When I was in high school, George A. Romero’s seminal zombie flick Dawn of the Dead (1978) came part-and-parcel with the other semi-goth things I enjoyed. Things like Christian industrial rock, knock-off “transgressive” fiction, and pretending like I was misunderstood. Thankfully, most of those adolescent interests have been consumed like dross, but Romero’s movie, not unlike his cinematic subjects, has haunted me with an undead resolve.
Upon rewatching Dawn of the Dead recently, I was struck with how this sharp socio-cultural critique of unchecked consumerism is also so completely smitten with pulp thrills and comic book gore. On the commentary track, Romero and Tom Savini, long-time collaborator & special effects genius, talk with childlike wonder at the myriad of technical achievements in this film. Whether it’s severed limbs, exploding heads, or motorcycles crashing through mall window displays, it’s clear that this passion project was always meant to be appreciated for the aesthetically decadent movie it is.
Whether behind the camera or in front of it, whether on a narrative level or through visual representation, or whether we “get it” as an audience or not, this is a movie that is undeniably about the power of desire. But before I get to that, let me set the scene.
The story begins with a fairly disconcerting portrait: a newsroom in a full-scale panic. Pundits are trying to understand a seemingly impermeable phenomenon: the dead are coming back to life. We see and hear frustrated cursing from the anchors and angry jeering from the crew. No one has any idea what to make of the situation. From the midst of the chaos, our first protagonist emerges: Franny, a producer for this local Pittsburgh news channel. In the middle of the broadcast, Franny and another producer have an on-air argument about whether they should post out-dated safety zone information. After all, it’s argued, if they don’t post this information, they may lose viewers. If they lose viewers, they may lose control. And if they lose control, they may lose power and resources. Even as it’s clear that the entire country has gone to hell in a hand basket, the overwhelming desire for control is one of the last remaining vestiges of the modern American life. Moments later, Stephen, the station’s traffic reporter and Francine’s beau, appears prompting her to evacuate with him in his helicopter. The world is spinning out of control. But they, at least, have a means of escape.
Cut to our second scene: a S.W.A.T. unit is about to be deployed into Pittsburgh’s housing projects to round up the Martinez gang for undisclosed reasons. The character we follow is Roger, a blond-haired, blue-eyed officer readying his team to invade the complex. While they steel themselves for the inevitable exchange of gunfire, Wooley, another white officer, begins rattling off racial slurs and epithets, “Why do we stick these lowlifes in these big hotels anyway? This is better than I got!” The Martinez people appear, and a massive battle ensues. The cops rip through the first wave of opponents and begin their raid on the apartments. The situation becomes so frenzied that Wooley goes on a rampage and begins slaughtering all of the residents, gang members and bystanding families alike, all with extreme prejudice. Suddenly, the wrong door is opened and a small herd of mindless corpses pours out, all bespeckled in bright red blood on their blue-grey flesh.
Here, like in the newsroom scene, Romero is reminding the viewer of the social disorder that is already brewing underneath the surface in American life before the outbreak. This is a culture that mirrors the real 1978: one of racial injustice, post-war paranoia, political disappointments, and economic disasters. The living dead just unmask the façade of civility. They are our greatest fears about what we truly are as a society come to bear. And they are just too big of a problem for a handful of people to deal with. Survivalist retreat seems like the only viable option.
And that’s just what happens. When the hellish violence becomes too great for Roger, he slinks away to the basement, too shocked to continue the invasion. Here, he stumbles across Peter, a fellow S.W.A.T. member and a person of color. Their exchange is terse and filled with tension. But both of them want to get away from this world. They discuss Roger’s friend, Stephen, who has a helicopter and may be able to fly them to safety.
In the middle of their escape plan, a mysterious priest materializes from a dark corner of the room. His appearance is the last omen they need. With an accent betraying an ambiguous Caribbean origin, he assures Roger and Peter that there is nothing left to do in this war zone. He has done what can be done to help these people. He has visited them. He has administered last rights. Their end is left up to them. The stunned officers, watch him uneasily as he walks towards the exit. The camera reveals the disturbing detail that he has only one leg with a crutch as his prosthetic other. He offers one last prophetic utterance that finds a reprise midway through the film from Peter: “When the dead shall arise, we will stop the killing… But we will lose the war.”
This is the ominous world our protagonists inhabit. And this is the world that Romero wants to suggest we inhabit, just without zombies. Here, there is no just and ordered society. There is no hope for divine or cosmic intervention. There is only the brutal and nihilistic realization that the world is over and every man is exclusively for himself. And so, Franny, Stephen, Roger, and Peter rendezvous and flee from the madness. Any remaining qualms at abandoning society are effectively silenced as Peter tells a morally-troubled Stephen, “Wake up, sucker! We are the thieves and bad guys now!”
Eventually, our band of four ends up at a sparsely populated shopping mall. They land their helicopter on the roof and break into an annex looking for supplies. In a matter of moments, they become possessed by the idea that this might be the paradise of safety and comfort they’ve been looking for. But a few zombies are still inside the mall. Franny asks, “What are they doing? Why do the come here?” Stephen blithely responds, “Some kind of instinct. A memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
A few years ago, I read Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (2009), in which he ponders how we are shaped as people by our cultural liturgies. One of the oft-repeated illustrations that is pulled from Smith’s text is his imaginative description of “one of the most important religious sites in our metropolitan area.” He describes a sort of temple swelling with fellow pilgrims making their way through the prismatic display of colors and spaces, decked with vibrant icons and shining goods. Enticing aromas of food and drink waft through the corridors of this catheral-esque space. Pleasant and cheery sounds echo through the halls, beckoning the faithful to come and taste and see. This place is sacred and beautiful and boasts of “the good life.” Smith’s description culminates in a startling confession: the place he is talking about is a mall! For all intents and purposes, it could be the Monroeville mall that our heroes scour and cleanse and consecrate. It’s no accident that as Roger discovers a set of janitor keys in an annex he declares, “Keys to the kingdom!”
Romero and Smith have a word of caution for us. This mall represents a powerful and all-consuming desire within us. It promises our good. It plays off our aesthetic desires. It teaches us something about the good life. But can it deliver on its gospel?
A terrific montage of perfectly edited shots unfolds like a scroll. Romero shows us a mall filled with wandering zombies, aimlessly stumbling the wrong way on escalators, brainlessly dragging mannequins with reckless abandon, and pawing at the shiny glass with its cheap trinkets. A radio transmission plays over the montage: “Are these cannibals? It would seem that the answer is no since they don’t attack one another, but only humans. And whatever these are, they are no longer humans.” This is Romero’s condemnation of what the cultural liturgy of consumerism and materialism have done to us. Even before they were dead, these people had become mindless in their pursuit of shiny things and pretty experiences. The shopping mall is emblematic of a society comforting itself in its death throes. Completely disinterested in one another’s well-being, they instead become transfixed by the desire to consume, even, sometimes quite literally, at the cost of one another’s life and limb. Is this who we have become, Romero seems to ask, staggering our way through existence, attacking anything that has true life?
Romero, in his own darkly humorous way, shows one particularly harrowing encounter in which a zombie Hare Krishna follows and attacks Franny. Stephen saves her, but his first words to her are not, “Are you alright?” but rather, “You should see all the great stuff we got! This place is perfect!” A few scenes later, a zombie nun gets her habit stuck in a glass door before Franny frees her to the outside. Even for these religious figures who signal transcendence above the material world, the mall is important them. It’s enticements and promises capture their hearts. If that is true for them, what real hope of an external transcendence do the rest of really have?
Our heroes acquiesce to this solipsistic existence. After clearing out and securing the mall, one of them sustains life-threatening injuries. But in the wake of this terrible scenario, a collective shrug is given before going on a massive and decadent shopping spree. Romero follows up his previous montage with a more sinister parallel. This time, the living are like the zombies, perusing the mall of foods and clothes and games and all manner of luxury with fading glee. But they cannot cover the dull sound of the undead outside, vainly trying to get in. Stephen suggests, “They’re after us. They know we’re still in here.” But Peter responds, “They’re after the place. They don’t know why. They just remember. They remember they want to be in here.” Franny interjects, “Who the hell are they?” Peter pauses for a moment, “They’re us…” then quotes his Trinidadian pastor grandfather, “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the earth.”
A few weeks ago, Ian Bogost of The Atlantic published a fascinating article entitled, “When Malls Saved the Suburbs from Despair.” Fraught with both historical thoughtfulness and ethical tension, he concludes that the history of the American mall is one that, for all its good intentions of building community and culture, may simply have created a few million monsters instead. He says, “Malls are prisons for commerce, but at least the commerce stays inside them.” But this may be a bit reductive. The yoke of commercialism isn’t simply geographical. As Romero suggests in picture, and Smith implies in word, the real danger of “the mall” as such is that it has the power to enslave a life. And it can enslave it unto death. It can even enslave it unto undeath.
In another scene, Peter and Stephen unenthusiastically play poker with obscene mounds of cash. Wealth has now become meaningless. Francine prepares a meal of delicacies that no one will enjoy. Food has lost its taste. They all sit silently at the dinner table. An image-less TV crackles in the background. A horrific ennui sets in as Franny asks, “What have we done to ourselves?”
Eventually, another group takes interest in this supposed sanctuary. Except this time, it’s a band of dozens of hedonistic marauders, hellbent on their ride-or-die mantra. They crash their way into the mall, unleashing the undead hordes with them. To our surprise, they begin looting for jewels and cash. Don’t they know those things don’t matter anymore? Peter and others hide on the outskirts. He suggests that they simply let the bandits have the place. But Stephen pushes back. “This is ours…” he mumbles over and over to himself before staging a one-man assault on the invaders.
As you might guess, things don’t go well for our friends. And these moments are much better watched than read here. But it goes without saying that untold death and destruction are the result of our protagonists encounter with this roving band. And even worse, not everyone we care about makes it out alive when dawn breaks. As the helicopter takes off without everyone it came with, the question remains, where is there left to go? The music swells and the credits roll. That’s it. The movie is over. Our fears go un-quelled. Our questions go unanswered.
But this movie is not really about answers to the the terrible problems that continue to haunt Western society some 40 years later. I don’t think Romero had any idea how to even begin to answer those things. In fact, his fascination with the spectacle of the film reveals that he, like the characters, may just be more interested in satisfying the aesthetic desires of his own heart. Truth be told, I’m not sure I really want to attempt to respond to his questions here either. Maybe it’s enough to listen to his and Smith’s admonition: this mall means something to all of us. It was (or maybe is) an important place in our lives. The question is why? Smith suggests that its aesthetic appeals are responsible. It captures our imagination for “the good life.” And throughout the rest of his book, Smith asks the reader, if a mall can do this to our hearts, can another liturgy transform our hearts? Can a better worship bring us back to life?
If the mall is not the answer to our problems, is there one? What do our apocalyptic desires reveal? Perhaps we too need an irrupting Dawn that will unmask and disperse the darkness within. Maybe we have a hope of coming back from our own cultural death. But will it be as the undead or as the reborn?