Dawn of the Mummy (1981) – and let’s talk about Universal’s big old monster plan while we’re at it

In honor of all the monster movies that are scheduled to come out this year – The Mummy remake in June, King Kong tomorrow, Alien: Covenant in May, and several others I’ve doubtless forgotten – I decided to take a look at some older monster flicks that paved the way. This is also a way for me to shift into some thoughts about Universal’s planned series of shared-universe flicks, of which the upcoming Mummy remake is included, but I’ll get to that later.

 

Let’s talk about Dawn of the Mummy. It’s one of the lesser known mummy flicks, lacking the cult following of The Mummy (1991) or the balls-to-the-wall weirdness of Bubba Ho Tep (2003), but it exists and I saw it, so hey. Suffer with me.

I kid. Dawn of the Mummy is a campy ball of cheese, gleefully in love with the inherent sleaze of its own premise while still balking at anything too wild. It has the potential to slide into the world of grindhouse weirdness, with the world’s hammiest characters stuck in scenes with some of the world’s flattest, but never quite reaches that point. Despite the presence of models in-universe and several sex scenes, there’s a strange lack of nudity or indeed even the suggest of sexuality. It’s memorable more for how much potential it has and how little it delivers on its promises. Not that Dawn of the Mummy is awful on an objective level; it’s just boring. It wants to be a sleeze-fest but can’t commit to including enough gore or sex to actually do anything fun. The costumes are bland, the acting exactly what you’d expect from a low-budget 80s horror story, and the scenes are standard, though several suffer from poor lighting. It’s a by the numbers film in nearly every respect. You get what you pay for. In my case, it was an hour and change of my time spent clicking away pop-ups on YouTube.

So, basically nothing.

The story follows a group of models and an overly ambitious photographer bumbling around Cairo. Bored with the scenery, they decide to look for something “fresh” and decide that bothering the local tomb raiders, who have recently dynamited their way into the final resting place of an angry mummy, into sharing their space – and looted gold – with a group of beautiful models. Hilarity ensues. About the only memorable thing about Dawn of the Mummy is its odd instance that the mummies act like zombies – with an insatiable taste for human flesh. And decapitation, oddly. There are a lot of severed heads in this movie. I’m really not sure why.

 

Dawn of the Mummy is one of those films that, for better or worse, exists without being memorable on any level. Except for maybe the zombie-mummies. But hey, somebody thought it up, a lot of people worked hard to get it made, and it ought to be remembered. It’s part of a larger trend that’s been gaining traction in recent years as well, the revival of not only old horror films, but of mainstream filmmaking returning to old-school monster flicks. And pretty soon, we’re going to get our first taste of Universal’s Avengers-style collection of monster films.

So, let’s talk about that. Dracula Untold (2014) was originally supposed to the flagship film of the group, a fact that was apparently not revealed to the filmmakers until the shooting was nearly completed, but Universal has since backtracked and stated that nope, sorry, The Mummy will be the first after all. At the moment, the following monsters are slotted to get their own films: the Wolfman, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and something to do with Van Helsing. Will these films be any good? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Dracula Untold was pretty but extremely uneven, and has since been cut from the lineup. Aside from the questionable decision to cast Tom Cruise, the trailers haven’t revealed a whole lot about The Mummy remake. And even if these films are passible on their own, how will they mesh as a group?

Again, it’s hard to tell. Marvel is the force to beat when it comes to the shared-universe experience and shows no signs of slowing down. What they’ve done is fairly unique as well, blending a multitude of characters, genres, tones, and styles under a single large – and very profitable – umbrella. DC has tried and failed to follow suit. And now Universal Studios is making a go at it.

Honestly, I’m a huge monster fan, so I’m pretty excited to see what comes out of this. If they stick to Marvel’s formula, that means Universal will be kicking out a bunch of monster films in a variety of styles with a few connecting threads and a whole shitload of money. Which is both a positive – more money means more risks can be taken for potentially greater payoff – but also a potential downfall. See, in my humble opinion, the best horror films – monsters or not – are subversive and touch on the darker sides of humanity. They go to the places that scare people and don’t bother making the experience pretty for the audience.

Mainstream films, especially those backed by large studios and even larger budgets, are trying to appeal to as many people as possible. And that, by definition, means they’re leery about taking risks.

Horror films that don’t take risks don’t tend to be all that interesting. For an example, follow The Mummy (1999) all the way down until The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Empire (2008). You start off with a cult classic that still holds its own more than a decade later and end with a film that’s an utter piece of shit, despite the valiant efforts of Michelle Yeon and Jet Li. Sometimes even great actors can’t save a shit movie from its own bad ideas and an overstuffed budget. In case anyone was wondering, The Mummy had a budget of $80,000,000 and Tomb of the Dragon Empire was packing a $145,000,000 wallop. Obviously the budget isn’t the only deciding factor in a film, but it’s worth noting in this case.

So, that’s a concern with Universal’s big old monster plan. Horror films are mean and nasty and to put it simply, I don’t see this series working unless they aim for the majority hitting an R-rating. Thus far, Dracula Untold is bringing it home at PG-13 and The Mummy hasn’t been given a rating. Could they follow Marvel’s lead again and have a bunch of different movies, some of which are kid friendly and some that decidedly aren’t? Sure! Anything is possible. But if these movies are going to be worthwhile, I do believe the majority of them are going to have to toe the line over what’s acceptable to mainstream audiences these days. And quite honestly, usually that involves an R-rating.

But I could be wrong. Who knows? Universal hasn’t revealed much about this project. Either way, I’m curious.

Bring it. I’ll be first in line buying tickets.