31 Days of Horror 2022 – The Performances That Make Us Scream: David Emge, “Dawn of the Dead (1978)”

Biff Bam Pop! kicks off our annual 31 Days of Horror with guest writer Adam Cesare and the first instalment of this year’s special feature – The Performances That Make Us Scream.

As soon as I get the email, asking me to pick a performance in a horror movie that impacted me, I know which film I want to discuss. That’s the easy part. Dawn of the Dead (1978). Not only because it’s one of my favorites, something I’d seen a million times and, I imagine, will have no problem writing about. But also because I have a comic coming out that I’ve got to promote. The comic’s called Dead Mall, by the way. And Dead Mall isn’t a zombie comic, mind you, but it is a horror comic set in a mall, so the link is intrinsic, I guess.

But which performance do I single out in Dawn of the Dead?

You look at the cast of Romero’s thrilling, allegorical, methodical undead adventure and, because we’re attracted to aspirational characters, there’s three performances that jump out. There’s Ken Foree as Peter, who gets all the coolest lines and whose introduction—putting down a rogue, racist cop—is filmed not unlike how you’d introduce a SWAT team superhero. There’s Scott Reiniger’s Roger, who he plays with a combo of swagger and tenderness that I’m tempted to describe as “Han Solo in Brian’s Song”. There’s Gaylen Ross’s Fran, the first character on screen, a performance of passive to active that reads like a direct, inverted response to Romero’s first heroine, the doomed, ultimately catatonic Barbara.

But Dawn is about a quartet of survivors. You’re missing one. And you’re missing him because he’s not an aspirational character. But maybe he’s the character most like all of us. Yes, in a world where we’d all rather be Peter, I’d contend that it’s much more likely that we’re Stephen. We’re Flyboy.

“No!” you cry. “Speak for yourself, Adam!” Okay, I will, but you know I’m right. We meet David Emge’s Stephen like we meet all our characters: with the world ready to collapse. But, unlike everyone else: Stephen’s got a plan. Stephen’s got a helicopter. He’s ready to take his girl and his buddy and gtfo. Which, if Emge didn’t have such a consistent handle on how he’s playing the character, we might have Stephen marked down as a nerd and a coward from the very first time we see him. But he’s not. Not in those first scenes. Emge’s playing a regular square. A guy who maybe knows a few jokes, but can’t tell them right. A guy who, in the late 1950s or early 60s, might have been the hero of a movie like this, but this is ’78… the world’s too violent and vicious now, we need the combined, lethal competency of Roger and Peter.

And it’s being the third wheel to Roger and Peter, trying to measure up to these action hero guys, that brings the Flyboy out of Stephen, that earns him that (gently) belittling nickname. He may be able to fly but he can’t shoot, he can’t fight, and he starts to get on our nerves a bit.

But when I watch Emge try to be one of the boys, I’m struck by how much his brashness is a cover. A cover for anxiety, for imposter syndrome, for greed (“It’s ours.”). And I know that I’ve been all those things. Even in death, even when Flyboy, zombified, is leading the undead right to the safehouse: I don’t hate Stephen. I pity him, and I squirm a bit, forced to play the game of “how would I do in this situation?” and see myself and my possible actions on screen.  

Adam Cesare lives in Philadelphia. His books include Clown in a Cornfield, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Zero Lives Remaining. He’s an avid fan of horror cinema and runs Project: Black T-Shirt, a YouTube channel where he takes horror films and pairs them with reading suggestions. Dead Mall #1 (of 4) is out October 26th from Dark Horse Comics.

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