If you recognize the title of this column, it’s because it’s a fairly memorable line from George Romero’s zombie epic “”Dawn of the Dead.” The film is considered a classic even by non-horror fans, though I happen to think “”Night of the Living Dead” is a bit better.
Those familiar with Romero’s living dead series (now totaling four films; each one a little worse than the one before it) know that there is quite a bit of social commentary sprinkled amongst the graying corpses and gnawed entrails. “”Dawn of the Dead,” which actually does get better with each viewing, tackled consumer culture head on and had quite a bit to say … none of it very pleasant.
The story is fairly simple. The US is plagued by zombies that eat the living, thus turning them into the undead. The only way to kill one is to destroy its brain. Four people make their way in a helicopter to a mall (this at a time when malls were still kind of a novelty), where they decide to ride out the infestation for a while. They block all the entrances, kill all the zombies inside, and have a field day by living the high life in a situation everybody must have dreamed about at least once in their lives — locked in a mall with no consequences. Life isn’t great for these guys, but it’s better than the alternative … at least until a biker gang (straight out of Hell’s Angels typecasting central) decides to ruin the party.
The symbolism practically bludgeons you to death. Zombies wander around the mall aimlessly, acting out on memories pushed to the dark corners of their minds. A motorcycle gang, really the last symbol of America’s rugged individualism, comes to destroy the consumer’s wet dream and in turn makes viewers sympathetic toward the very creatures they were originally disgusted by and feared. The mall is seen as a refuge from the worries of the world, but it also serves as a prison — a prison that must be protected at all costs.
You’d have to be blind not to see what Romero was hinting at. Some people have criticized him for this, saying a horror movie shouldn’t take political and social stands. Those people don’t realize that some of the best horror movies of all time have done just that. (And let’s face it, all stories are political or social on some level, as their creators didn’t hatch them in a vacuum.) Most horror films aren’t as blatant as Romero’s zombie flicks, but the commentary is there nonetheless. In most cases it even serves to make a better story. If “”Dawn of the Dead” had the same theme but was set in a house, it would have been a lesser picture. (And no, that’s not what “”Night of the Living Dead” is.)
Even if you ignore the social commentary, it’s still a pretty damn good movie. There are some shots in it that work on every level, and even the extended version that’s over two hours long moves at a pretty good pace.
It goes without saying that the remake left out much (if not all) of the social commentary and focused more or less on a straight horror story. I imagine that’s what audiences like these days. They don’t want messages getting in the way of their entertainment. I can’t fault them too much for that. If thinking made my brain hurt, I wouldn’t want to see a movie that started the ol’ smart machine a stutterin’. That’s still too bad, though, as Romero made a classic film that endures to this day, which is probably due to the fact that society has become even more consumer oriented. (Instead of a quaint bit of nostalgia to times gone by, his story foretold a not-too-distant future where possessions were king and mindless consumers held court.) His message is even more important now, though we may be so heavily invested into this culture of spend that we don’t realize it. (Does anyone remember what President Bush told the American people to do right after 9/11 happened? It wasn’t count your blessings, panic or start to think about foreign policy and the status quo’s reliance on neoliberalism to promote “”democracy.” It was to keep buying cars and other consumer goods in order to keep the economy going. If anyone had any doubts as to our place in this country, that sealed the deal.)
I think it was MDC who sang that “”capitalism is cannibalism.” It wasn’t in reference to “”Dawn of the Dead,” but if the shoe fits why not eat the foot that’s in it?