George A. Romero started the entire zombie genre with his low budget cult classic Night of the Living Dead (read our Cult Corner review ) – a tale about a group of survivors barricaded in a remote farmhouse who fend off an army of cannibalistic zombies. At the time the film was made, Romero didn’t know he would be launching an entire genre that would burn itself into the psyche of pop culture. Zombies have become part of the modern horror flick, and the genre tropes Romero established in his films have been repeated endlessly: head-shot to kill; dormant zombies when no one is near; infection through biting; etc. No matter how many inferior and endless amount of zombie films come out, Romero’s Zombie Trilogy consisting of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) stand out as the best and the blue-prints which are endlessly imitated.
For this sequel, Romero re-worked the initial horror concept into a full-blown horror/action film. He moved the story from the small farmhouse of the first film to a large shopping mall; from shocked and confused civilians to a competent SWAT team; from suggestive and explicit horror to full-blown gore effects and bloody violence. However, Romero’s zombie films are more than just schlock horror: the first film commented on racial tensions within society but the second takes its social attacks even further with its critique of modern consumerism. While being low-budget, the film does what it can with limited resources and special effects and succeeds at being an entertaining, exploitative and gory film but also a barbed and aggressive social critique.
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The film follows a group of four survivors: one female journalist, a male helicopter pilot and two SWAT members as they escape a rapidly infected city and hole up in an abandoned mall. They proceed to violently clear it up, bombard it and descend into excessive materialism. While one wonders what can be done in such a cramped and confined premise, the film defies expectations with its entertaining set-pieces: a mass zombie pursuit through the hall, a van hijack and a shocking biker-invasion finale. Setting the events in a shopping mall also allows Romero to explore the possibilities of rampant desires by presenting the shopping mall as the symbolic hub of consumerism. The film follows the main characters as they descend deeper into their own materialism: in one scene they turn an entire empty sterile white-coloured room into a materialistic paradise by installing a TV, furniture, tables, beds, food and fridges.
Romero explores a bleak message about the state of these characters’ lives: symbolically their lives are like the empty room which they fill with material pleasures. Romero suggests that humanity distracts itself with desires. This is shown in a scene in which the survivors wander from shop to shop within the mall: they cruise through a massive food mall as they help themselves to all sorts of assorted delicacies. Romero presents humanity in its most unchecked state: a world where people are scrambling delightfully for the next item on the shelf. However, Romero offers a more optimistic and healthy alternative – the relationships the characters form with each other are more meaningful and fulfilling when compared with consumerism.
While the human characters become a portrait of consumerist individuals, so do the zombies –Romero’s way to present humanity when you take away the veneer of civilization. The zombies represent modern humanity at its most basic form: consumer. In one hilarious scene, a female zombie is covered in various pearls, necklaces and jewelry before they are torn off – representing humanity’s addiction to ornaments. In Romero’s ironic critique, people are just zombies wandering around aimlessly living out un-eventful lives. To Romero we’re all just walking zombies who only become alive when surrounded by desire (cars, guns, clothes, food, jewels, technology etc.), which is here symbolized by human flesh.
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The film attempts to tear away what is told to make us happy by showing that consumerism does not bring happiness or fulfilment. While the characters in the film revel in the delights of the shopping mall with child-like glee, they eventually become deeply depressed and dissatisfied as one character says ‘this is wrong.’ A statement that rings true to both the consumer and the seller, it is wrong to descend into an ever-deeper spiral of desire. Romero suggests there is faux happiness contained in consumerism and real happiness is found in the human aspects of friendship and camaraderie.
Dawn of the Dead may be considered dated for its special effects but its plot, horror and themes still resonate to this day. No matter how much blood-and-guts modern zombies films splatter over our screens; they’ll never be able to beat the intelligence or excitement of Romero’s cult classic.