Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

1979 was a watershed year in my young life as a movie geek...Alien was the scariest movie since Jaws, I managed to sit through all of Gone with the Wind on TV without falling asleep, and best of all, I witnessed a movie make a kid so sick that he ran out of the theater, but not before vomiting all over the place.

The offending flick was George A. Romero’s classic, Dawn of the Dead. It’s hapless victim was one Mark J. Fortner.

When I first saw a commercial advertising Dawn of the Dead, man, did I want to see it! As a 15-year-old horror fan, nothing gets you more pumped-up than a movie ad that ominously announces the film is so violent that it has no MPAA rating. On the same token, nothing shoots the wind out of your 15-year-old sails faster than the addendum in the same ad which states ‘no one under 17 will be admitted.’ Period.


Worse yet, since most places wouldn’t book any unrated movie (which is still true today), Dawn of the Dead would likely not be shambling into any mall theater in the ‘burbs (kind of ironic, once you're aware of the plot).

Sure enough, it only played in one college theater downtown for a few weeks, and even though I often snuck into R rated movies at the Southgate Theater near my house, I was 100% sure I couldn’t talk my parents into driving me downtown and tag along while I enjoyed some zombie gut-munching (although imagining the horrified face of my mother gasping at the carnage does bring a smile to my face). Alas, I had to settle for reading about Dawn's gory glory in the pages of Fangoria.

Then, a few months later, a miracle happened. Dawn of the Dead popped up as the bottom half of a double bill (with Phantasm) at the trusty old Cinema V, an ugly, ancient, puke-colored, second-run theater in downtown Milwaukie, the suburb where I lived and only a ten minute drive from my house. I’d gone there many times, mostly when my allowance money was running low but still needed my movie fix. The admission price was always only 69 cents for as long as I could remember, and that was for two movies! 69 CENTS was perpetually plastered on its cracked and weathered marquee at least five times bigger than the movie titles themselves. In fact, most of us had been calling the place Cinema 69 for years.

At any rate, even though the place was old, dank and had a big slit in the screen no one bothered to repair, it was pretty awesome to be able to catch a movie just by rummaging through the sofa cushions for loose change. Even better was the fact that Cinema V never checked IDs. I couldn’t believe it: the mother of all zombie flicks, 69 cents, no ID check. The stars must have aligned that weekend in 1979.

God bless the second-run theater, an endangered species nowadays. There’s hardly any of them around anymore. As it becomes cheaper and more convenient to simply watch movies at home, one by one, these theaters are dropping like zombies being shot in the head. That’s too bad, because there’s still nothing like catching a flick on the big screen.

Oh sure, some still exist in major cities, but usually only after rechristening themselves as theater-pubs, where hipsters congregate to pretend they enjoy beers that tastes like socks, or cinema-arcades to train young kids the fine art of gambling (offering them tickets for successful game play, which can later be exchanged for trinkets worth far less than the number of coins they spent to get those tickets). Even the old Cinema V is now one of these, it's once-spacious auditorium now chopped in half to make room for Skee-Ball and Whack-A-Mole. Movies alone are seldom enough to keep these places in business, even with an admission price less than a glorified milkshake from Starbucks. There are still a few second-run cinemas left (not art houses...those are for people who pretend they like foreign films) offering just movies, but I think it is just a matter of time before they are all gone. That’ll be a sad day.

Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic (euphemism for old fart). I truly believe all movies are best on the big screen, yet I am also someone who is increasingly unwilling to roll the dice and shell out 80 bucks (admission for my family, plus popcorn and a few sodas) unless I am almost guaranteed to enjoy the film I’m mortgaging my house for. But as a true fan of the moviegoing experience, second-run theaters always gave me the same opportunity at a fraction of the price.

But that's now. Back in '79, all I cared about was hopping on my bike and pedaling into Milwaukie that summer afternoon with my best friend Clay (more on him later) and our sort-of friend Mark Fortner.

I say 'sort-of' because Mark was more of a friend out of proximity; he and his family moved into our neighborhood the previous year. He was a nice enough guy, but a clean-cut, goody-two-shoes who went to a private school. He had a stupid sense of humor and often said the dorkiest thing at the most inappropriate moments. The guy wore thick glasses, always tucked in his shirt and acted like he just committed the perfect crime whenever an expletive escaped his lips. In other words, not cool, as defined by me and Clay. His dad, a pediatrician, was also a piece of work. He looked and talked like Ward Cleaver and had the dumbest laugh I'd ever heard in my life. One time, while we were all playing in the driveway, Dr. Fortner popped his head out the door and, with a congenial grin and stupid laugh, said, "Hey gang, be careful not to hit the garage door with that basketball."

Me and Clay stared at each other, barely suppressing laughter.

Gang? Gang? What were we, the Little Rascals? Who the hell called kids gang back then? Me and Clay were merciless, mocking his dumbass dad, yet Mark took it like a good sport, because it was obvious he wanted to fit in with his new friends, but had little idea how. He'd buy Led Zeppelin records just because we did, even though his personal preference in music was never that heavy. When he tore the brown paper wrapping off of his new copy of Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, we gave him a lot of shit because the brown paper bag wasn’t wrapping; it the album cover.

Looking back, we weren't too nice to Mark himself most of the time. The neighborhood we lived in was still in development, so there were always several houses at various stages of construction. We played in those structures a lot, often engaging in our favorite activity, dirt clod fights. The rules were simple...divide into teams and try to nail each other. We introduced Mark to this sport on the first weekend in his new house. In his effort to make new friends, he was up for it, but once I had him cornered in a ditch surrounding a house-in-development, he let his true colors fly. He was a sitting duck and he knew it. I stood over him above the ditch, arm cocked and ready to let the rock-filled dirt clod fly. Clay was nearby, giggling uncontrollably as he urged me to make the kill-shot (and he was on Mark's team). At this point, Mark started to cry. That made Clay laugh even harder, which was all the encouragement I needed to open fire. I missed, by the way, which was probably a good thing. Although we loved dirt clod fights, none of us really wanted to hurt each other. Mark was already bawling when my projectile exploded next to his head. I’d hate to think what would have happened if I’d nailed him.

Clay would later swear up and down Mark wet his pants while cowered in that ditch. Whether or not that was actually true didn't dissuade me from relaying that detail as the climax to the story when I told others.

Yeah, we were often pretty shitty to Mark, but that’s not to say we didn’t like him. Despite his social awkwardness (at least defined by us), Mark was a pretty nice guy. And, God bless him, he put up with a lot of shit just so he could be included with the neighborhood cool kids (also defined by us). We never objected to having the guy around, especially in the summer, since he was the only kid in the neighborhood with a pool.

So when me and Clay decided to pedal down to the Cinema V to check out Dawn of the Dead, Mark wanted to go, too. That was fine with us.

Mark’s dad, however, had some initial reservations when he asked for permission. Permission? Really? Couldn’t he just lie and go anyway?

Mark’s dad warily shook his head. “I don’t know. I heard Cinema V is a shady place.”

Shady place? It was an old theater, not a freaking strip club. And who the hell described any place as shady anymore? We never let Mark live that one down either.

Still, Mark was able to convince his dad to let him go, conveniently leaving out the fact we were going to see an unrated zombie movie. I didn’t actually tell my parents, either. Mom had already once forbidden me from seeing the main feature, Phantasm, during its initial run because of the tag line, ‘If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.’ Maybe Mark himself didn’t know or care what we were seeing; he was just happy to be included.

So we got there, bought popcorn and settled into the front row of the balcony (remember those?). The place was pretty full, mostly with a bunch of other kids whose IDs were obviously not checked at the door.

Dawn of the Dead is director George A. Romero’s sequel to his 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. Although released a decade later, Dawn picks up shortly after the events of the first film, only now the living dead have overrun the world. Two SWAT guys, a chopper pilot and his girlfriend escape in a helicopter and eventually find refuge in a shopping mall. After ridding the place of zombies, they barricade themselves in and proceed to live out the fantasy most of us have entertained at some point...having a whole mall to yourself. This idyllic existence is later disrupted when a gang of bikers lay siege upon the mall, allowing the zombies back in. Our heroes, now down to two, manage to escape, but the film ends with their ultimate fates unknown.

That’s the quick & dirty summary. Much has been written over the years about the film’s obvious satiric commentary on consumerism, that the zombies themselves are not the true monsters...we are, devolving into animals once society has broken down and can no longer keep us in check. All that and a thousand more metaphors are exploited in the movie’s 127 minutes (epic length for a horror movie, but the Dawn never feels that long).

But none of the movie’s social commentary matters when you’re 15 years old and exposed to some of the most graphic violence you’ve ever seen. People are eaten alive, whole chunks of flesh bitten out of bodies; skulls are severed by helicopter blades, screwdrivers are thrust into temples, head literally explode from gunshots, zombie-rendered children are gunned down, etc. This wasn’t just violence...this was gore.

While we were taking all of this in, it quickly became obvious Dawn of the Dead was not the kind of movie Mark was used to watching. Me either, actually, but at least I’d been working up to it, having survived Jaws, The Exorcist, The Omen and Alien. But the violence in Dawn was way, way beyond any of that. And here was Mark, whose maximum exposure to movie mayhem was probably seeing Krypton exploding in the original Superman.

During much of Dawn, Mark was green in the gills, but managed to man-up and tough it out, at least until the climax, when the aforementioned biker gang starts getting ripped apart and dismembered by the zombie hordes. Torsos are torn open, intestines are spilled and devoured, arms and pulled from their sockets, all while the victims are still alive. I have to admit, even I was getting a little queasy. But Mark couldn’t handle it. At the height of the biker slaughter, he leaned forward, eyes squeezed shut. He lurched a few times, clutching his stomach, then loudly spewed massive amounts of projectile vomit into the air. Since we were seated in the front row of the balcony, his stomach chowder rained down in chunks and splattered people twenty feet below us.

I heard screams. Mark, grabbing his midsection, stumbled toward the exit.

Clay was laughing his ass off.

While the movie kept playing, I leaned over to see puke-drenched people standing up in revulsion, hands outstretched in disbelief. Several of them also bolted from the theater, others stared up accusingly at me and Clay. We did our best to look like we had no idea what was going on.

By this time, the stench of Mark’s puke wafted to my nose. That, along with the disembowelment going on onscreen, made my own gut to a few summersaults. Thank God I managed to swallow it back down, because I knew this was yet-another socially awkward event Mark would ever live down. I sure as hell didn’t want to join him as an object of ridicule. The only other time in my life I ever came that close to puking because of a movie was when I first saw Jackass.

As the end credits of Dawn of the Dead rolled, a few Cinema V cronies came into the theater to clean up the mess below. The manager stormed up to the balcony and demanded to know who was responsible, which is kind of stupid when you think about it. Who the hell goes out of their way to puke on paying customers? Me and Clay had since moved to another section of the balcony, acting like persona non grata, so he paid us no attention.

After a lengthy delay, the main feature, Phantasm, finally began. Having cleaned himself up and looking a bit less green, Mark eventually came back up and sat with us, and we all watched the movie in relative silence. Phantasm wasn’t a bad movie, but not very scary and, aside from a great scene involving a flying silver ball drilling into someone’s head, kind of anticlimactic after the zombie carnage of Dawn of the Dead.

Today, Dawn of the Dead is a classic and widely considered the greatest zombie film of all time. For years it was the most gloriously violent thing I’d ever seen, and when it later came out on video I used to love watching it with newbies who had no idea what was coming. The film immediately spawned countless imitations, many spewing out of Italy, that often upped the ante in the gore department. Some were okay, most were shit, but Dawn just got better with each viewing, mainly because it was never just a gore film (even though that’s what I first loved about it as a kid). It’s a smartly-written, well-acted and sometimes vicious attack on materialism that’s as morbidly funny as it is scary. Even the ample amount of over-the-top zombie violence is actually easier to stomach than the realistic torture scenes in Hostel or the Saw series.

As for Mark, he managed to survive, though we gave him a lot of shit for puking up his popcorn and, as usual, he took our chiding with a good-natured grin. For all of his social inadequacies, the guy was a damn good sport, and because of that, maybe he was a better friend than we ever gave him credit for.

Mark and I kind of drifted apart shortly after I discovered girls, cars, booze and weed, while he continued taking school seriously and was a valedictorian his senior year. Shortly after I (barely) graduated high school, I think it was his younger brother who told me Mark got a full scholarship to USC or something. I, on the other hand, dropped out of community college to marry my girlfriend (but that’s another sad tale). Obviously, his encounter with the living dead at the Cinema V didn’t do any permanent damage, but I’ll bet he’s still not a zombie fan.

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