This piece was very almost subtitled ‘losing my virginity at 28’. Not, I will hasten to add, because I fornicated for the first time this week. No, as I’m sure you can tell by me writing for a horror website, I parted ways with that old friend Sexual Inexperience some time ago. Rather it’s because up ‘til Monday I’d never seen the original Dawn of the Dead. In some ways that’s more surprising, right? Being almost 30 and a horror fanboy that’d never watched Romero’s masterpiece? I know! Not like I’m proud about it. For their first time, most people are still in high school for Christ’sake. Well what can I say? Everybody’s got blind spots. I’ve also never seen Evil Dead 2 or The Haunting. Hell, it’s not horror but I never watched The Wizard of Oz either. And it’s not like I meant to miss Dawn. I mean I seen all the other movies in the franchise (even the embarrassingly titled Survival of the Dead) along with the remake and most other big zombie features. Yet this one’d just never been on my radar. I’d like to say I was simply waiting for the time it felt right, but then you and I would both know it’s a lie. Sure, over the years I’d seen little bits of it (a form of cinematic foreplay). I watched snippets of zombies saunter through the mall, the shootout at the start and that derpy cake scene. I just never did for real. So when this ever so wonderful website’s very generous (funny and delightful) admin offered me a pass to check it out I figured ‘for sure’ – a big screen presentation complete with a live performance by Goblin? A lesser man may complete my earlier metaphor by claiming it to be equivalent to a guy’s first time being a threesome.
So getting off the train at Highbury and Islington I soon see a queue of excited punters lined up outside Union Chapel. Bigger than I thought; there’s people stretching round a few corners and speaking away about the movie. I nod along all the time thinking ‘am I the only person here that hasn’t seen it?’ After some confusion at the door (‘Horror Cult Films? Never heard of it’) I’m let in and take a pew. I mean this in a very literal sense – as suggested by its name, the venue is, of course, a church (supposedly a very liberal one). And what a church it is! Built in the late 19th century its dark gothic-revival era demeanour is the perfect place to host a crowd of zombie fans intent on seeing heads blown and blood squirt (yes that was a call back). Upon coming out on stage the maestro Mr Simonetti declares it one of the nicest venues he’s ever had the privilege of bringing this production to. A jovial aging Italian, Claudio gives off a favourite uncle vibe as he speaks with a clearly enthused Paul McEvoy (of Fright Fest fame). Their initial conversation surrounds his extensive work with Dario Argento before going on to the history of the Dawn of the Dead cut to be shown/ performed. The Argento version is controversial among fans of the original and extended cuts of the movie due to the no-bullshit approach the Giallo legend had towards the material, removing large chunks like excess fat from a fine horror steak. There’s supposedly about 25 minutes taken from it and it’s an incarnation that Simonetti argues is definitely the definitive cut. The length aside though, Dario’s big problem with the movie was the music that sounded all too like scrapes off the floor at the music library from which it came. Hence upon taking it to a European market as Zombi, Argento enlisted the services of his long time collaborator and his band.
The floor is opened to fans who pose a varied set of questions. Among the titbits discussed are Claudio’s favourite scores (Psycho and Halloween), Zack Snyder’s version (he doesn’t like the soundtrack), his preferred genre to work in (thrillers since he doesn’t like ‘splatter’ flicks apparently, but finds Dawn of the Dead more a comedy). Simonetti also explains that Goblin wasn’t the original name of the band –they were originally called Oliver ‘til some smart marketer changed it without telling them. There’s also a discussion of the relative merits of the standard Hollywood soundtrack and a passing criticism of Argento’s recent Dracula outing (don’t blame Simonetti – he only did the score). The session finishes with the performer pondering what makes Dawn of the Dead as timeless as it’s thus far proven to be. His theory is the characterisation (we’re drawn towards desperate people in horrific situations), the experimental nature that defined the subgenre template to follow and the anti-consumerist message that gives it artistic integrity and depth beyond the standard hack, slash and bleed affairs that line the shelves in HMV (Simonetti lets it be known that few modern genre movies have impressed him). Were this part of the evening a zombie it’d surely be a runner and not a shuffler – before it felt like the half hour is even a third of the way done he leaves the stage for a short interval. Boy do I feel revved! If I’d been excited on the way in, that fore mentioned lesser man would say the interview had been the equivalent of finding the five star hotel, I’d gotten offered for my threesome, chucked in a pack of featherlites and a bowl of oysters.
Goblin walk on stage and take their places around the projector. The crowd greet them warmly and Simonetti meets their approval with a metal sign. The movie starts up and from the opening screen a few drums are hit, prompting the whole band to fill in and we’re taken back to the 70s. All the instruments on stage are vintage to give the whole night a really retro and authentic feel. The actual soundtrack is difficult to describe for those that haven’t heard it, so I’m barely going to try here – not being a music critic it’d be as embarrassing as watching a least favourite uncle (so not Claudio then) try to impress a wine critic. Still, it’s largely prog on steroids. We got layers of synth undercut by a deep drum, some electric organs and a dirty guitar sound. The opening theme has all the steady plod of the titular dead, with a mix of choir and high pitched sci-fi notes interjecting. In the background characters scream and bullets get shot. The audience lose their shit as the name Goblin flashes up. This quartet aren’t composers; they’re fucking rockstars. Ten and a half minutes in and they grind to their first halt. Throughout they regularly play with the action. It’s mostly in bursts, with some heavy riffs, organ screams and aggressive beats. That is save for some odd moments of pastoral beauty that play over the movie’s surprisingly melancholic portions.
There are a lot of those too. While the movie will be best known for its violence and dopey groans there’s a great sadness and despair under its green skin. The characters find themselves desolate in a world gone to the zombies and fighting both constant fear and, later, boredom. Sure, it has the worst traits Romero has to offer (didactic social comment and a third act that can’t live up to what came before) but this is largely eclipsed by the strengths. The tense action setpieces, gory makeup and foreboding atmosphere are in abundance and the leads take to their roles with an intensity that elevates them above the qualified stupidity of the plot they’re in. You root for them as they take out lines of the undead and pity them as they stack up the bodies. It’s a horror that really is horrific and a zombie film that goes way beyond that of a standard genre entry. Put simply, I can see why it’s a classic. If you’ve not had your first time yet, then believe me – it’s as good as everyone says. And what does the presentation add to it? Compared to what I’d imagine from a normal screening, the emotions are really brought out. You feel every bite of a leg/ shotgun to the head/ ripping of intestines. It’s thrilling to see the characters run down the corridors or slide the escalator. And besides, as Claudio asked at the start ‘you’ve seen this film how many times? Fifty? But how many times you seen it with a live score?’
Leaving the church and following the punters, as they drag themselves to the nearest station I think about how immensely satisfying an experience that was. Here’s where I could labour the vaguely cheap threesome motif of a lesser man, but I won’t. The experience didn’t feel sleazy or sordid in the slightest, as the figurative ménage-a-trois may have done in the pure light of the morning sun. Rather it was like a first time spent with someone that’d been missing from my life for too long that was both familiar and utterly inspiring. And on parting ways I not only want to see them again (maybe in extended cut form), but in the quiet reflection of the tube I realise it could even be love.