Dawn of the Dead
Sleep did not come easily to Francine Parker. It was a struggle every night to block out the events of the day and the memories of the past that kept up their pounding conflict within her head. Now, as she slept, the expression of anguish on her face belied any sweet dreams.
At twenty-three, she was slender, and very attractive. After her divorce, she had traded in her glasses for contacts, her brown hair for silver blonde, and her extra twenty-five pounds of pasta, chocolate cake and domesticity for a knockout figure.
It was a comic dream she was having now, really. If she were awake, she would have laughed at its inherent symbolism—she was tied to the kitchen sink, her arms elbow deep in soap suds, and her ex-husband Charlie was kissing her neck.
Finally, the buzzing sounds of voices, electronic hums and general bustle of a frantic television studio in the throes of a national disaster impinged upon the ludicrous plight of the housewife, and Francine started to wake up. In her confusion, she couldn’t place where she was—and then she remembered: she was Ms. Francine Parker, assistant station manager, WGON-TV. She was no longer Mrs. Charles Parker, III, housewife at nineteen, bored at twenty-one. In the two years since her divorce, she had really made strides, but now was not the time for self-congratulation, not with a national emergency on their hands.
Suddenly, Fran lurched forward into strong waiting arms. Her long hair hung in greasy strands about her sweaty face. Her jeans and blouse, which she had been wearing for days, were creased and molded to her body and gave off a distinct odor of perspiration. She had been sitting against the wall, covered by an old overcoat.
“You OK?” a voice entered her fog.
Fran stared at the young man, and for a minute she couldn’t place him. She was shaking and speechless.
“The shit’s really hitting the fan,” said the young man, whom she finally recognized as the copy boy, Tony. His dark hair was tousled, and his olive complexion was streaked with grime and perspiration. Yet, he calmly moved on to the other sleeping forms on the floor, shaking them awake just as gently as he had Fran.
The whine of the voices grew louder and took on definition. Fran realized that the sounds were being broadcast, over a monitor. Still unable to shake herself out of the foolish dream, she looked about. At the far end of the room around the monitor there was a commotion. Small electronic shapes, moving with the awkwardness of stick figures, argued emotionally. All around, people were exhausted and disheveled; however, they managed to buzz frantically about.
“What’s making it happen? What the hell difference does it make what’s making it happen,” said Sidney Berman defiantly, his frizzy black-haired head bobbing up and down rhythmically. His face was flushed—this wasn’t the type of problem, such as how to stop losing your hair, that was often discussed on his well-known morning talk show. This was a matter of life and death. Boy, he marveled, almost every set in the nation tuned to this channel. He wondered what his ratings were now.
“Yes, but that’s . . .” Dr. James Foster said calmly, his bespectacled eyes glistening under the hot studio lights. His thinning sandy hair was moist with perspiration.
“That’s a whole other study,” Berman cut in. “They’re trying—”
“But if we knew that, we could . . .” Dr. Foster moved toward the edge of his chair and gestured with the middle finger of his right hand.
Berman immediately reacted to the gesture and then realized that it was unconscious on the good doctor’s part.
“We don’t know that,” Berman countered. “We don’t know that. We’ve gotta operate on what we do know.”
Francine’s eyes shifted from the electronic argument to the pandemonium in the room. Copy people ran wildly with teletype sheets; secretaries organized the stacks of bulletins as they arrived into the different reporters’ boxes. Yet besides the seemingly organized reactions there were others: people frantically scrambled all over the room, tripping over cables and generally getting into each other’s way.
“I’m still dreaming,” said a voice, and for a moment, in her drowsiness, Fran thought she had said it. Then she realized it was a man’s voice. She turned toward him. It was a young man she had never seen before, someone that Tony had awakened on his rounds.
“No, you’re not,” Fran said gently.
“My turn with the coat,” said a young woman whom Fran recognized as the style and arts editor. The woman held out a cup of coffee as an exchange for the heavy overcoat that had served as Fran’s blanket. Fran accepted the coffee gratefully and thought to herself: what a story, “what the well-dressed woman wears to a national disaster—a mangy old overcoat!”
“The guys on the crew are getting crazy,” she told Fran confidentially. “A bunch of ’em flew the coop already. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to stay on the air.”
The woman wrapped the overcoat around her and settled down for a nap. Fran staggered over to the control consoles. The technicians seemed to be cracking under the pressure of confusion and chaos.
“Watch camera two . . . Who the hell’s on camera two, a blind man?” one screamed.
“Watch the frame . . . watch the frame . . .” another mumbled, as if to himself. “Roll the rescue stations again.”
“We got a report that half those rescue stations have been knocked out,” said the first one, “so get me a new list.”
“Sure,” said his partner belligerently, “I’ll pull it outa my ass.”
As if she were a sleepwalker, Fran stood transfixed in the middle of the newsroom, mesmerized by the madness surrounding her. A sudden feeling of helplessness overwhelmed her as she realized the hopelessness of the situation. Her attention was drawn again to the conversation over the monitor.
Sidney Berman loosened his tie with a chubby hand and thrust his chest out.
“I don’t believe that, Doctor, and I don’t believe . . .”
“Do you believe the dead are returning to life?” Dr. Foster asked pointedly. The power of his words, which were being sent over the airways, sent a shock wave throughout the entire newsroom. They had been reading those words all day—but to hear them—it gave them a new solidarity, a new reality.
“I’m not so . . .” said Berman, a bit more subdued. He half sensed the finality of the doctor’s words, too.
“Do you believe the dead are returning to life and attacking the living?” Foster repeated.
“I’m not so sure what to believe, Doctor!”
At the studio, a few doors down from the newsroom, a sense of panic was overtaking the crew. Disgruntled murmurings were heard. This wasn’t a television series—this was real life!
“All we get is what you people tell us,” Berman was bellowing. “And it’s hard enough to believe . . . It’s hard enough to believe without you coming in here and telling us we have to forget all human dignity and . . .” Berman wiped a sweaty brow with the back of his hand.
“Human dig . . . you can’t . . .” the doctor sputtered.
“Forget all human dignity,” Berman repeated as if pleased with the solemnity of the phrase.
“You’re not running a talk show here, Mr. Berman,” Foster said indignantly. “You can forget pitching an audience the moral bullshit they want to hear.” The doctor’s calm exterior suddenly seemed to shatter.
“You’re talking about abandoning every human code of behavior, and there’s a lot of us who aren’t ready for that, Doc Foster . . .”
The furor of the crowd of stagehands and cameramen grew to a fever pitch. A great cry of assent went up from the studio floor. The doctor’s glasses were now sliding halfway down his nose, and he was frustrated at the abominable pomposity of the talk show host and also flustered by the apparent agreement of the audience and crew. Stagehands and cameramen left their posts and came at him with clenched fists, swearing and calling him names. Police guards tried to control the mêlée inside the studio and to prevent people from storming in from the hallway.
Fran stared dumbly at the control panel and the uproar on the screen.
“Frannie,” a man called, “get on the new list of rescue stations. Charlie’s receiving on the emergencies.”
Fran managed to pull herself away from the ludicrous scene on the console screen. She fought her way through the heavy traffic of panicking people and reached Charlie—a harassed typist who held the receiver of an emergency radio unit under his chin.
“Say again . . . can’t hear you,” Charlie was saying into the receiver.
“Rescue stations?” Fran asked, leafing through the sheets of paper on Charlie’s desk.
“Half those aren’t operative any more,” he told her as he tried to take notes from the speaker on the other end. “I’m trying to find out at least about the immediate area. We’ve had old information on the air for the last twelve hours.”
“These are rescue stations,” Fran said with concern. “We can’t send people to inoperative—”
“Say again, New Hope . . .” Charlie repeated as he took down the information.
He handed the notes to Fran. Still listening to the receiver he said, “I’m doin’ what I can. These are definite as of now. Skip and Dusty are on the radio, too. Good luck.”
He patted her on the backside as she gathered up the sheets from his messy desk and moved across the room.
At the console, she stopped and said to the technician at the controls: “I’m gonna knock off the old rescue stations. I’ll have the new ones ready as soon as I can.”
“Givens wants ’em on,” said the gruff technician with a big beer-belly and graying hair.
Fran always had trouble with this one. He resented a pretty young thing’s giving him orders. She had spoken with Mr. Givens before about this man’s chauvinistic attitude. Apparently, he had ignored any warning—if there had been one. But now was not the time to raise his consciousness.
“We’re sending people to places that have closed down,” she said firmly. “I’m gonna kill the old list.”
As she moved toward the other control room, an armed officer stopped her. For a moment, she tried to get by, thinking he had brushed her by mistake.
“Hey, she’s all right,” Tony said as he rushed by with copy.
“Where’s your badge?” the young officer asked insistently.
Fran reached for the lapel of her blouse instinctively. To her surprise, she found the badge was missing, and she was sure she had pinned it on securely this morning—or was it yesterday morning? The days, hours and minutes were all jumbled in one terrifying moment of confusion. If she stopped to think about it, she knew she would panic. The only thing to do was to keep busy, trying not to rationalize the horror going on outside the studio.
“Jesus,” she shouted.
“She’s all right,” one of the reporters said as he passed by.
“I had it,” Fran tried to convince the officer. “I was asleep over there . . .”
She pointed toward the mound of sleeping bodies across the room.
“Somebody stole it,” the reporter told them both. “There’s a lot of ’em missing.”
He turned to the officer. “She’s all right. Let her through.”
Reluctantly, the officer stepped aside, giving both Fran and the reporter a deadly look.
The two of them moved down the crowded hallway and into a small camera room. It was as though they were in the subway at rush hour. The hallway was wall-to-wall people.
“I don’t believe it,” Fran told him as they tried to make their way down the hall.
“One of those little badges can open a lot of doors. You avoid a lot of hassles if you got a badge . . . any kind of badge.”
“It’s really going crazy,” she said, more to herself than to the young man, as they reached a small camera installation. The camera was aimed at a machine that was rolling out a list of rescue stations. The list was superimposed over the live broadcast as it went out.
A red-haired cameraman turned to Fran as she entered.
“You got new ones?”
“I gotta type ’em up. Kill the old ones.”
“Givens wants ’em—”
“Kill ’em, Dick. Tell Givens to see me!” she said with finality. Now was not the time to let these guys get away with murder. When it came to making decisions, she was the boss.
The man clicked off the camera and picked up his cigarettes, clearing away from the controls. Fran moved toward the studio. As the list of rescue stations blinked off the monitor, she noticed the debate was still going on between Berman and Foster.
Fran walked down the center aisle and found an empty seat at the end of the fifth row from the stage. She practically collapsed into the seat, feeling for the first time how physically weak she really was. The doctor had told her she would start to feel tired, but she hadn’t given it much thought in the past few days. The only reminder she had was her constant nausea.
Berman was holding court: “Well, I don’t believe in ghosts, Doctor.”
“These are not ghosts. Nor are these humans! These are dead corpses. Any unburied human corpse with its brain intact will in fact reactivate. And it’s precisely because of incitement by irresponsible public figures like yourself that this situation is being dealt with irresponsibly by the public at large!”
As if on command, another outraged cry went up from the stagehands and observers.
“You have not listened,” Dr. Foster tried to outscream the cries. “You have not listened . . . for the last three weeks . . . What does it take . . . what does it take to make people see?”
Fran took a deep breath and pushed herself out of the comfortable seat and moved into the large studio area, surrounded by the wires and mikes and cables of the live presentation. The uproar was deafening. She stared at the two speakers as if they were puppets.
“This situation is controllable,” Dr. Foster said in a pleading tone, holding his glasses before him as if he were making a peace offering. “People must come to grips with this concept. It’s extremely difficult . . . with friends . . . with family . . . but a dead body must be deactivated by either destroying the brain or severing the brain from the rest of the body.”
Another outburst shattered the studio. Over the outcry Dr. Foster tried to be heard.
“The situation must be controlled . . . before it’s too late . . . They are multiplying too rapidly . . .”
Fran could take no more of the aggravation, watching the poor helpless man try to convince a bunch of yelling and pushing lunatics, urged on by the frenetic Berman, that what he was saying was for their own good, for the country’s good.
She moved off through the crowded room to another emergency radio installation. Skip and Dusty were there, trying to listen to their receivers. They jotted down notes hurriedly.
Fran came up to the two young men quietly, not wanting to disturb their intense concentration.
“Operative rescue stations?”
“They’re dropping like flies,” said Dusty, who looked more like a cowboy off the range than a TV reporter. “Here’s a few. You know, I think Foster’s right. I think we’re losing the war.”
“Yeah, but not to the enemy,” Fran said philosophically. “We’re blowin’ it ourselves.”
In a gesture of friendship, she offered what was left of her lukewarm coffee to the two dedicated men.
“Not much left, but have a ball.”
Both Dusty and Skip were grateful for a sip of coffee. Fran rushed off toward a large TelePrompTer typing machine.
Over the din of the station, the broadcaster’s argument could still be heard. “People aren’t willing to accept your solutions, Doctor,” Berman argued emotionally. “And I, for one, don’t blame them.”
“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them! It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!”
The doctor’s hair was disheveled. His eyes were wild as he tried to get his point across. But, it was a hopeless battle. The audience and Berman just didn’t want to understand. They wanted to be pampered, to believe that by magic their government would chase “the bad people” away and the next morning on the news everything would be happiness and light and football scores and sunny weather. But, it just wouldn’t be like that again, at least not for a very long time.
Fran handed the list of active rescue stations to the TelePrompTer typist, and then she rushed back toward the control room.
There was havoc around the monitor consoles, and the commotion was made even more lunatic by the angered Dan Givens, the station manager.
“Nobody has the authority to do that. I want . . .” he was bellowing angrily. As Fran came around the corner, he spotted her, but continued his tirade:
“Garrett, who told you to kill the rescue station supers?”
“Nobody,” Fran intervened. “I killed ’em. They’re out of date,” she said simply, trying to steady her nerves.
“I want those supers on the air all the time,” Givens roared, his already red face turning a deeper shade of crimson.
“Are you willing to murder people by sending them out to stations that have closed down?” Fran demanded.
“Without those rescue stations on screen every minute, people won’t watch us. They’ll tune out!”
Fran stared at the tall, dark-haired, red-faced man in disbelief. At a time like this he was thinking about a stupid thing like ratings. She just wanted to get out of this alive—not win any awards.
“I want that list up on the screen every minute that we’re on the air,” Givens repeated. But before Fran was able to retort angrily, one of the technicians, having overheard Givens, got up from the control panel and started to walk away. The station manager was livid.
“Lucas . . . Lucas, what the hell are you doing? Get on that console. Lucas . . . we’re on the air!”
The squat, middle-aged man merely looked over his shoulder and shouted into the commotion, “Anybody need a ride?”
Two men from the other side of the control panel picked up their briefcases and followed the technician toward the door.
The door was guarded by the same officer who had stopped Fran before. But the pressure had gotten to him, and he eyed the three departing men nervously.
“Officer, Officer,” Givens called out, “you stop them. Stop those men, Lucas, get back on this console . . .”
A frenzied rumble began over the lack of console control. People started to rush in and out, and over the hubbub, the floor director’s voice could be heard barking out orders over a talkback system:
“What the hell’s goin’ on in there. Switch . . . switch . . . there’s no switcher . . . We’re losing the picture.”
Over the turmoil, Givens cried to no avail: “Officer . . . stop those men . . .”
The young officer faced the men as they reached his post. Then, as if he had made a decision, he took a grip on his rifle, opened the door and let the group through. Without a backward glance to the now screaming Givens, he ran out the door himself, deserting the losing cause and the crazed pandemonium.
“Get somebody in here that knows how to run this thing,” Givens shouted as he jumped toward the console. He frantically tried to work the complex dials. “Come on, I’ll triple the money for the man that can run this thing . . . triple the money. We’re staying on the air!” He said the last part as if it were a threat. Fran just shook her head in disbelief and moved off slowly toward the studio.
In the big room the tension was thicker than ever. Newspeople went about their business earnestly, trying to perform their various functions, but they wore faces of stone. It was as though any mention of crisis would crack their seemingly calm exteriors. But, the burden of staying calm was even greater with the sound of the agitated discussion that was being played over the airways in counterpoint to the newspeople’s desperate actions.
“They kill for one reason,” Dr. Foster said, as if in a trance. He had his suit jacket off and was mopping his brow with a handkerchief. “They kill for food. They eat their victims, do you understand that, Mr. Berman?” he asked carefully, as though speaking to a child. “That’s what keeps them going.”
A wave of nausea overcame Fran, and she had to lean against the hallway wall, in the shadows. People frantically rushed past her as though running to catch a train. She tried to calm herself and listened to the argument. TV station employees were filing past her, some leaving the studio in disgust.
“If we’d listened. If we’d dealt with the phenomenon properly . . . without emotion . . . without . . . emotion. It wouldn’t have come to this!” Dr. Foster pleaded with the thinning crowd.
Foster wiped his sweat-drenched brow with the now soaking dirty handkerchief. He pulled his tie away from his tight collar and popped the shirt button open. The once calm, collected doctor was now a bundle of nerves, desperate, shivering with anger and frustration. Fran had never seen so radical a change come over a person. She herself was shivering now, and clutched at her shoulders in the thin blouse. She felt so tired, so worn out, she just wanted to lie down and forget the whole mess.
But the rasping, hoarse voice of Dr. Foster droned on, begging the people to heed his cry.
“There is a state of martial law in effect in Philadelphia, as in all other major cities in the country. Citizens must understand the dire . . . dire consequences of this phenomenon. Should we be unable to check the spread . . . because of the emotional attitudes of the citizenry . . . toward . . . these issues of . . . morality.” The man’s frail shoulders seemed to crumble inward. He stood now, clutching the back of his chair with one hand and raising the other in a gesture of defiance:
“By command of the federal government, the president of the United States . . . citizens may no longer occupy private residences. No matter how safely protected or well stocked . . .”
The murmur in the studio began to build to an emotional crescendo. One woman gave a bloodcurdling scream and fell to the floor in a heap, another man cried out over and over again, “Air, air, I can’t breathe . . .” Foster tried to talk over the furor, but his voice cracked, and he could barely be heard.
“Citizens will be moved into central areas of the city . . .” Foster cried to the technicians abandoning their posts, the cameramen dropping their headsets on the floor and breaking for the door. One cameraman’s instrument spun on its liquid head, and on the monitors a whirling blur was seen as Foster continued to speak. Fran moved quickly toward the unmanned spinning camera. She tried to remember what Givens had told her to do in case of an emergency, but her mind was a blank. She aimed the camera at Foster and managed to stare through the viewfinder, not believing what she was seeing.
Foster was on the table, his shirt hanging out of his pants, his eyes like those of a wild man. His voice screeched out. He seemed like a prophet of old, foretelling of doom to an unbelieving population of barbarians:
“The bodies of the dead will be delivered over to specially equipped squads of the National Guard for organized disposition . . .”
Suddenly, a man darted out of the charging crowd and came running quickly up to Fran. She jumped as the figure flashed into her view.
“Frannie,” the man, whom she recognized as Steve, cried, “at nine o’clock meet me on the roof. We’re getting out.” The force of his words caused Fran to let the camera slip slightly. “Stephen . . . I don’t believe this . . . What—”
“We’re getting out. In the chopper.”
Another technician stepped over to take the camera from Fran. Steve pulled her over, away from the man’s hearing, and spoke more quietly.
“Nine p.m. All right?”
“Steve, we can’t . . . we’ve got to—” she protested.
But Steve was forceful. “We’ve got to nothing, Fran. We’ve got to survive.”
She looked into the soft brown eyes of the man she now loved. His dark hair was a mess, his clothes in disarray. His slight body, barely taller than hers, shook with a combination of nerves, fatigue and astonishment at what he was about to do.
“Somebody’s got to survive,” he tried to convince her. “Now you be up there at nine. Don’t make me come lookin’ for ya.”
Just as swiftly as he had surprised her, he was gone. Fran looked nervously back at the cameraman, feeling guilty that he might have heard their plotting. As the room emptied, the sound of Foster and Berman’s senseless argument grew louder and louder.
“Go ahead,” the cameraman said to Fran, without taking his eye from the viewfinder, speaking quietly and slowly. “We’ll be off the air by midnight anyway. Emergency networks are taking over. Our responsibility . . . is finished, I’m afraid.”
Trancelike once again, Fran walked to the corner of the room where she had left her pocketbook and coat. All she had to do now was wait the forty minutes until nine o’clock. And what then? What next? The thought made her shudder.