(Adrian Versteegh is a freelance writer and currently the Fiction Editor for Scrivener Creative Review. He was educated at Queen's University and McGill University and now divides his time between Montreal and Washington, DC.)

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Consumerism is the hegemonic discourse of our time. Its logic permeates the modern world, leaving no outside position of truth from which one might launch a critique. If, as Guy Debord suggests, the “spectacle is the chief product of present-day society,” then the shopping mall is its primary locus (16). George Romero’s film, Dawn of the Dead is a meeting of two analogous modes of subjectivity: one provoked by the visual space of the shopping mall, the other engendered by the experience of cinematic spectatorship. The reflexivity inherent in this double construction of the gaze allows the film to function as a critique from within consumer culture. It is a self-conscious examination of the ways in which the spectacle is put to work in the interests of commercialism. Intentionally or not (it hardly matters), the film invites us to contemplate our consumption of images; our conformity; our alienation from ourselves, the real world, and each other.

The double construction of the gaze within Dawn of the Dead is also a double constriction. As Ann Friedberg describes, the mall allows us physical mobility but confines our gaze; the cinema immobilizes our bodies but presents us with a moving scene. The fusion of these complementary modes of guided subjectivity brings the relationship between pleasure and the body to the fore. Typically, it is our pleasure in moving through a virtual world and mastering an artificial space that is being called upon. Here, however, the virtual world we are immersed in is one in which the mechanisms designed to evoke that pleasure lead to misery after being taken to their logical extreme. The sense of decorporealization that makes the cinematic spectator’s body a mere “fiction” is juxtaposed with the hypercorporealization within the fiction being presented: a world in which the body itself is an object for consumption, populated by human beings who have been reduced to not much more than walking bodies (Friedberg 38). The “safe transit into other spaces” offered by consumerism has suddenly taken on a threatening tenor (121).

The freedom we are allotted within consumerism is a paltry one: it limits us to the choice of which goods to consume. As Friedberg explains, we individuate ourselves only through consumption, subscribing to the myth of “the commodity’s transformative power” (120). Like cinema, consumption is a collective experience. We all buy the same things and participate in the same mode of subjectivity. Just as it is said that there are “no distinctions now” among the living in Dawn of the Dead, so are there no distinctions among the zombies. The goods they had previously consumed as signifiers of individuality (their clothes, jewelry, religious adornments) are revealed as superficial and meaningless: they are all identical as “consumers.” Debord also notes when “all human life… is mere appearance” the zombies are images, copies of life (14). Shots of the walking dead are frequently paired with shots of mannequins. That the zombies are us hardly needs to be pointed out by the time the connection is uttered in the film. In Romero’s Dead series it is all the recently deceased, no matter what the cause of their death, who return to consume the living. The virus that is postulated as the cause of the phenomenon infects us all, and the zombie plague is the proliferation of simulacra. When considering why the dead might gravitate towards a shopping mall, the character known as “Flyboy” remarks, “This was an important place in their lives.” It quickly becomes an important place in his life, as well: “This place is terrific. It’s perfect. We’ve got it made here.” Later, as a zombie, he will return instinctively to his artificial “home” at the top level of the mall, leading the rest of the dead along with him. The “trancelike behaviour” (Debord 17) that images provoke calls to mind the notion of the “Gruen Transfer” (The term takes its name from Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who designed the world’s first shopping mall). Ironically, he would not consider the coinage a compliment, the moment at which a mall patron loses all sense of self-direction and becomes a mindless impulse buyer (Rushkoff 76). Just as, in Susan Sontag’s estimation, capitalism requires a society based on images, consumerism both requires and creates a population of zombies.

Our shared identity with the zombies is made clear at various points throughout the film. When the zombies make their first appearance on screen we witness a police officer so paralyzed with fascination that he cannot fire on one. A woman runs into the arms of a zombie as if into the arms of her lover. The most explicit connection is made in a scene where Francine regards a lone zombie through the glass window of a department store. The two figures mirror each other’s posture and gestures, and a glimmer of recognition passes between them. When we consider a corpse, we are confronting what Julia Kristeva terms the “abject.” The abject derives from us but is repudiated and pushed away. Because it is a disavowed part of ourselves, it exerts a fascination over us which threatens to disrupt the boundaries of our subjectivity. Several of the point-of-view shots in Dawn of the Dead are framed from the perspective of a zombie (particularly as they are about to be dispatched by the living). Seeing ourselves through the eyes of the ‘Other’ splits our subjectivity and forces us into an ambiguous identity with them.

Once the characters enter the mall they are still, in spite of the precipitous collapse of society, ‘interpellated’ as consumers. The architectural space hails them as ideological subjects, and they respond from inside the myth—they go shopping. Their compulsive mania nets them all sorts of utterly useless artifacts. They even remember to check price tags. Shots of a cash register tallying up the “Total Value” of their acquisitions and scenes depicting piles of free cash reveal a signifier that is now conspicuously empty. No longer needing to pay for goods simply accelerates the pace of their disillusionment and alienation. They can take as much as they like, but consumption never satiates. Parking their physical bodies in front of video games and traveling through pre-determined virtual spaces proves an unsatisfying distraction. When the mall is invaded, one of the raiders cannot resist a compulsive participation with its technology: he sits to have his blood-pressure checked and is overwhelmed by zombies. The pleasure that comes with a mobile, mutable subjectivity is also expressed through role-playing. Debord’s “downgrading of being into having” is followed by a shift from “having to appearing” (16). The mallrats play dress-up, parading in front of mirrors. In one scene Peter strikes a cowboy pose, in another he plays waiter to the couple in a restaurant. Identity can be consumed; it is something that can be put on and taken off like a costume in an endless bout of “identity bulimia” (Friedberg 122).

The shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead is also a microcosm for the entire society of consumption. An early scene depicts a news station manager insisting on displaying inaccurate information because, though it may lead people to their deaths, the spectacle must go on. The real world and the real body are equally under assault. The zombies consume real life, and in so doing they appropriate it into the dead world of virtual life. Even spirituality is subsumed: the mall’s zombies include a nun and a Hare Krishna devotee, and Roger is buried in a graveyard of plastic plants. The real is occluded, inaccessible. “You’re hypnotized…. You don’t see that it’s a prison,” says Francine of the mall. In Debord’s “visible negation of life” the elements of the spectacle lose their referents (14). When Flyboy offers her a wedding ring, Francine refuses, saying, “It wouldn’t be real.” Images are devoid of authenticity; they are a “specious form of the sacred” (Debord 20). As the “shopping” progresses, the music turns ominous. We see the expectant mother browsing for baby books. The father takes a photo of her while sitting in a furniture department display room, and she responds sarcastically: “Great, and when you finish the roll [or “role”] we’ll drop it off at the drugstore.” The sequence ends with a shot of the unhappy couple in bed, a phony marriage in a phony environment. Instead of the place where “everything you need [is] right at your fingertips,” the mall is revealed as a “denial of life, in the shape of a fallacious paradise” (Debord 18). When Francine is dolling herself up at a makeup table, posing glamorously with gun in hand, we are offered a quick shot of a mannequin wearing a wig. The announcement of a promotion over the mall’s public address system jolts her out of her reverie. The spectacle is fake after all, and engineered to keep capital flowing in one direction. She pulls her fake eyelashes off with disgust. They resolve to leave the mall shortly thereafter, no longer able to “defer external realities” in Friedberg’s terms (122).

Furthermore, the spectacle of the mall embodies a social relationship in which human beings are objectified and instrumentalized. Romero’s film depicts a world in which not just culture and identity, but human bodies themselves are the objects of a literal consumption. The zombies, however, are not the only ones doing the objectifying. As Peter puts it, “It ain’t just those things we have to worry about.” The living are a more formidable threat to each other. Early in the movie a racist white cop goes on a rampage against those he sees as social parasites (ethnic minorities are the other Other of the film). Our gaze lingers on Peter’s athletic body as he plays tennis on the roof of the mall, a shot that is juxtaposed with the image of a rotting corpse in the parking lot below. The first image we have of the raiders’ presence is a point-of-view shot depicting Flyboy’s helicopter as seen through a pair of binoculars. Later, while taunting the main characters over the radio, we can faintly hear one of the raiders ask, “Have they got any chicks up there?” The zombies themselves are burdened by the objectifying gaze. We take sadistic pleasure in seeing the zombies destroyed, particularly when a posse of “rednecks” is recruited to help police hunt them down. At last, the secret desire of hunting the human body can find an acceptable release. After an extensive “gearing up” scene (so typical of modern American films) in a gun shop festooned with animal trophies and awash in a phony African safari ambience, Peter announces, “We’re going on a hunt.” A similar gearing up scene precedes the raiders’ attack. The mallrats keep their gaze sharp by holding target practice on groups of mannequins. The television tells them: “These creatures cannot be considered human.” In fact, the word “zombies” is uttered only once throughout the entirety of the film; in all other instances the term is “those things,” or “them.”

Consumerism requires a generalized alienation. In the film, the main characters are forced into a literal isolation; they are passive and reactive. In this case, the “lonely crowd” is reflected not only in the legions of zombies, but also in the living population’s rapid dispersal and atomization (Debord 22). The mall is a world unto itself. It exemplifies the autonomy of the spectacle and provides an arena for “the autonomous movement of non-life”—in this case, the walking dead (Debord 12). The mall’s fountains, escalators, elevators, and sound system work on their own as soon as they are activated, molding subjectivity through environmental control. Though the main characters have penetrated the hidden “mechanist” workings underpinning this façade—the control knobs, storage rooms, passageways, and shadowy machine room—the mall retains an eerie magic (Friedberg 112). This knowledge gives them an element of power within the space. Peter is able to gain the upper hand on the raiders because he can employ his visuality the way an administrator might: by watching from above. In one scene, he sadistically knocks a raider out of a motorcycle sidecar with a well-aimed bullet, leaving the man to be devoured by a circle of zombies. By occupying a voyeuristic position, Peter’s gaze coincides with the gaze of what Slavoj Zizek terms the “Big Other.” It is a position of surveillance and judgment.

The alienation and dissatisfaction engendered by the pseudo-freedom imposed on us by consumer culture has led to an inexpressible malaise and resentment. An attempt at articulating this condition can perhaps be found in the secret twinge of elation we feel for “end-of-the-world” scenarios. The apocalyptic obliteration of social relations—the sweeping away at one stroke of entrenched modes of production and consumption—constitutes an opportunity for rediscovery and reconnection with the real. In the moment when Peter rejects suicide he effects a psychological escape. He will not be food for zombies, nor will a shopping mall be his mausoleum. Instead, he will accompany the pregnant Francine (who is engaged in true production within the realm of the real) to a world where unencumbered creativity is now a possibility. Thus, Dawn of the Dead becomes a consummate postmodern artifact: a work which critiques its own cultural milieu.

Works Cited

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross. The MKR Group, 1978.

Debord, Guy. “Separation Perfected” in Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1995.

Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley: U. of California P., 1993

McAfee, Noëlle. Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say. New York: Riverhead, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. “The Image World” in A Susan Sontag Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1982.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Pornography, Nostalgia, Montage: A Triad of the Gaze” in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.


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