There are a few films that other people really like that I have completely bounced off of. I bounced off of Fight Club due to how the film handles mental health issues – and particular its discussion of support groups – using support groups as the negative avenue which Tyler Durden uses to put together Project Mayhem, and ignoring or dismissing the helpful elements support groups have (though, having organized a support group, I admit that I bring some distinct baggage to the table).
The same way, I bounced off of Dawn of the Dead – the most beloved film in George Romero’s Dead series, the same way. The first time I watched it, it turned me off the wagon of the entire Zombie genre. That was almost 10 years ago, so I thought with 10 more years of life experience, maybe I’d be able to roll with the story it’s trying to tell.
I bounced off this like Sonic the Hedgehog spin-dashing into a spring in the Green Hill Zone.
I think fundamentally, the reason why this doesn’t work for me is that I’m not particularly nihilistic. I am pessimistic – I try to prepare for the worst so I’m not surprised by it, but I’m never really nihilistic – I never expect and actively hope for the worst.
That’s the problem for me – Dawn of the Dead is a very nihilistic film. It assumes and believes that humanity truly is the worst, and that the best possible outcome for the world is that humanity is wiped out and rendered extinct – that nothing good can come from or for humanity, and that belief is represented clearly by the film’s originally planned (but never shot) ending, where after the protagonists home is destroyed not by the encroaching force-of-nature undead (as with Night of the Living Dead), but by greedy selfish humans – leading one protagonist being killed, one wounded – the remaining two survivors kill themselves – one eating a bullet, the other by decapitation by helicopter blade.
According to my research, that ending wasn’t used not because George Romero thought it was a bit much – but because the audience would have thought it was a bit much.
In the world of Dawn of the Dead, while our handful of protagonists seem okay – or at least are not the garbage humans that are part of the SWAT team, or the project dwellers who are saving their dead even though they are clearly turning into zombies, or the network executive who wants to keep out of date evacuation center information on of the air for the sake of ratings, or the bikers from the film’s conclusion – they are clearly the minority compared to the rest of the world. As that previous run-on sentence makes clear, the rest of the characters in this film are generally crap. We’re not supposed to have empathy for them. We’re supposed to either not care if they live or die, or be okay with them being chewed on by walkers – and that’s the problem.
Horror works best, at least for me, when there are good people in the film who we don’t want bad things to happen to – and for there to be a possibility for the horror to end. With Romero’s Dead series – the source of the horror doesn’t end. The Zombies aren’t going anywhere – and any attempt to rebuild or make any sort of safe place free of the horror will be destroyed by the Assholes.
That said, I can roll with a Worst Ending style apocalypse, but those work for me when it’s a clearly telegraphed uncontrollable situation – the alien from The Thing, The Ancient Evil from In The Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness, that sort of thing. In Dawn of the Dead the apocalypse persists because people are inherently assholes so attempts at reconstruction aren’t worth it or automatically tainted.
My original intent was