Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking Heads: Dawn of the Dead and Bad News

We stuck with George Romero for the second film in our Zombie Fictions class. We called the first section of our class "Foundations" and wanted focus on the groundwork laid by Romero in the first two of his genre defining works. We spent a lot of time talking about what a zombie is according to these films, as well as exploring the ways horror can be conveyed in films. For Dawn, however, we wanted to bring attention to the fact that from the beginning the best zombie films were about much much more than just terror and gore: these films were meant to convey larger messages, often in the form of social critique. The assignment asked the class to tease out one of those underlying meanings.

"This week, we will be covering another classic Romero film, the second part of his initial trilogy, Dawn of the Dead. One of the things that sets Dawn apart from Night is how obviously it functions as social commentary (Night certainly does this as well, but in much subtler ways). Clearly, the most blatant critique Romero makes in the film is of the growing consumerism and materialism of the 1970s. For this blog, I want you to identify one other social issue (NOT consumerism) that the film provides commentary on, and explain how the film develops this critique. However you decide to analyze the film - individual scene, character development, setting, thematic elements, etc. - your blog should include direct "textual" support for your claims. This is a close reading exercise, so it is important that you provide evidence from the film to inform your argument. This movie is also widely available on Youtube, so it should not be difficult to post or link to the scenes that you are referencing." My model blog for this assignment begins after the pic.

            It becomes clear very early on in part 2 of George Romero’s classic zombie trilogy that Dawn of the Dead is not going to let up on the critique of the news industry that began in Night of the Living Dead. If anything, the opening scene of Dawn, and the television segments that periodically follow it, depict an even bleaker image of corporate news than the bumbling but well-intentioned incompetence of the newsmen in Night. Where Romero’s first film seems to question how much faith audiences should put into the moving mouths on their televisions and radios, Dawn of the Dead serves as a stinging indictment of the people responsible for bringing the news to air.
Like this jerk
            Despite their inability to provide much in the way of helpful information, “at this point, there is no really authentic way to say who or what to guard yourself against” (33:10) “we don’t know yet what complications could arise from such injuries” (1:01:10); a tendency toward contradiction, “do not venture outside for any reason” (33:55) becomes “look for the name of the rescue station nearest you, and make your way to that location as soon as possible” (57:29); and being the source of bad advice that gets everybody killed, “leave the relatively safe place you’ve found to travel 17 miles through an unfamiliar rural area overrun by flesh-eating undead monsters at night” (I’m paraphrasing…), there is very little reason to question the motivations of the men (exclusively) providing the news in Night of the Living Dead. Professional and coherent, but admittedly ill-informed, the newsmen of Night are trying their best to help, by providing “the facts as [they] know them” (32:30). The critique is less of the news, and more of people like Tom, Ben, and the Coopers, who place all of their faith in TVs and radios instead of thinking critically for themselves.
Dawn of the Dead does something decidedly different (alliteration combo +5!). By opening the film behind the scenes at a news station (WGON-TV), all of the attention is focused on the newsmakers themselves. It’s not a pretty picture. More troubling, though, than the chaos that seems to have overrun the station, or even the bickering that occurs between an apparently knowledgeable scientist guy and a talk show host more interested sound-bites than journalism, is how it is determined which information makes it on the air. Gone is the aspiration to present the “facts,” replaced by a determination to maintain viewers at all costs. Of course, not everybody is so ratings-driven.
Upon finding out that the rescue station list that had been scrolling across the screen was out of date and woefully inaccurate, Francine decides to pull it off of the air until a more up to the minute list can be compiled. This doesn’t go over well with her boss, Givens. His concern, however, is not that Francine has usurped his authority (she has) or that he believes the list is correct (he doesn’t), but rather that if the list is not on the screen, accurate or not, “People won’t watch us; they’ll tune out!” (3:47). Francine is apparently more interested in the well-being of her audience than what station they happen to be watching, though: “Are you willing to murder people by sending them out to stations that have closed down?” (3:49). The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be yes, as Givens responds unequivocally that he wants “that list on the screen every minute that we’re on the air” (3:52). Although the battle between Francine and Givens takes center stage, this is not an even contest: in addition to Givens’s callous unscrupulousness, the conscientious producer must also contend with the indifference of her colleagues, who are more interested in following orders than doing the right thing. Indeed, at least 3 other news workers are complicit in putting the erroneous rescue station list on the air, and keeping it there for at least 12 hours. 
But the TV said...
      With the 1980 launch of the Cable News Network, the concerns illustrated in Dawn of the Dead proved prescient as ratings-driven news became not just a worst-case scenario, but an accepted norm. For those of us that have been raised in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, there has never been any other way. However, in this film, Romero gestures to and bemoans the troubling shift that occurred between Night and Dawn, from news meant “to keep you informed of all developments” (32:26), and news solely designed to keep you watching. The message, more relevant now than ever: tune in at your own risk.

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