up into the human quarters.
In the penultimate sequences, the two survivors - the black policemen and the pregnant woman - get into their helicopter and escape just as the zombies have completed their retaking of the mall and are coming onto the roof. They have little fuel and still no idea of where to go. But as they fly off into the dawn, we know that somehow they will survive. They represent a new dawn for humanity - a dawn that will put an end to the reign of brute savagery and reclaim the world for civilisation.
But the mall is lost. In the final scene, the zombies are as close to celebrating as such mindless creatures can be - staggering up and down the escalators, and falling into the ornamental fountain. Very briefly, but significantly, we see cobwebs forming on the central display. The zombies can take, but they cannot maintain. They have the numbers to deny a future to others, but they have no future themselves.
There - does this or does this not make sense of the film? Is it not this subtext that gives the film its power over audiences that dare not openly express their fears in public? Will Mr Romero send me $100 for having rumbled him? Or will he sue me for libel? We shall see.
Howard Perkins (Sean Gabb)
Editor's Note: For those who have no sense of humour, I must add that the above article is intended as satire. Mr Perkins is not, to my reasonable knowledge, a white separatist; nor, most certainly, is Free Life anything but a libertarian journal. It would be most unfortunate if we were to find ourselves dragged before the tribunals of the new politically incorrect Inquisition - still worse, perhaps, to be sued by Mr Romero.
Personally, I doubt the truth or Mr Perkins' exegesis. Great works of art - and such Dawn of the Dead undeniably is - allow a multitude of different and often mutually hostile interpretations. My English teacher at school made what seemed at the time a good case for claiming King Lear as a Marxist classic. I once heard somebody else explain at length that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a castration fantasy. I am sure the lefty critics can put their case better than Mr Perkins is willing to allow; and I am sure that Mr Romero does believe that he has made a film that satirises the American way of life. I also saw the interview, and he did have just the right degree of earnestness that one expects of American film people when they try to sound intellectual.
For me, Dawn of the Dead represents the folly of gun control. Though the humans appear to be losing throughout the film, they are able to hold on for a while because they have unrestricted access to the firepower they need. I do not suppose that England is about to be invaded by millions of zombies. Even so, there are natural disasters - plagues, floods, famines, the occasional meteorite impact, and so forth - are surprisingly common; and there is no certainty that our authorities will be always as able to keep order as they presently do. We have just lived through what many predicted would be a great "Millennium Bug" crisis. That this one came to nothing does not mean we shall be so lucky in future.
Now, imagine a world in which order has collapsed, and the cities have been taken over by bandits and maniacs - and in which there are no guns to pull out of bedside drawers, and no gun shops to break into. That will be a world without hope of restoration, or even individual courage in any meaningful sense. If I had to die in such a world, far better to go with a heap of the enemy dead outside my fastness and a bullet each left over for me and Mrs Gabb. Far better that than try fighting back with a breadknife tied to a broom handle.
I do not suppose this argument will appeal much to Tony Blair - not, I ought to mention, that he would need to worry, as he lives surrounded by twenty armed guards. I doubt also if any of the other usual suspects in the victim disarmament fraud will be convinced. But I find it conclusive, and I imagine most of my readers do.