The Critique of Consumerism in George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978)

Ryan Levin // Editor

While it would be hypocrisy of the highest degree to out and out criticize shoppers who were out for last week’s Black Friday (we’ve been running Amazon Black Friday ads on this website all month), it’s hard not to see the parallels between the mindless mall-walking zombies of George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and the mobs of consumers lining up outside stores in the wee hours of the morning for the “must-have” Black Friday sales.

Both are potentially life-threatening, single-minded herds who shamble around with glassy-eyed stares (this is due to undeath for the zombies and probably lack of sleep for the shopping masses), pressing their faces against glass doors and traveling around hands forward clamoring for sustenance (brains) and/or those sweet, sweet deals.

It’s odd that a day that has businesses pulling out all the stops to attract customers and consumers braving shitty weather, enormous lines and early hours to get some holiday deals has the so commonly and unironically accepted name of Black Friday (the disambiguation page on Wikipedia for Black Friday is nothing but large-scale massacres and natural disasters), but perhaps it’s a little telling that no one is really ignoring the zombie-like connotations that the massive shopping day inherently represents.

It’s not at all difficult to see the shambling hordes of undead as a metaphor for open-mouthed shoppers wandering through the halls of the temple of capitalism

George Romero’s zombie series (beginning with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead) has long been praised not just for its groundbreaking horror but for the social commentary embedded in its depictions of the zombie apocalypse (whether Romero intended to put them in there or not). Dawn of the Dead‘s shopping mall is a visual allegory for the excesses and waste of our consumer-driven popular culture. It’s not at all difficult to see the shambling hordes of undead as a metaphor for open-mouthed shoppers wandering through the halls of the temple of capitalism.

The movie’s assertion that the zombies have returned to the mall simply out of muscle memory or a faint recollection that this place was at one time important to them offers a not at all subtly sad comment on the lives of the walking dead were like before they became undead. Romero makes visual matches between zombies and department store mannequins, further underscoring the idea that these people in life just gears grinding in the economic machine.

Although there is plenty of classic horror-film-character stupidity leading toward the inevitable demise of several characters in the survivor group, most of the escalation of the plot has to do with acquiring a bunch of now (post-civilization) useless stuff. The climatic mall invasion at the movie’s end is a clear-cut battle for control of resources, all of which could have been shared bloodlessly between groups rather than fought for amidst the escalating plague of zombies if the focus had been on survivor instead of (in typical human form) ownership.

But that’s one of the horror genre’s many pleasures: a bloody, satisfying catharsis for the constraints, expectations and falsified desires that society imposes on its members (or that its members happily take upon themselves). Horror done right has an underlying social metaphor as well as a showy visceral element of gore and carnage.

So this week, if you’re looking for a mental remedy to the madcap consumerist orgy that is the American holidays, you should be watching George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead (1978).

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