Since the mid-1980s, US audiences have watched the majority of movies they see on a video platform, be it VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Video On Demand, or streaming media. Annual video revenues have exceeded box office returns for over twenty-five years. In short, video has become the structuring discourse of US movie culture. Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens examines how prerecorded video reframes the premises and promises of motion picture spectatorship. But instead of offering a history of video technology or reception, Caetlin Benson-Allott analyzes how the movies themselves understand and represent the symbiosis of platform and spectator. Through case studies and close readings that blend industry history with apparatus theory, psychoanalysis with platform studies, and production history with postmodern philosophy, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens unearths a genealogy of post-cinematic spectatorship in horror movies, thrillers, and other exploitation genres. From Night of the Living Dead (1968) through Paranormal Activity (2009), these movies pursue their spectator from one platform to another, adapting to suit new exhibition norms and cultural concerns in the evolution of the video subject.
Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens Video Spectatorship From VHS to File Sharing
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Distributing the Dead
Video Spectatorship in the Films of George A. Romero
Movies construct the video spectator differently than they do the cinematic spectator; that is the fundamental claim of this chapter, the thesis I set out to prove by examining how one filmmaker altered his presentation of the same subject for different popular distribution platforms. Critics have been quick to affirm that movies look different on video and that filmmakers reimagined many of their formal and narrative conventions during the home video era, but no one has provided the close readings that would identify what these shifts actually look like, how they alter the viewer's relationship to the motion picture and reimagine the spectator. Viewers may intuitively recognize that movies of the home video era address them differently than their cinematic predecessors do, but film theorists have not yet analyzed the nature of that change or how it happened. Therefore, this chapter systematically works through the construction of the spectator in one director's oeuvre over forty years to demonstrate how new motion picture apparatuses bring forth new spectators.
All spectatorship studies-from the 1970s apparatus theory through the 1980s and 1990s reception surveys and contemporary material culture criticism-rest on the abiding assumptions that movies try to elicit specific affects or responses in a viewer and that they do so by manipulating the apparatus through which they anticipate meeting her. Hence, Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz, Laura Mulvey, and the other 1970s screen theorists all appeal to the basic architecture of the movie theater-the location of the projector, the darkness of the auditorium, the size of the screen-to explain how this space constructs its spectator. When subsequent scholars challenge the 1970s theorists' "master narratives" and argue that some audiences actively resist ideological indoctrination, they implicitly affirm the idea that motion pictures exploit their form and format to direct the spectatorial response. Platform studies and new media critics likewise focus on the unique methods digital image productions offer for exciting the viewer. This last approach inspires the methodology for this chapter, but rather than focusing on innovations in motion picture production, I examine how innovations in motion picture exhibition have changed the way filmmakers imagine and address the spectator. What one can show influences what one can say, so the effect of video platforms on filmmaking matters not only because they influence production (as Janet Wasko, Frederick Wasser, and David Bordwell have shown) but also because they shape the transmission of ideas. By examining how the movies' production design, cinematography, and editing anticipate video distribution, we begin to recognize new patterns in how they interpellate the spectator. Reading these formal innovations in conversation with the narratives they convey, we can see how filmmakers negotiate story, platform, and form to achieve a particular response in a viewer.
Such an account cannot limit itself to movies produced after the video revolution, however, at least not if it hopes to convey a sense of how the drive for "videoability" changed the spectator. To do that, its analysis needs to include movies made both before and after video profits eclipsed box-office receipts, while simultaneously controlling for as many other production variables as possible-such as director, subject, and genre. Hence my turn to George A. Romero and his zombie oeuvre. Romero made six zombie movies between 1968 and 2009, and this corpus collectively proves that each new apparatus constructs a new spectator. There are two specific reasons Romero's zombie oeuvre is ideal for this study of video spectatorship. First, the director's forty-year hexalogy follows the same subject in the same genre across no less than five dominant distribution platforms, which facilitates close readings attentive to formal changes. Second, each movie exploits the commonly perceived strengths of its contemporaneous platform to involve the spectator in critiques of the mass media, US military policy, racism, and classism. Although these polemics emerge most obviously in the movies' narratives, as David Bordwell observes, "style is not simply window-dressing draped over a script; it is the very flesh of the work." Romero's zombie movies politicize their spectators by reflecting reputed possibilities and limitations of the apparatus dominating motion picture distribution at the time of production. In 1985, for instance, Romero's Day of the Dead reinterpreted zombie attacks for VHS, a lower-resolution platform that was dominating horror distribution in the mid-1980s. By racking focus on its attacking ghouls, Day transforms the zombie from the lumbering pest of yore to a threat based on limited visibility to suit its new apparatus. They are slow, those zombies, but you have to see them coming, and on an analog video, a viewer might not.
Such practical attention to distribution markets and to changes in the motion picture apparatus marks Romero's entire zombie oeuvre. Because Romero undertook his first movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), as an entrepreneurial project to transform himself from a televisual filmmaker (of commercials, primarily) into a feature-film director, Night was shot with the drive-in market and spectator in mind. It also interrogates celluloid as a platform, challenging its capacity to record and represent violence in order to reveal the political limitations of visual media and help the spectator question her insularity from recorded traumas. Romero maintains a similar attention to exhibition and the motion picture apparatus throughout his career as an independent filmmaker (albeit one occasionally hired by the studios for individual projects) and in the rest of his zombie movies: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). Because of the temporal breaks between each of Romero's sequels, each had to be sold through a different exhibition platform; thus, each reflects a different motion picture apparatus and imagines a different spectator. Dawn went out to the multiplexes and midnight-movie circuit that characterized 1970s cinema going; Day premiered in independent movie theaters but found its funding and its audience through VHS; Land opened in theaters that were understood to be merely advance advertising for a DVD release; and Diary came out to a video marketplace increasingly influenced by new media convergence and user-generated content. So while Steven Shaviro notes that "Romero's zombies could almost be said to be quintessential media images," it might be equally instructive to observe they are media-contingent images whose relation to the spectator changes as their platforms of replication change. Over the course of this chapter I will address each of Romero's movies in turn, noting changes in his framing, cinematography, depth of field, editing, and color palette that reflect changes in contemporaneous exhibition practices and the kind of spectator a director might anticipate. By tracking the political life of key tropes-such as the blue hue of the zombies' skin or the suspense of a zombie attack-I demonstrate that Romero's zombie movies adapted to exploit the political potential of each new apparatus, not to mention the spectator herself.
But before proceeding, I want to reiterate that the goal of this chapter is to unpack the history of the video spectator, not the zombie. Had Romero made six werewolf films in forty years, this chapter might seem to be about werewolves; in either case the monster matters because of what it reveals about the way the movie imagines its spectator. Had Romero made this same hexalogy about witches or robots, they, too, might appear to possess a privileged relationship to motion picture spectatorship-as, indeed, the zombie does, but only because of the unique engagements with the motion picture apparatus Romero pursues in his monster movies. That said, it is also the case that I wrote this chapter in the midst of a zombie renaissance, an unprecedented multimedia surge of interest in the undead. I leave it to other scholars to catalog and contextualize all the zombie movies, literature, games, and ephemera that emerged during the first decade of the twenty-first century, but to the extent that the zombie resurrection includes a new twist in video spectatorship, I would be remiss to ignore it entirely. Therefore, this chapter concludes with a few notes concerning the effect of 1990s zombie video games on the zombie renaissance. Between 2002 and 2004 a new breed of zombie movies reimagined their narrative space, cinematography, and even the speed of their zombies to court the video game user as spectator. In so doing, they achieved what Romero's last zombie movie did not: the survival of the dead.
Slow and Scary: The Depth of Horror in Night of the Living Dead
It has become a convention of Romero criticism to recount how the same financial pressures that led his production company, Image Ten, to green-light a horror film for its first project also contributed to the stylistic decisions that make Night of the Living Dead a political and aesthetic achievement. However, critics have yet to address how Image Ten's distributive plans affected Night's style, content, and construction of its spectator. Image Ten made a horror movie because the company thought it would be an easy genre to sell: it knew both who its potential distributors might be (Columbia or American International Pictures) and where the distributor would rent the film (mostly drive-ins and grind houses). These expectations helped to determine the movie's horrific production design and to shape the antiracist polemic it impresses upon the youthful, politically skeptical spectator that characterized that era and those venues. For example, Night was shot in black and white both because Image Ten could only afford 35 mm black-and-white or 16 mm color film stock and because American International Pictures was still distributing black-and-white creature-features in the late 1960s. Consequently, the movie uses its gray scale thematically to give its production design a banal realism that Technicolor or Eastman Color could not produce. In that regard the black-and-white cinematography affirms the narrative's intertextual relationship with the television news reports that pepper the second half of the film, since in 1968 most television news reporting was still filmed in black and white. Shooting Night in black and white thus allowed the zombies to appear verisimilar to their spectator, no more or less real than the scientists, policemen, and military officers in the film's news reports and the actual televisual violence viewers saw at home every night. Furthermore, while the film uses contemporary televisual trends and aesthetics to interpellate its spectator, it also plays on the stillness inherent to the filmstrip's imitation of life and thereby prompts her to question both the mimetic power of the motion picture and media representations of US racism and violence.
Night of the Living Dead's microcosm of US violence thus reflects not only its filmmakers' budgetary constraints and aspirational distribution platform (film) but also the ideological investments they wish to pass on to the viewer. These influences emerge in the opening sequence and in depictions of the main characters, and they come to political fruition during the climactic murder of Ben (Duane Jones), the movie's African American hero. Close attention to the formal construction of the introductory sequence also reveals how the movie uses drive-in exhibition norms to introduce the spectator into its eventual critique of Americans' appetitive self-interest. The movie begins on an open road like the ones that led its viewers to their open-air theaters, but this shot also suggests a sly nod to the filmmakers' promise that, if necessary, they would distribute their movie by delivering it from drive-in to drive-in themselves. Night's abandoned dirt road snakes through Pennsylvania farmland, and its gray scale provides dire contrast for Romero's deep staging and grim-if banal-rural setting. As the camera lingers for thirty-seven seconds, a car almost imperceptibly crests the horizon and slowly winds its way across the landscape before passing the camera and transporting its occupants into zombie territory. The black-and-white stock gives this shot a startlingly bleak realism that cannot but recall the bland, gray Kansas of Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939). The monochrome also obscures the movement of the gray car along the gray road until it is almost upon the spectator. The shot thus initiates all three of the aesthetic techniques Romero will exploit during his drive-in zombie movie: banal production designs that underscore the horror lurking in the mundane American countryside, classical Hollywood deep focus that employs multilayered blocking to heighten the movie's suspense, and a static camera that frames movement and violence for a seemingly objective, documentary effect. These artistic choices allow Romero to present both his zombies and his living characters as American horrors; they encourage the spectator to recognize Romero's monsters as her family and neighbors at their most ignoble and most base.
Given the complicity of production design, cinematography, and framing in a movie's mise-en-scène, however, one can hardly isolate them or analyze them fruitfully out of context; indeed, it is their imbrication and cooperation that draw the spectator into Night of the Living Dead's horror and social critique. Together these techniques characterize Romero's nightmare as distinctly American in both style and setting, as iconic yet mundane locations and props belie the surreal horrors that Romero records along the "one-directional axis of 'deep-focus' cinema that emerged in the mid-to-late 1940s." As the movie's heroine, Barbara (Judith O'Dea), flees to a nearby farmhouse to escape the first zombie attack, the movie blends its deep focus with canted camera angles and incongruous framing devices and thereby increases the spectator's investment in Barbara's plight. These techniques emphasize the uncanny horror of Barbara's homecoming by implying that it will not turn out as planned-or that it was not preplanned, that it was captured live, like television. After she finds the front door locked, Barbara turns and runs downhill toward the camera, careening around the house to locate its kitchen door. Romero records this mad dash from a tilted low angle that increases the spectator's empathetic anxiety while also implying both avant-garde artistry and an inexperienced cameraman following events as they happen.
As Barbara approaches the camera, its slight left tilt positions the porch columns at an angle with the frame's edge, implying that the cinematographer had not had time to line up his shot before Barbara appeared. Indeed, it looks as if the cameraman just barely slid into place before Barbara ran toward him. This angle initiates a highly stylized cinematography that nonetheless conveys haphazard realism thanks to the film's frenetic pace and banal domestic setting. Yet despite this documentary illusion, Barbara's run has obviously been carefully choreographed for the camera; she runs right to it, trips directly in front of it, and then climbs uphill away from it so that it can record her alongside the imposing facade of the house that is her only hope. In short, it utilizes "the linear perspective employed in pre-widescreen films" that John Belton sees encouraging "the spectator's eyes, via depth cues, to explore the depth of the frame." In this case it also prompts the spectator to accept Barbara's plight as real, an important impression for the film's subsequent critique of indexical media.
Night of the Living Dead continues to influence the spectator with metaphoric framing and blocking strategies after it moves inside the farmhouse. There, deep blocking and deep focus exacerbate the claustrophobia and desperate attention to television that drive the interpersonal tensions, accelerate the narrative, and build the political allegory. After Barbara makes it into the abandoned farmhouse, she is joined by Ben, Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the young lovers Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). Tempers flare when both Harry and Ben try to become "boss" of the group, and the dangers within the house soon rival those outside. These hostilities come into focus through Romero's layered blocking and perspectival use of screen space. By packing as many people into a shot as possible, Romero communicates that the dangers of human society can be just as lethal as those of the undead (a point of irony that later becomes the movie's moral). Thus, when the adults gather to watch a television news report, Romero stacks his characters in three levels of action that precisely mimic the social hierarchy that Harry is at that moment describing and eventually leads to their undoing.
In the foreground Ben and Tom discuss their escape plan. As boss, Ben looms over Tom while granting Tom permission to drive his truck, but Tom occupies the center of the screen as he reveals the redemptive potential of his automotive skills. Frustrated by his distance from the central action, Harry paces through the midground; although his body is partially blocked by Tom's, his shadow nonetheless crawls up the wall toward Ben. Furthermore, Harry's head peaks out above and to the left of Tom's, so although Tom may be second in command for this mission, Harry's mutinous desire to rise to the top of their triangle remains visible. It is not clear whether Harry resents Tom's leadership because Harry is racist or merely egotistical, but Romero's depth of field vividly captures the danger of even such ambiguous antipathy. Finally, Barbara sits on the couch in the background and stares silently up at Harry while visibly leaning toward Ben. Barbara's seated position and passive slouch convey the inferior role allotted to women in this movie. Her role as a helpless observer also mirrors the spectator's; unlike Tom and Ben, who look only at each other, Barbara sees Harry's frustrated aggression but is too immobilized by shock and fear to intervene. She can only sit and watch as the tensions she witnesses hasten her group's downfall.
Such iconic blocking gains significance from its context in the film, specifically from Romero's efforts to balance it with more conventional single and double shots, although these, too, are thematically loaded to make the spectator aware of her distance from the violence she witnesses. For example, during the same scene, Romero records a static ninety-degree shot of Helen as she struggles with how best to communicate her daughter's illness to Ben without associating Karen with a recent, alarming news report about cannibalism. Helen's indecision occupies the middle of a screen divided between black and white; significantly, the black half of the screen is composed of a wooden door and the edge of a television set from which Helen apparently cannot look away. Furthermore, just as the TV is framed for Helen, the door and its jamb frame Helen and her fixation on the TV.
This shot of Helen almost exactly recreates an earlier shot of the newscaster himself (Charles Craig). The newscaster also appears on a stage divided into black-and-white halves, but whereas Helen is framed by a doorway, he is boxed in by a television frame. Because both the television set and Night of the Living Dead possess Academy aspect ratios (1.33:1) and because they are both black and white, the newscaster's reality appears as only a slightly diminished version of Helen's. This diminishment reminds the spectator that Helen's reality contains this newscast, a point Romero reinforces by providing the characters with an eyeline match. This formal cue reaffirms the liveness and relevancy of the news for Helen, and as a result, the film itself becomes more believable for the spectator. That is, the director uses his mise-en-scène and editing to assert that the TV news report is as real for the characters as their own experiences, which means that their experiences are also as real as the TV news report-or TV news reports in general. Any objection that zombies are not realistic monsters only strengthens Romero's political critique, moreover, because it echoes the distance that domestic viewers might insert between themselves and the almost surreal violence depicted in late 1960s TV news reports (the civil rights assaults, the Vietnam War). As a film that looks like the news, Night of the Living Dead prompts its spectator to critique "real" TV viewers-herself included-who dissociate themselves from the events they see on the news.
Night of the Living Dead extends its critique of viewer skepticism and isolationism by questioning the documentary potential of the filmic image, particularly its ability to record and report reality. After the farmhouse occupants die one by one during the night, Ben retreats alone to the basement to wait out the zombie invasion. In the morning he wakes to the sound of gunshots: the same vigilante army he and the others observed on TV is now approaching his hideout. As Ben stares transfixed at the approaching posse, one of its members-presumably mistaking our hero for a zombie-takes aim and shoots Ben between the eyes. In this moment Ben's race, which is never mentioned throughout the movie, codes his execution as a racist assassination. Lest this irony fail to solicit the spectator's antiracist outrage, a sudden shift in cinematography goes on to frame Ben's death as a lynching. As Ben falls backward and the mob's leader calls, "Ok, he's dead.... That's another one for the fire," Romero's clear deep focus gives way to a series of grainy still images, although the movie maintains an eerie illusion of motion by panning the camera over the photographs while snatches of diegetic dialogue provide narrative context.
These stills, which literally seem to arrest the motion of the picture at the moment of its protagonist's death, invoke two cinematic precedents that also use still images to arrest history. Night's interplay of stills and soundtrack evokes Chris Marker's La jetée (1962), which envisions life after a World War III apocalypse as a series of still frames, while the camera's movement over the still images recalls Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964), another atomic disaster movie that renders its bomb explosion as a series of black-and-white photographs.Both of these apocalyptic precedents suggest that the motion of a motion picture is tied to the imitation of life, such that when life as we know it ends, motion also comes to a halt, even if the narrative continues. After Ben dies, the story advances (Ben is incinerated on a zombie bonfire) but without a protagonist, without a point of character identification to help the spectator invest in its futurity.
Furthermore, the stills change the texture of the film. Their composition is nearly two-dimensional, and their grain has been distorted through cheese-cloth printing until it resembles the dot-print haziness of newspaper photography. By interrupting the deep-focus perspective and clarity the spectator has enjoyed thus far, the closing stills disrupt the spectator's primary and secondary identification-with the look of the camera and the protagonist, respectively. At this-the most devastating moment in Night of the Living Dead's narrative-the stills wrench the spectator from her established place in the cinematic apparatus to awaken her to the movie's political allegory. In its stillness and graininess the movie's final shot of Ben resembles a lynching photo. There is bitter irony in this allusion, however, since the reference also reminds the spectator that like most acts of twentieth-century racist violence, Ben's death will not be recorded or reported. Instead, Ben's killers burn his body amid a pile of anonymous cadavers in a backyard bonfire that returns a few flickers of live action to the final frames of Night of the Living Dead.
This return to motion is the crux of Night of the Living Dead's political and spectatorial project, because it melds Romero's critique of US racism and media depiction of violence with an interest in its own format and the viewer's experience thereof. The transition out of and back into motion (over the course of a murder that will never be reported) exposes the material limitations of film, and by extension television news and newspaper photography, to capture and communicate real violence. In Death 24x a Second Laura Mulvey suggests that "within the aesthetics of cinema, the presence of stillness, particularly the stillness of the photograph, necessarily brings with it a threat to the credibility of the moving image itself." Mulvey focuses on how filmic stillness reveals the cinema's tenuous connection to live action; as her title suggests, she finds death to be the truth that Jean-Luc Godard claimed that cinema reveals twenty-four times a second. In contrast Romero's still images represent death to cast aspersions on the motion picture's capacity to convey truth. Romero's still frames call into question the credibility of his motion picture at the moment it visually imitates and stands in for other communications platforms. He questions his own medium, in other words, to cast doubt on the verisimilar potential and political investments of mass media. Notably, Romero does not repeat this technique in his subsequent zombie films, which are less focused on media critique. However, his repetition of internally iconic shots in Diary of the Dead recalls the still frame's challenge to filmic truth-claims and similarly empowers Romero's challenge to digital media cultures.
Finally, one can also read Night of the Living Dead's last scene as an abstract contemplation of film as the format of the living dead. As Mulvey notes, the movies manifest "in the act of halting the flow of film, then returning it to movement and vitality ... [a] long-standing fascination with the human body's mutation from animate to inanimate and vice versa." This observation helps explain how the zombie becomes an avatar of cinematic time for Romero. Like a zombie, film makes uncanny life out of what is known to be dead. Night turns this uncanniness into a fictional monstrosity, but it is because filmic motion is uncanny in its own right that Romero is able to make Ben's death the most traumatic in his zombie movie. Ben never becomes one of the living dead diegetically, and therefore when he becomes one formally-caught in the still frame of what ought to be (and, of course, still is) a motion picture-his undeath connotes the monstrosity of the medium, including its ability to preserve and exhibit violence (like a lynching photo).
Romero's stills thus use the form of filmic projection (i.e., a series of still images) to turn the zombie into a metonym for the horror of cinema, a commentary on the medium's illusion and unsettling promise of immortality. It allows the cinema's imitation of life to become profoundly uncanny for the spectator. As Mulvey observes, albeit of automata, "it is as though the movement of the mechanical figure suggested that of the other, the projector, which should have remained hidden." In Night of the Living Dead it is the zombie that reveals how the projector returned life to death; to borrow Raymond Bellour's description of the automata in Federico Fellini's Casanova (1976), "the figure's movements, slightly jerky and unfinished with a rigid posture, made its body one with the movement of the film, on which it left a kind of wound." Like the robot, the zombie lumbers through the movement of film, reminding the spectator of the latter's imperfect imitation of life. With Night of the Living Dead this reminder has a political purpose. It teaches the spectator to attend to the limits of mass media-including television and still photography-and question any claims that they convey the truth about US racism and violence.
Apocalypse Mall: Dawn of the Dead and Technicolor Consumerism
In 1978 Romero returned the United States to its zombie apocalypse, but this time he projected it into a shopping mall multiplex and used color, specifically a vivid Technicolor that thematizes the movie's condemnation of both consumer culture and American racism. Furthermore, Romero matches his Technicolor nod to 1970s exhibition spaces with new widescreen compositions, here in the service of outrageous special effects. These tableaux also take inspiration from and pay homage to the overt visual sarcasm of 1950s horror comics, specifically Entertainment Comics' Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, which use parody to associate gore with progressive social critique. As in Night of the Living Dead, however, Romero's satiric manipulations of his medium, his aggressively Technicolor palette and shallow widescreen framing, galvanize a politically complacent spectator with anticonsumerist energy. For when Romero moves his zombies from the black-and-white film stock, deep-focus photography, and Academy aspect ratio available to him in 1968 to the Technicolor, widescreen possibilities of 1978, their new platform enables them to affect the spectator in new ways. Romero uses his cartoonish Technicolor tableaux to produce a political reaction in the viewer, anger at contemporaneous racist police violence and scorn for the color-saturated, shallow consumerism of the new indoor malls popping up along the outskirts of US cities.
Dawn of the Dead opens on a field of rust red that establishes color's nightmarish function for the rest of the picture. Underneath the title card, Fran (Gaylen Ross) sleeps against a blood-colored shag carpet wall before she and the movie awaken to chaos. Her Philadelphia television studio is collapsing under the strain of a weeklong zombie siege, most of the city's former rescue stations are now inoperable, and the government has declared martial law. SWAT teams are being sent to roust out those still hiding in private residences or refusing to dispose properly of their dead. Before Dawn unveils this postapocalyptic police state, however, its first shot prompts the spectator to become attentive to its dramatic use of color and widescreen framing as these will presently change her perception of its zombies. Fran sleeps curled up in a corner, but the bright red carpet overshadows perspectival depth and foreshadows the ways in which color will replace deep blocking as a political tool in Romero's zombie sequel. Furthermore, the very width of this shot (1.85:1), when taken in conjunction with the collapse of perspective, indicates that Romero has a new compositional strategy for Dawn of the Dead. As John Belton suggests, widescreen exhibition changed directors' framing and blocking techniques from unidirectional to bidirectional (from depth to depth-and-width), and here Romero's field of red prefigures how expanses of color and gore will help shape spectators in his coming films.
As the movie progresses, Dawn of the Dead uses its Technicolor palette to encourage spectators to denounce the violence it portrays by highlighting the role skin color plays in US law enforcement. During the SWAT sequence a team of police officers breaks up an interracial tenement collective who are trying to hold on to their deceased, and the movie uses its intensity of color to critique institutionalized racism. As the SWAT attack begins, the collective's African American and Puerto Rican leaders emerge to face the police on their roof. The predominantly white SWAT teams immediately open fire and quickly transform their police action into a racist massacre. Two of the officers, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reinger), are visibly disgusted by this farcical show of power, and their dereliction of duty provides the spectator with liberal avatars through which to observe the first zombie attack. Their interracial alliance-Peter is African American, Roger Caucasian-eventually propels them into Dawn's ensemble of shopping-mall refugees, but first they lead the spectator through an initial zombie bloodbath during which the zombies' blue-tinged skin emphasizes and parodies their racist persecution.
After Peter and Roger independently lose faith in their civic duties, they meet in the basement and find the locker where the living have been storing their dead. Through one of Romero's few handheld, point-of-view shots, Peter and the spectator take in the full-color carnage of a former community reduced to cannibalism. Peter's antiracist and antiauthoritarian perspective guides the spectator's look when she finally gets a chance to see Dawn of the Dead's zombies and to observe that they are not just colored blue, and a politically significant shade of blue at that. Their skin visually recalls the blue of the police who are persecuting them and other people of color. In short, the transparency of the blue makeup over the actors' brown skin invokes the history of racism in US police violence (not to mention US film). Dawn's special effects artist, Tom Savini, has always sworn that the zombies' makeup was gray, not blue, but every transfer of the movie's Technicolor master overemphasizes their color. In short, these are blue zombies for the spectator, regardless of the color intended by their makeup artist. Police violence and racism are literally painted onto the zombie state, as their color also stands in for the colors of all the racial minorities oppressed by US law and order.
Technicolor thus enables Dawn of the Dead to flesh out the racism and classism that Night's black-and-white cinematography suggests but does not articulate. In Night of the Living Dead none of the characters mentions Ben's race, and the color of his skin cannot be conveyed by the celluloid; he may appear darker, recognizable as African American, but he is not "colored." So while Night guides its spectator toward condemning US racist violence by championing a black protagonist and aligning his destruction with the immoral violence of southern lynch mobs, Dawn uses color to prompt similar critiques of US racism and racist police violence. In addition, the zombies' precise shade of blue recalls how the Philadelphia police also famously overemphasized race in their 1978 attack on the African American MOVE collective. Romero may not have intended this scene to parody actual Philadelphian racism, but for some viewers Dawn's painted zombies satirize the political whitewashing that refused to acknowledge the racism behind the attacks on MOVE and still refuses to acknowledge how white US culture continues to depict blackness as monstrosity.
This antiracist use of color also politicizes the zombies' relationship to Dawn of the Dead's other color-saturated fetish object: human gore. The vivid red of the movie's fake blood contrasts with the zombies' blue-tinged skin, which helps the spectator take in every abject drop. As Brian Price points out, "we perceive color relationally, such that the juxtaposition of two colors determines the colors we perceive." Thus the surreally red blood, emphasized through its contrast with the satirically blue skin, makes the very splatter of this splatter movie part of its political agenda; human flesh becomes another commodity in Dawn's consumer culture, just as black skin once connoted a commodity object in the US slave trade. So if, as John McCarty maintains, "splatter movies, offshoots of the horror film genre, aim not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor to drive them to the edges of their seats in suspense, but to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore," then the contrast of the red blood with the politicized blue skin makes that mortification tendentious. That is, it reminds the spectator that the United States has a history of consuming people and suggests that contemporary appetites for commodities and gore are continuations of that immoral exploitation. Dawn's color symbolism is not often discussed in its criticism, however, possibly because it pushes beyond film studies' limited experience talking about color. A historically "chromophobic" discipline has difficulty discussing the ways in which celluloid color technologies imbricate the spectator in the history of US racism, which means that it also cannot discuss what happens when those technologies subsequently become unavailable or are replaced by digital color correction, as in Land of the Dead.
One needs to acknowledge the effects of color on the spectator in order to appreciate Dawn of the Dead's antiracist polemic, as well as its most renowned political parody, its send-up of 1970s mall culture. After Peter, Roger, Fran, and her boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge), escape Philadelphia in a helicopter, they find temporary refuge in a newly constructed indoor shopping mall just outside Pittsburgh. Their fortress is eventually breeched by looters, however, and reclaimed by the zombies, who are drawn to it for reasons the survivors are unable to explain (although Peter conjectures that perhaps they remember the mall as the most important place in their lives, when they had them). During the zombies' bloody return, the red of their victims' gore precisely matches prominent signs and sales displays around the mall. However, the red blood and red signs are only one example of the many ways in which the zombies' bloodstains, blue skin, and bright ensembles parody the mall's electric colors and ethos of consumption for the spectator. Although Robin Wood claims that "the zombies' significance in both films depends entirely on their relationship to the main characters," figuratively their primary relationship is with the mall. The zombies also appear more at home amid the mall's bright colors and artificial decor than do the living, at least until the living begin to succumb to consumerism. After Fran and company secure the mall and begin to experiment with its consumer utopia, they also begin to resemble zombies. When the refugees first move into their mall, the movie crosscuts between zombies and mannequins, the quintessential (and equally undead-looking) mall denizens. Fran adds herself to this equation when she makes herself up like a mannequin to mirror the death-in-life of her mall life. Taken together, these two sequences suggest that Fran is turning into another kind of zombie, a blunt metaphor for her experience of commodified femininity.
Dawn of the Dead subsequently reveals that the mall's influence on Peter is no less profound, and once again it exploits the spectator's identification with the protagonists to turn her against consumer culture. Once inside the mall, Peter seems to forget the black brotherhood he eulogized while flying out of Philadelphia and becomes a mouthpiece for superstitious (and thus stereotypical) theories of the zombie apocalypse: "You know Macumba? Vodoun. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, 'When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'" Peter delivers this line dressed in a gigantic fur coat that literally adds heft to his pronouncement and sinks it into racist caricature through its association with vodoun, pimp culture, and blaxploitation clichés. Later on, Peter descends further into stereotype by becoming a servant to Stephen and Fran's white futurity. After Roger dies from a zombie bite and the three survivors begin to wallow in mall ennui, Peter arranges a romantic dinner in the furniture store as an occasion for Stephen to propose to Fran. When Fran asks Peter where his plate is, he bows demurely and tells her this meal is just for them. Peter's complicity in his servitude seems intended to offend the spectator, and it signals a susceptibility to the mall's corrupting influence that Peter must overcome to survive. Buying into consumerism is the beginning of the end for all of Dawn's characters, and Stephen later dies because he cannot bear to share his mall with the looters. Thus Peter's complicity in these scenes does not signal an endorsement of the racist stereotypes they exhibit; rather, it dramatizes the insidious power of consumerism to engender stereotypes and stereotypical behavior in the most courageous and intelligent of people.
Finally, Dawn of the Dead amplifies its political argument by rejecting naturalism in favor of more metaphoric and satiric visual systems. In contrast with the desaturated Eastman Color of most 1970s films, Romero's Technicolor captures the giddy excess of consumer culture while also subtly (perhaps optimistically) marking its obsolescence. While Dawn's color palette does evoke the surreal saturation of 1930s Technicolor and contemporary consumer culture, it also recalls the three-color satiric excesses of 1950s horror comics. In ways both direct and allusive Romero's color, framing, and cut-on-action editing repeat shots and motifs from Entertainment (or EC) Comics, which also frequently featured zombies in stories about corruption, greed, and self-interest and give Dawn of the Dead the vocabulary it needs to articulate a new relationship to time and stillness. Comic books provide Romero with a visual language to contemplate his medium-specific widescreen tableaux and interpellate the viewer as both a spectator and a consumer, thus implicating her in the system it critiques while also inviting her to reject it.
The most explicit example of EC's influence on Dawn of the Dead appears in the film's iconic splatter effects, which are composed of nearly still shots of tightly framed subjects. The movie cuts rapidly between these images to keep its pace exhilarating and its fiction believable. The bloodiest sequences demonstrate a tendency to cut on action, like a comic book, which similarly implies movement through the gutters between panels. For example, in one scene in which a looter embeds a machete in a zombie's head, Romero cuts between images from each step in the looter's attack to present the final blow as a homage to the cover of a particularly controversial issue of The Vault of Horror. This machete scene is one of the most famous and revered moments in Dawn, and its notoriety makes it an ideal case study in how Romero adapts the temporal logic of comic books to filmic violence. The scene begins with a seven-second low-angle shot of Blades (Tom Savini) kicking an anonymous zombie to the floor and then unsheathing his machete as he advances on the now-prostrate ghoul. When Blades steps on its chest and readies his knife, the camera cuts to an almost frozen one-second point-of-view shot of the zombie under Blades's foot. A cut on the axis of action then shifts focalization to the zombie; this position offers the spectator a half-second, shallow-focus image of Blades's face and knife. Resuming Blades's perspective, the camera then takes a high-angle perspective on the zombie's still head and Blades's machete embedded halfway into its forehead. Finally, the camera adjusts for another close-up of Blades's reaction, this time from a defocalized low angle, before cutting to a three-second long shot of his retreat. Dawn thus composes the attack from a series of almost still compositions, each of which captures one step in an action sequence. Within each shot the camera remains stationary, and, at the height of the action, each passes by so quickly that any physical movement within the mise-en-scène becomes minimal. Instead, the narrative advances through the cuts, just as comics advance their plots through the gutters, and the spectator learns how to appreciate the art of splatter cinema as an extension of liberal comics conventions.
Furthermore, Romero's comic book editing also critiques consumer culture like a zombie-that is, in a jerky manner that reveals the movie and the consumer-spectator to be both dead and alive. Like Romero's symbolic color saturation, the EC-style editing forges a splatter spectator who never forgets that Dawn of the Dead is a commercial object. This technique makes consumerism not just the subject of the movie but a calculated component of the spectatorial experience as well. In short, Dawn encourages its viewer to identify with her look not only as spectator but also as consumer. Like a zombie or a mall walker, she devours the stimulation that passes before her. Dawn thereby reminds its spectator that she can learn to be critical of spectacle, too, if she can begin to recognize the limitations of its shallow, gaudy values.
Boxed In: Day of the Dead and the Beginning of Romero's Video Aesthetic
Dawn of the Dead's splatter cinema proved popular enough on the midnight-movie circuit that its distributor, United Film Distribution Company, offered Romero a three-picture contract on the condition that one of those films be a sequel to Dawn. That film, D