For a long time, I have always interpreted the supernatural as a tool to remove humanity from its unspoken vices. Whether it be vampirism embodying our sexual appetences or lycanthropy demonstrating the human capacity for animalistic violence, folklore has always told us we are merely one bite away from becoming the societal fiend we fear the most. To me, the most interesting addition to this spooky social commentary emerged in the late 1970s. Ronald McDonald and Wall Street helped to birth an unsustainable culture of excess, pushing capitalist agendas of consumption. This mindless devouring of material goods zombified perceptions of the average Western shopper, blurring the lines between the walking dead and alive.
With this idea in mind, I decided to re-watch George A. Romero’s 1978 cult classic Dawn of the Dead during the first lockdown. It felt fitting. Like the survivors in the film, 2020 barricaded humanity into their homes in order to protect themselves from a mysterious biological threat. Though our pandemic was much more about enduring tedium, the parallels between the movie’s context and Covid-19 struck a chord with me. Interestingly, upon a different inspection of the classic, it was evident that the film’s warnings of mindless consumption still resonate with society now. Romero’s fable is just as much about defeating the material apocalypse as it is killing the undead. Or are these two objectives just the same thing?
The film revolves around four survivors seeking sanctuary in a shopping mall. Bodies of the dead are suddenly being resurrected. There is no apparent second coming of Christ when the undead begin feasting on the brains of the living. Judgement day is upon the protagonists, more so as the audience judges them for absurdly choosing a mall for their mode of survival. It is no coincidence Romero set the action in consumer paradise. The survivors’ behaviour mirrors that of the zombies prowling the shops. They are desperate to obtain new clothes, sports equipment and money, completely unaware that the apocalypse has rendered their new accessories obsolete. Although the zombies viciously crave brains, they are still portrayed in a slapstick manner with innocently mocking music present in many of their appearances. Romero satirises the consumerist ideologies of the survivors through the zombies; in different but similar ways, both parties are oblivious to their immediate surroundings. Unneeded consumption numbs us to the world, eventually too much, turning people into undead vessels stripped of free thought.
Though many critics of the film have previously picked up on this theme, I believe there is still so much more to further unpack by using the mall as a background. If you choose to read into the film as a rejection of the new wave of post-fordist capitalism emerging in the 70s, small Easter eggs become apparent. For example, the protagonists seem to all possess affinities for guns and smoking. Firearm and cigarette outlets in the mall allow the group to fully satiate their ingrained addictions and infatuations with violence. Even before the end of days, retailers had already capitalised on America’s fascination with the 2nd Amendment. In essence, the USA then and now sees guns and cigarettes as “consumer products''. Both purchases kill in different ways but continue to be bought as advertisement and corporations continue to create a societal need for them. This mindless notion of spending is again mirrored in the imbecilic packs of zombies in the film.
If you diverge from the film’s presentation of consumerism, Romero also takes multiple stabs at the meritocracy found within capitalism. To me, the film is conveying how the Hobbesian state of nature has been perpetuated by the deindustrialised economy of the late 70s. The film clearly shows how compassion gets survivors nowhere. Those who cannot kill their recently zombified friends die themselves and the living quickly resort to looting each other in pursuit of obtaining more material goods. The societal deregulation brought about by the apocalypse already existed in the markets before the virus hit. The meritocracy capitalism enshrines encourages people to only see themselves as an individual. With or without zombies this ideology encourages people to ignore the needs of others. The release of Dawn of the Dead coincided with figures like Thatcher and Reagan who believed that the cutthroat meritocracy mocked by the film paved the way out of the post-industrial era. If upward social mobility was promoted by these figures and the material worth of the objects you possessed quantified your wealth, it seems like Western societies were being actively encouraged to turn into mindless shoppers in order to fit this political rhetoric.
It is important to translate all the points Romero is making into our modern-day situation. The confinements of the pandemic and our systemic reliance on material goods to fulfil us has led to a 10% global increase of consumer goods bought online in 2020. Even before Covid, Black Friday hordes of bloodthirsty customers collected outside of malls and ravaged shops, pushing other people to the ground with the intention of purchasing often unneeded objects in sales. Socialised cravings to buy unnecessary ‘necessities’ have continued into the 21st century and another remake of the film in 2004 shows that Romero’s themes still resonate now. We must ask ourselves why we find zombies so scary. Is it because conformity to the status quo of consumerism is not really how we want our world to be?
Litter, J. (2018), “Meritocracy’s Genealogies in Social Theory”, Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility, New York: Routledge, pp.23-47.
UNCTAD (2020), Covid-19 has changed online shopping forever, survey shows. Available at: https://unctad.org/news/covid-19-has-changed-online-shopping-forever-survey-shows (Accessed: 17 April 2020)