March 30, 2012

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978): Never Sit Beneath The Balcony

Starring Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Scott Reiniger. Directed by George A. Romero. (1978, 127 min).

1979 was a watershed year in my life, when I watched a movie that made a kid puke. 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 14-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 other hand, nothing shoots the wind out of your sails faster than the addendum in the same ad which states ‘no one under 17 will be admitted.’ Period.


Worse yet, since most theater chains wouldn’t book any unrated movie (which is still true today), Dawn of the Dead would likely not be shambling into any mallplex in the ‘burbs (kind of ironic when you consider the plot).

Sure enough, it only played in one
downtown college theater for a few weeks. So much for sneaking into it at the Southgate Theater near my house.  Alas, I had to settle for reading about Dawn's gory glory in the pages of Fangoria.

Then, almost a year 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 twenty-minute bike ride away. I’d gone there many times, mostly when my allowance money was running low but I 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 (snickering like Beavis & Butthead once we eventually learned the connotation of that number).

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 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 watch movies at home, one by one, these theaters are dropping like headless zombies. Sure, some still exist in major cities, but usually only after rechristening themselves theater-pubs, where hipsters congregate to pretend they enjoy microbrews that taste like socks, or cinema-arcades to train young kids the fine art of gambling. Even the old Cinema V is now one of these, it's once-spacious auditorium 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 which offer 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, but I truly believe all movies are best on the big screen. But I am also a practical man, increasingly unwilling to roll the dice and shell out 60 bucks (admission for my family, popcorn and a few sodas) unless I am almost guaranteed to enjoy the film I’m mortgaging my house for. 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 one summer afternoon with my best buddy Clay and our sort-of friend Mark Fortner.

I say 'sort-of' because Mark was more of a friend out of proximity. 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 things at the most inappropriate moments. The guy wore thick glasses, always tucked in his shirt and acted like he 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 creepiest laugh I'd ever heard in my life. If I was ever going to make a movie about a seemingly normal family man who turned out to be a serial killer, I'd cast Mark's dad. 

One time while we were all playing in Mark's 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? Me and Clay were merciless in mocking Dr. Fortner, 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 geared more toward the Bee Gees. When he tore the brown paper wrapping off of his new copy of Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, we chided him endlessly because the brown paper bag wasn’t wrapping; it was the album cover.

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 his first weekend in the neighborhood. In an 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 pound him with my dirt-grenade. 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 sometimes pretty terrible to Mark, but that’s not to say we didn’t like him. Despite his social awkwardness, Mark was a nice guy. And, God bless him, he put up with a lot of shit just so he could be included. 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 tag along, which was fine with us. Dr. Fortner, however, had some initial reservations when Mark 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 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 about Dawn either. Mom already once forbade 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 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 Dawn never feels that long).

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

While we were taking all of this in, it became obvious Dawn of the Dead was not the kind of movie Mark was used to. 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 beyond any of that. And here was Mark, whose maximum exposure to movie mayhem was probably seeing Krypton explode in the original Superman.

There are some things Tylenol just can't fix.
During much of Dawn, Mark was green in the gills, but managed to man-up and tough it out for awhile, 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 are ripped 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, clutched his stomach, then loudly spewed a geyser of projectile vomit. 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 patrons standing up in revulsion, hands outstretched in disbelief. Several of them 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 never 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 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. Me and Clay had since moved to another section of the balcony, acting like personas non-grata, so he paid us no attention.

After a brief 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 skull, kind of anticlimactic after the carnage of Dawn of the Dead.

Today, Dawn 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. 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. 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). It’s a smartly-written, vicious attack on materialism that’s as morbidly funny as it is scary.

As for Mark, he managed to survive, though we gave him a lot of grief 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. 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 high school sweetheart (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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