Romero's Dead Cycle, Part Two: Buy, Buy, Buy; Die, Die, Die
By Desmond Reddick
26 February 2007 — A few weeks ago I took a look at George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, delving into the characters and what they symbolically represented in regards to Americans and the Vietnam War. In this chapter of Reel Dread, however, I don't intent to dive so far into the symbolism of Dawn of the Dead, simply because I don't believe that much symbolism exists in the 1978 feature. That's not to say Dawn is without its intricacies; it simply wears its analogies on its sleeve.
The time frame within which Dawn of the Dead was created was a very interesting mix of American economic stability, racial instability, celebrity and death. Race riots marred much of the 1960s and 70s as the Civil Rights movement turned into a Black Power movement. Elvis Presley, half of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Freddie Prinze all died by various tragic means. Serial killers such as David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy and the Hillside Strangler were all over the news, being made celebrities unto themselves. Consumer culture was being nurtured as the decentralization of downtown commercial areas led to the creation of huge malls in the suburbs. The Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania was one of those malls.
But Dawn of the Dead is not isolated to a mall. The action starts following what may very well be hot on the heels of the events of Night of the Living Dead: martial law is in effect as zombies roam the streets, a television station desperately broadcasts a talking heads debate program, a SWAT team storms a low-rent apartment building (occupied by racial minorities). Generally speaking, mayhem reigns — everywhere.
In the midst of the mayhem, a small group attempts to flee the doomed city via helicopter: the pilot, his girlfriend and two members of the SWAT team attempt to make a run for Canada. On their way they witness rural militias dispatching zombies in the countryside in a matter reminiscent of the ending of Night of the Living Dead. Soon they discover a huge indoor mall and decide to touch down, as it would be a sanctuary.
The group clears the mall of the walking dead and barricades the entrances in a frantic scene of cowboy-like, devil-may-care action. Soon thereafter the mall — the sanctuary — becomes a utopic haven with all the amenities enjoyed by the rich and famous. However, it isn't long before their comfortable surroundings are disturbed by a roving motorcycle gang. They too want a piece of the comfort, but their brazen, thoughtless entrance only serves to allow hundreds of flesh-hungry zombies entry into the short-lived utopia. From then on it's only a matter of time before the whole world comes crashing down as the film reaches its intense, inevitable climax.
That's the plot, but what of the film's overarching theme, that being materialism and the malevolence it brings? Well, any argument against the main theme can be refuted by watching one scene; Ken Foree explains that the zombies want into the mall not to devour its living residents, but because going there has become instinctual — like eating or mating.
Despite being set in a mall for the bulk of the film, the materialism begins before the utopia is claimed. Stephen (the pilot) and Francine (his girlfriend) covet the helicopter. All four of the protagonists refuse to share cigarettes with another police officer, laughing as they light their cancer sticks. These characters are very much on the elitist end of the spectrum.
The zombies wandering aimlessly through the mall (and in one awesome shot: riding a coin-operated horse) is but a small metaphor for how humanity is overcome with material desire. Like all of Romero's Dead films, it is the interaction between the living characters that truly define their meaning. While zombie can share a corpse, humans never get along in these films. The human materialism is evident in both the way the three surviving protagonists devolve and how they deal with the invading motorcycle gang.
After they have secured the entrances, the group has an orgy of gourmet meals, designer clothing and handfuls of cash. They actually build an apartment (complete with beautiful furnishings, artwork and state-of-the-art electronics) by sectioning off a portion of the mall. Afterwards the men play a game of poker with stacks of cash, which they know is worthless in the current society, but that's the point. In a way, these characters act as if they are the Russian bourgeoisie: the empire is falling apart outside the walls of their stately manor, yet they remain comfortable within their handmade utopia. Too comfortable, in fact, as they are hardly prepared to defend their castle when attacked.
The motorcycle gang, led by make-up effects artist and Romero protégé Tom Savini, is definitely portrayed as a threat and, outside of the zombies, the antagonists of the film. But in reality they are no worse than the protagonists themselves. In a world where society has completely imploded, the gang represents the group that has sought safety in numbers and seeks nothing but the comforts they recently lost. And that's where Romero's Dead films succeed; interesting stories can be found in the conflicts between the living, not the killing of zombies.
In Romero films the dead exist solely to create tension between the living. In this case it's the age old struggle between the classes and the desire for material gain. It shows humanity at its greedy worst and proves exactly what the root of all evil is.