By Cole Henry
A mall is a homogenous structure in which lucid, gullible, willing people shuffle mindlessly through a platform of capitalistic consumption. Much like a zombie, they just meander aimlessly from store to store, and instead of consuming human flesh they consume what is sold to them on television, in magazine ads, and what is advertised in store windows. They do so without question, just more cogs in the gears of the neo-capitalistic machine. Marxism be damned! In a mall there is no class, rich or poor, there is just one omnipresent horde of insatiably materialistic beings devoid of free thought or individuality. This is what underlies the thematic and moral backbone of George Romero’s 1978 classic zombie film, Dawn of the Dead. Consumerism is a slippery slope and America has slipped and tumbled down this slope into sheer radicalism, and Romero uses this facet of modern life to build a compelling, layered, and haunting critical satire of the nature of modern capitalistic consumption. The zombie figure in George Romero’s 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, helps to show and satirize the mindlessness of modern consumerism, and the gaunt lifeless horror of the zombie figure helps to portray a story of what happens when capitalistic consumption becomes an addiction.
A mall, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, may seem like the perfect refuge, and four survivors agree to this train of thought and take solace in the confines of a large mall outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Unbeknownst to them, the mall is already overrun by the living dead, and they must clear out the zombies inside and barricade all entrances. The survivors do this, and for several months they enjoy a hedonistic, selfish, wholly consumerist lifestyle within the mall. They can take all they want from any store, and there are no repercussion’s. Materialism without bounds, capitalism without correction, and this ends up being their downfall. Eventually, looters break into the mall and with them a large mindless horde of the living dead follow suite. As the dead flow throughout the mall it becomes readily apparent that they are the surviving groups physical embodiment of sheer unrestricted consumerist consumption. They wander aimlessly through the mall with one goal, to consume the flesh of man, much like how the survivors wandered aimlessly through the mall with one goal, consume the capitalistic fallacy of a world that is no more. Despite the apocalypse, the survivors still gave into the capitalistic nurturings that have been instilled in them since birth. The zombies of Dawn of the Dead represent all that is wrong with the way of life portrayed in the mall in the film. The zombies of this film are a non-thinking, ever-hungry, and shambling horde of inhuman beings, and George Romero uses the image and action of the zombie to satirize the modern capitalistic machine. The aimlessness and ever-hungry nature are the most prominent source of satire and critique on the modern shopping and mall lifestyle. One may enter a mall with a goal but eventually becomes overwhelmed by all that is on display, and then tends to wander aimlessly with their thirst for consumerism never being fully satiated. Romero, never one for subtlety, makes this wholly obvious. He does so chillingly effectively in the scene in which the survivors board up the mall and watch the zombies just claw away at the glass, and one of the survivors, Peter, remarks, “They’re us.” This scene is haunting on so many levels, from upfront tension to the theme in which Romero is exploring. In a wide shot we, the viewer, sees the zombies trying desperately to get in through the mall doors, and it mirrors the images of Black Friday shoppers, “door buster deal” days at chain stores, and perfectly exemplifies the correlation between that of the zombie and the modern consumerist shopper. There is but one thought in the minds of a shopper, consume, and there is but one thought in the undead mind of a zombie, consume. It is conditioning in two vastly different ways. The modern shopper learns to consume through operant conditioning in which positive reinforcement/stimuli, getting the best shopping deals, increases behavior, that of being a consumer and consuming within the capitalistic machine. The zombies are what happens when that goes to far and the only stimulus they feel is the fleeting satiation when they consume flesh, and they can never consume enough much like how a junkie is always chasing the next high, hoping it’ll be as euphoric as the first. The imagery of the lifeless zombie husk itself adds another dimension to the themes of rampant consumerism and unrestricted tunnel vision for the lust of satiation.
The zombies in Dawn of the Dead are lifeless, decaying, shambling beings who travel in hordes churned on by the group-think of consumption, and that sense of consumption relaying specifically to that of living flesh. The zombies are gaunt, starved even, and shamble slowly in the film. They are both weak and strong because at a distance they seem docile/stupid but up close they will rip and tear through their victim with the ferocity of a child opening Christmas gifts. The zombies are usually framed in the camera as medium shots so that one can see the full toll that zombification has over their body (see image 1) and in many ways they resemble an addict. Unhealthy skin, hair loss, and gaunt features are all consistent attributes of addicts of all types. Addiction knows no bounds, and one can become addicted to anything. The zombies in this film help to portray a story of addiction pertaining, metaphorically, to capitalistic consumption. One can become addicted to the idea and activity of shopping, and in turn tunnel vision is created in which nothing else matters except the next purchase. Health, sanctity, moral redemption, a lifestyle of normalcy and self control are all cast aside for the function of acting in the capitalist system. This is the story that the zombie figure tells. The zombie figure is unique in that it represents so much more than just a horror trope, and the themes in which the ghoul represents are as relevant now as they were in 1978. They are what happens when unbridled addiction and avarice goes too far. The zombies inhabit a mall, the last place their live selves were before they were infected and zombified, and they still portray every function of addiction through their actions. Consume, consume, and consume. It is all they do, twenty-four hours a day, it is all their reanimated minds know to do. The horde will stop at nothing to consume and if one ends up in their path then they too will be consumed. Consumption is shown through various close ups that highlight the horror and animalistic nature of consumption through addiction and single-thinking (see image 2). The zombies are too far gone to undergo any moral redemption, and their presence, in the thematic eye of Romero, argues that if society keeps living in an overly capitalistic and addiction fueled world then at some point we will all be too far gone to have any moral redemption.
George Romero’s 1978 zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, is a case study on consumerist consumption and physical addiction in the modern world. The setting of the mall accentuates the thematic importance that the zombies represent. They are lifeless husks wandering through the shambles of a consumerist lifestyle that has been rendered obsolete by the apocalypse yet much like the dead being reanimated to life the idea and action of consumerism in the vacant mall has also, in a sense, been reanimated. The mall becomes a Dionysian orgy of twisted indulgence that any viewer of the film can relate to or find relation in. Everybody consumes, and if capitalistic consumption is not hindered by self control or social norms/mores then, according to Romero, the human collective is no better than the zombie itself, a lifeless horrific undead ghoul.