Two hundred and fifty years prior to the release of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” a vicious satire that advocated the idea that Ireland’s impoverished class would easily overcome their economic disparity if they sold their offspring to be consumed as food by the richest people in the nation. Swift used this writing to draw attention to both the negative effects of mercantilism on the Irish people as well as the illogical policies that government officials devised in order to solve the country’s socio-economic problems. The piece is Juvenalian in its approach to satire, meaning that it aims to draw attention to social evils through shocking imagery, ridiculing rhetoric, and a sheer pessimistic attitude towards the future. While Romero’s film is a lot funnier than Swift’s writing, he employs the idea of eating humans towards a similarly serious intent. Dawn of the Dead uses the imagery of zombies rising from the dead and attacking the living to raise concerns about America’s obsession with consumerism, and how this obsession has created a dependence that renders the human condition immobile without it.
Following the events of the ever popular Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead improves upon its predecessor by providing more elaborate Visceral thrills, a broader scope, and a shift in social consciousness from racial tensions between blacks and whites to capitalist culture. Colour technology and a significantly larger budget allow for an improvement in the quantity and quality of scenes where zombies are either ripping human limbs apart or being dispatched in repulsively graphic ways by human survivors. Where Night took place in a claustrophobic setting of the secluded farm house, Dawn depicts how the undead have overrun the highly populated cities and areas. SWAT teams raid infested apartments, and news stations erupt into chaos as reporters and show runners struggle to broadcast helpful information to their viewers over the television. The film follows four people – Roger (Stephen H. Reiniger), Peter (Ken Foree), Fran (Gaylen Ross) and her boyfriend Steve (David Emge) – as they escape the city and find a shopping mall in the outskirts to be their permanent sanctuary.
Since its inception, the shopping mall as a social construct has remained a gathering place for numerous people. Inside its four-walled structure are stores filled with products that promise to improve life. Garments up to date on the latest trends, new innovations in technology, entertainment software, and delicious foods to satisfy any kind of craving lie in wait to be purchased. The mall is a celebration of free enterprise, an environment where capitalism can thrive through competition, revenue, and the guarantee that any purchase will provide the buyer with status and immediate gratification. A place like this would be nothing less than a utopia for survivors of a catastrophic event because it simply has everything they could ever want in great abundance. Outside these walls, the world might be crumbling, but inside them lies the possibility that life can continue like it always has.
Romero satirizes this idea of a mall as perfect salvation through drawing a parallel between the ways humans consume goods and zombies consume human flesh. Every person in a mall is there to satisfy his or her need to own particular products. Returning home, the purchased goods have a use for a specific amount of time before the user feels compelled to replace it. This leads to that person returning to the mall to purchase new goods to be consumed again. Upon entering the mall, the characters in Dawn of the Dead immediately commence this repetitive behaviour pattern. In comparison, the zombies attack and eat all humans within their reach. Nor is there any amount that can satisfy this craving. The zombie is a rather monotonous type of monster. It functions to repeat the same actions over and over like a machine programmed to do one action for as long as it exists. Romero’s film dares to ask the viewers of his film that if they place too much of an emphasis in their lives on constantly seeking out a copious amount of consumer goods to obtain, how are they any different from a zombie’s desire to eat to no end?
This is suggested even further in a scene where Steve reflects on the possibility that more and more zombies have been flocking towards the mall because of something resonant within their memory. “This was an important place in their lives,” he says. Does the zombie think that the mall will provide it with enough living people for a sufficient food source? Or perhaps materialism is so embedded in the human subconscious that it remains within the resurrected dead, and thereby instills a desire to go back to its source. Zombies have no emotions or ability to reason but they are somehow able to successfully locate the mall from varying degrees of unknown distances. Dawn of the Dead uses this odd and ambiguously explained behaviour as a symbol suggesting that because consumerism seems to provide people with so much satisfaction, it is possible that they are in fact being controlled by it on a more subliminal level.
As the characters block the entrances of the mall, kill the zombies inside it, and create desirable living quarters, each of them starts to exhibit an emotional disconnect from the events occurring beyond these walls. Roger, for example, is frequently warned by Peter on their supply runs to stop fooling around just because they can move much faster than the zombies around them. Peter is also very protective of the mall as their new home and often proposes ideas to the other characters about creating safeguards that will keep other survivors out. Steve feels so content with living in the mall that he proposes to Fran over dinner, claiming how easily they could raise a family here. Fran expresses certain levels of caution through her desires to learn to fly the helicopter on the roof as well as to handle a gun, but she too is easily persuaded into a blissful existence through fancy make up and extravagant dinners. Time passes and yet the mall is still able to provide them with everything they feel they need. The film deliberately slows its pacing down to emphasize that their lives are becoming more and more mundane, and that they are perceiving the zombie epidemic as less and less of a threat with each new uneventful day.
Much of the film is rather violent and gory, but it is the final act that successfully manages to have the most impact on the audience. The surviving members of the group are brutally attacked by a biker gang who have broken into the mall to steal whatever they can carry among themselves and destroy whatever they can’t. Instead of hiding away or escaping in the helicopter, the group of survivors arm themselves with powerful rifles and instigate a brutal shootout against the gang to retain hold over the sanctuary they have claimed as their home. The bloodbath that ensues not only reflects the protagonists as wholly reliant on the mall to be their sole provider of “life,” but they are willing to destroy the lives of other humans to protect their place in it. Granted, the biker gang are presented as a pack of savages. They return equal gunfire, and their gleeful pie throwing into faces of random zombies reflect that they also see the walking corpses as more of an object of entertainment than a viable threat. Nevertheless, this scene reflects an interesting portrayal of humans desperately chasing after leftover consumer products that is best described with a quote by Roger Ebert from his Dawn of the Dead review: “Now look who’s fighting over the bones!”
Dawn of the Dead is one of the best Horror films ever made because it succeeds in satisfying the audience’s insatiable appetite for gore through a high number of gruesome visceral images, but it also seeks to scare the audience with an innately ambitious story. Like Swift, Romero understands the power of Juvenalian satire to invoke a deeper contextual meaning about social anxieties through shocking images. Both artists use the literal image of human consumption to great effect. Romero uses it as a metaphor for his concerns that consumer culture is turning individual human beings into a monotonous society that is not unlike the hordes of zombies slowly taking over the planet. Curiously enough, the most depressing aspect of this image is that it was made to represent capitalist America in 1978. Today is 2015, and the cultural landscape has hardly changed.