“These creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct. We must not be lulled by the concept that these are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions. They must be destroyed on sight!”
In George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, zombies became a metaphor for the nature of consumerism. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead are there to function as walking symbols – synonymous with oppression and slavery. Writer Robin Wood said, “the entrapment in consumer-capitalism is from which structures and characteristic relationship-patterns the surviving humans must learn to extricate themselves or succumb to the ‘living dead.’”
- Established in the second scene of the film is the collective hopelessness of the zombies. Roger and Peter, along with other members of a police SWAT team, storm an apartment building full of Puerto Rican minorities who have refused to leave their property, thus creating a hostage situation. Though these people clearly live in low income housing, one policeman states, “Shit man, this is better than I got.” He then proceeds to start shooting at their “nigger asses.”
- With this statement and action he consummates the film’s theme of material insecurity and envy. Sympathy for the minorities is abandoned by the audience when the SWAT team enters the zombie-infested building. The zombies here represent racial oppression and social inferiority, thus birthing social commentary.
- Dawn of the Dead uses a significant cultural phenomenon as its main setting — the shopping mall. The 1970s ushered in the age of the shopping mall. Met with enthusiasm, and sometimes hysteria, malls popped up everywhere. A cultural fascination was born in capitalist countries. Massive structure and stability soon became the most exciting and attractive aspects of the shopping mall.
- When the characters first arrive at the mall, Peter and Roger, of the SWAT team, scout out the location in search of items they could possibly use, leaving Stephen and Fran in relative safety near the entrance. Stephen abandons Fran and joins the others. When the three return, Fran is being attacked and is barely saved. She is traumatized. Stephen is hooked, though:
“You should see all the great stuff we got, Frannie. All kinds of stuff. This place is terrific…It’s perfect…We’ve really got it made here.”
- Peter’s priorities have been to obtain “the stuff we need: television and a radio,” while Roger opts for two rather less vital commodities: watches and chocolate.
- The survivors take control of the mall from the living dead. They create a shopping utopia for themselves, a place where they can temporarily ignore the threat of the zombies. Romero’s characters bury their heads in the sand and ignore the chaos all around them.
- Though they’ve begun by looking for just necessities, they soon want the whole place. They bravely block the entrances of the mall with trucks. Roger becomes reckless, enjoying the rush and is bitten. Control has been taken of the mall, but Roger’s fate is sealed.
- “The infection’s spreading quickly.” The delirious Roger becomes frantic – “We whipped ‘em and we got it all!” Despite his bravado, he continues to grow more ill while Peter and Stephen ransack the mall for goodies.
- Once the survivors in Dawn of the Dead have exterminated the zombies in the mall and secured the doors, they indulge in a montage of rampant consumerism parallel to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
- They take all the clothes and consumer goods they desire. They play video games. The most prominent sequence among these scenes of hyperactive consumerism is the grocery shopping where the men snatch whatever food and drink they desire.
- With the zombies cleared away, the survivors indulge in a fantasy of purchase power. “Let’s get the stuff we need.” They ‘steal’ money from the mall bank while posing for the security cameras. They take the piles of money from the bank, saying with a grin, “You never know.”
- “It’s so bright and neatly wrapped you don’t see that it’s a prison too.” Fran expresses to Stephen the tendency of human beings to become consumerist zombies. In this sense, the ‘fool’s paradise’ of the mall is a pretext for greed and over-indulgence.
- As she makes herself up with lipstick, Fran adopts the vacant gaze of the stereotypical female consumer who sees in the mannequin or model an image of her objectified, commodified self. Fran becomes a human zombie, also. In short, despite her own earlier warnings to the men, Fran becomes a cultural dummy. Here Dawn of the Dead proves itself as a social critique of the alienating effects of the mass consumption culture.
- When bikers invade the mall to loot, we are reminded of the exploitation of consumerism earlier in the film when one of the invading bikers calls the black survivor, Peter, “chocolate man.” Though the racial slur is careless, in the context of consumerism the biker has paralleled Peter with a throwaway good.
- In Dawn of the Dead, everything has lost its way of being or its value because there is no value that can be given to it since it has lost its context. The loss of meaning is prominent in the idea of survival in Dawn of the Dead.
- As Roger dies, he tells Peter pitifully, “I don’t want to be walking around like that, Peter. Don’t do it till you’re sure I am coming back. I’m gonna try not to.”
- A few minutes later, he slowly sits up, gray-faced, with a dim horrified look in his eyes. The absurdity posed by the zombies’ human or inhuman condition is expressed in Roger’s terrified, half-human face when he ‘returns’ from the dead. Peter, like a friend, kills him again.
- Though Roger’s death is horrifying it relates to the beginning of the film. Roger’s violent hatred of the zombies is much like the dehumanized brutality in the housing project the SWAT team invades.
- Stephen, also, fights senselessly at the end for the mall as the gangs of bikers invade. “It’s ours. We took it.” His hatred provokes the battle in which, in the end, he, too, becomes a zombie.
- Romero has stated that this satirical view doesn’t get through to all audiences:
“I’ve seen audiences get off on the idea of having possession of the mall. That’s a dangerous fantasy. When I saw the film at a midnight show at Harvard in 1979 the audience indeed went chillingly wild, as if for a sex scene, at the point where the heroes break into a gun shop and arm themselves, striking macho attitudes. Close-ups of guns being loaded made their mouths run over with desire.”
- The ruins of civilization are present when the survivors are staring down at the zombies outside as they vainly claw at the glass doors. In this brilliantly conceived scene, Peter makes the chillingly simple observation - “they’re us.”
- The dreadful, pathetic pounding of the zombies at the gates echoes through the cleared mall. Stephen suggests:
“They’re after us”.
“They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”
“What the hell are they?”
“They’re us, that’s all. There’s no more room in hell.”
- Shuddering, Fran pulls up the collar of her new fur coat. The coat is completely unnecessary under the air-conditioned circumstances. This scene sensationalizes, better than Pretty Woman, the mindset in which consumers become guiltily aware not only of their own pleasures, but of the social costs of consumerism. After all, if we’re not careful, the distinctions may become lost and we’re them and they’re us.