When it comes to ringing in the new year, the location that comes to mind for most is Times Square but my thoughts run to the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead may not be considered to be a New Year's movie but I say that it fits the occasion.
Some of that might have to do with the time of year I originally saw Dawn. In the early '80s, before VCR's were common household items, my parents rented one for the holidays, for two weeks from Christmas through New Year's. Having access to home video for the first time, I rented as many of the horror classics that I had never been able to see before as I could - chief among them being Dawn of the Dead - so because of that I've always associated Dawn with the end of the year.
Beyond that, there are elements baked into Dawn's narrative that make it a New Year's staple for me. It's a movie about endings and new beginnings. It's about the way the wheel of life keeps turning and how we are forced to keep moving with it. The characters in Dawn don't just face life or death decisions related to the threat of zombie hordes, they have to make decisions about what they want to do with their lives. Not in the terms we think of like how to make a living but in terms of what living means in a world where the structures we used to measure our success by have unraveled.
Unlike the rash of zombie movies that ripped it off, all of them focused on matching its splatter, there is a contemplative quality to Dawn. It's not a breathless exercise in suspense, it's not balls out action. A lot of Dawn is just rather sweet and sad. What makes Dawn what it is comes in that long stretch where the zombie problem has been more or less dealt with and Peter, Roger, Fran and Stephen are simply living. Life is comfortable for them. More than comfortable. It's practically luxurious. They have all the creature comforts.
This isn't the typical horror movie scenario where the characters are constantly imperiled. This isn't a dusk till dawn struggle for survival like Night of the Living Dead where the characters are under siege throughout. No, in Dawn there is time - many months, even - for the characters to not be living in fear. The brilliance of Dawn is that the zombies are not an insurmountable threat. At a certain point, they become background noise, a manageable nuisance. It's only the careless mistakes humans make on their own that allow the zombies to be a threat. The greatest danger the characters in Dawn face is their own stagnation. They get so comfortable living in a facsimile of an old way of life that they give up on trying to forge a new one.
Beyond the decisions that we choose to make when we feel an inner restlessness, Romero also reminds us that often times life doesn't allow us to remain complacent. As much as we may become comfortable with a status quo, life will inevitably intervene to disrupt that. As much as life in the mall feels like it could have gone on forever, there was always going to be something, whether within or without, that would force them to move on.
When Fran and Peter fly off into a new dawn in the film's closing moments, it embodies the sense of hope and the spirit of fresh starts that we associate with the start of a new year. Fran and Peter are leaving behind what they've known for an uncertain future (with Fran carrying a new life inside her as well) but there is the sense that, come what may, they will be ok. While Night ended on the grim finality of a funeral pyre, Dawn sends its survivors into the blue sky of a breaking dawn.
Once Fran and Peter fly off, though, Romero gives Dawn's final shots over to the zombies who have now reclaimed the mall. This place was a home to Fran, Stephen, Roger and Peter for a time and memories were made there but that was a moment in time that has passed and now it's overrun by the dead again. Somehow it doesn't seem sad to see it taken back by the dead, though, so much as it does inevitable. There's a sense of "why did we ever get so attached to this place?" in these final shots that accompany the end credits. Watching the zombies wander the mall, seeing how everything has instantly reverted back to what it was, we are able to be more clear eyed about the fact that there was never any real future here.
Some New Year's movies are about finding love by the stroke of midnight but Dawn of the Dead is about setting goals, moving forward and grabbing whatever opportunities that life offers. Unlike the crowds that gather each year at Times Square, whenever the clock tower at the center of the Monroeville Mall ticks to the top of the hour on January 1st, the undead denizens shuffling past it will not be another year older or another year wiser or even understand that one moment is different than the next. What we celebrate at the start of each year are all the new possibilities that we can pursue and Dawn is a reminder of how important it is to be aware of that and to always go into each new year hungry. Not for human flesh but for the chance to make the new year better than the last.