In George Romero's satirical film about consumerism, Dawn of the Dead (1978), an American shopping mall becomes the site of battles between the zombies who have overrun the country, four human "survivors" who exterminate the zombies and appropriate the mall for themselves, and a gang of marauding bikers which, in the movie's violent climax, seeks to take over the mall. These battles serve as a useful, if melodramatic metaphor for recent theoretical disputes over the nature and value of consumerism, disputes which remain of central importance among cultural critics of differing political persuasions. 1. At the risk of crudely dichotomizing, these critics have tended to affiliate with one of two camps with respect to what might be called the "consumerism debate."
On one side of this debate, a host of unrepentantly Marxian critics have described the baleful impact of capitalist production on those whom it exploits and the depoliticizing effects of commodity fetishism on consumers. On the other side, postmodern ethnographers and sociologists have argued that consumerism empowers capitalist subjects by granting them a limited, but politically important space in which to live out utopian fantasies of autonomy. The exchanges between these camps are as frequent as they are ill-tempered: just when the "issue" of consumerism seems to be dead and buried, it rises zombie-like from the critical grave. A recent irascible polemic is James Twitchell's denunciation of the "melancholy Marxist" view of consumerism, complete with some scandalous ad hominem attacks on academics working in cultural studies. Recently, Western arguments about consumerism have even moved outside the confines of academia and into the realm of popular culture — witness the recent sparring in the British press between Germaine Greer and Nigella Lawson (see Lawson). This paper offers some observations on what might be called the "consumerism debate" based on a consideration of radical anti-consumerist elements in Romero's film.
Before discussing this film, I would like to consider briefly one influential theoretical intervention in what I am calling the "consumerism debate." In Reading the Popular, John Fiske argues that while consumer "tactics" are never radical, they may be "liberating" to a certain extent. Moreover, he argues, following de Certeau and many others, that consumers should not be despised as the "cultural dupes" of capitalist producers; consumers are instead "secondary producers," finding value in their consumption and making use of capitalist products for their own ends. Fiske rightly reminds cultural critics that people should not be patronized as idiots who compliantly consume the images and products imposed on them by the dominant ideology; and he is surely correct that consumers may be temporarily empowered by the experience of shopping, a point well established by Angela McRobbie and others. But his well-practiced indignation about "cultural dupes" requires a caveat, for this injunction risks patronizing the "ordinary" people whose shopping habits Fiske aims to redeem. Few critics would dispute that an unacceptably dismissive view of consumers as "cultural dupes" has been presented (or at least implied) by radical critics from Adorno to Eagleton. It is important, however, to remember that many "ordinary" people actually sympathize with anti-consumerist views and feel empowered, rather than patronized, by their engagement with oppositional perspectives. Anti-consumerist —as well as consumerist — attitudes and activities can be a source of both pleasure and liberation.
As Raymond Williams famously observed, there is no such thing as "the masses," only ways of imagining people as masses. Of all of these ways, Romero's is surely among the most extraordinary. Zombies function in Dawn of the Dead as a lumpenproletariat of shifting significance, walking symbols of any oppressed social group. This function is derived in part from their origins in the literature and cinema of the twentieth century, in which zombies are synonymous with oppression and slavery. 2. Romero uses zombies because, as part of a maligned cinematic underclass, they suit his satirical purpose. Both Dawn of the Dead and its successor Day of the Dead (1985) present the human survivors of the zombie plague as literally and etymologically "living over" the zombies. In Romero's trilogy, Captain Rhodes — the sadistic army commander of Day of the Dead — expresses the strongest contempt for the undead, regarding them as a disposable and despicable underclass.
In Dawn of the Dead, the social abjection of the zombies is established in the film's remarkable second scene. Here, two of the film's central characters, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), along with other members of a police SWAT team, storm a brownstone full of Puerto Ricans who have refused to exit their properties as ordered by the authorities. Despite the poverty of these people, one policeman bluntly adumbrates the film's theme of material insecurity and envy. "Shit man," he remarks as he impatiently waits to start shooting at their "nigger asses," "this is better than I got." However, any sympathy the audience may have for such reactionary sentiments is dispelled when the SWAT team enters the zombie-infested building.
The SWAT scene is hardly mentioned in academic analyses of the movie and has even been dismissed as an unmotivated procrastination (Shumate). But it could be argued that the scene provides an interpretative context for the rest of the film. As well as introducing some hackneyed horror principles (the foul-mouthed policeman pays for his irascibility with his life), the scene invites the audience to consider zombiedom as a condition associated with both racial oppression and social abjection and, therefore, sanctions socio-political interpretations of the film as a whole.
It is difficult to comprehend the radical import of Dawn of the Dead without briefly considering the significance and history of its setting — the shopping mall. The dawn of the shopping mall age in the 1960s was met with widespread enthusiasm, and mass hysteria was even reported at several newly-opened malls (Morris 405). In recent decades, mall hysteria may be less common, but the shopping mall remains a cultural fascination in capitalist countries, while in cinema, malls have become a staple location for smart-ass American teen movies, like Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995). It is easy to underestimate, therefore, the relative novelty, in 1978, of Romero's simple but inspired idea of setting Dawn of the Dead in a mall.
According to Meaghan Morris, one of the most exciting and attractive aspects of the shopping mall is the contrast between its massive structural stability and the constantly shifting composition of its population (394). In this sense, a mall is like a theatre or a stage: a space demanding action and transformation. Romero certainly recognized the dramatic potential of the mall, which may be regarded as both the epitome of corporate capitalism and — for the same reason — a potential site of resistance to the forces that regulate consumerism.
These regulatory forces were long ago examined by Gibian, who showed how designers try to discipline shoppers' routes through malls. But the disciplinary forces that construct malls are perpetually at risk from those who wish to cheat the system. And the bigger the malls, the more opportunities there are to subvert the agents of discipline. "The order of the system that builds and manages the shopping malls," writes John Fiske, "is consistently at risk of being turned into the disorder of those who use them, in a way that the small corner deli never was" (Understanding 43). The mall's subversive allure is clear in films like Kevin Smith's 1995 comedy Mallrats (1995), in which two teenage buddies outwit the managers and security staff of their local mall in order to win back their girlfriends. Such films attest to the sense in which shopping malls constitute the "system," whose disciplinary agents must be challenged, tricked, and overcome: the cinematic mall, it might be said, solicits not only the consumption of its goods, but also the subversion of its systems. Before returning to the work done on consumerism and commodities in cultural studies, I wish first to discuss some of the elements that make Dawn of the Dead a radical (i.e. oppositional) anti-consumerist text.
In a manner that recalls John Fiske's writings on the ruses of mallgoers, Romero's survivors make use of various tactics to wrest control of the mall from the living dead. Having done so, the survivors create a shopping utopia for themselves, a place where they can temporarily ignore the threat of the zombies. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first of Romero's zombie films, the survivors receive no respite from the zombies. In both Dawn and Day, by contrast, Romero introduces some brief but significant utopian interludes. In Day of the Dead, for example, two of the male survivors take sanctuary in a cosy caravan, where they indulge in verbose and alcohol-fuelled philosophizing on the value of hedonism; like so many of Romero's characters, they are content to bury their heads in the sand and to ignore the chaos all around them. Dawn of the Dead also contains scenes of release and relaxation; however, these are far more dramatic than the caravan scene in Day. Once the survivors in Dawn have exterminated the zombies in the mall and secured the doors, they indulge in a carnivalesque parody of rampant consumerism. Their delight is heightened by their awareness that they have not retreated, like the survivors in Day, to a safe enclave, but have skilfully taken the entire mall from the zombies and driven them out. Thus, even as he lies dying after being bitten by a zombie, Roger is able to crow with delirious pathos: "we whipped them and we got it all." The same sentiment underpins the fury of Stephen (David Emge) when, at the end of the film, a gang of bikers invades the mall. "It's ours," he says coldly as he aims his rifle at the invaders, "we took it."
With the corpses of the exterminated zombies cleared away, the survivors indulge in a fantasy of purchase power. They "steal" money from the mall bank, cheekily posing for the security cameras; they take all the clothes and consumer goods they desire; they play video games; and in a marvellously frenetic scene, Stephen and Peter "tool up" in the mall's weapon shop with a vast array of guns. The music during these scenes is light, airy and released, inviting us to regard this as an ironic paradise. But however joyous and liberating these "shopping scenes" may be for the characters, Romero's script emphasizes the economic exclusivity of consumerism. Perhaps the most poetic instance occurs in the armoury scene, in which Peter aims an expensive rifle at a zombie's forehead. "Ain't it a crime," he remarks wryly to Stephen, "the only person who could ever miss with this gun would be the sucker with the bread to buy it." Interestingly, this comment is also a variation on the "cultural dupes" argument, this time from below, as it were (here it is the affluent middle classes, rather than the witless proletariat, which is mocked for its consumer credulity).
The most striking sequence among these scenes of frenzied consumer abandon is the "supermarket sweep," during which the men snatch whatever food and drink they desire. In one shot, Stephen picks up a loaf only to be trumped by Peter, who produces an even bigger one. Both men laugh, implicitly recognizing an analogy of anatomical comparison. To regard this moment as a crude phallic interlude, however, is to overlook its mythical significance: comparing their "loaves" Peter and Stephen exploit the scatological licence traditionally granted to carnival revellers. Indeed, the film's scenes of carnival license are among its principle attractions, and they appear to have a particular resonance for the film's audience. To draw a very long parallel, these scenes constitute a reworking of the medieval legend of the Land of Cockayne, an allegory of human sloth and greed in an Edenic land of plenty. The Land of Cockayne legend was a popular utopian fantasy of a prelapsarian world in which every luxury is at hand and in which work is not required.3.
Romero's satirical depiction of instant and celebratory gratification is consistent both with classical European images of luxury and with modernist denunciations of the restlessly acquisitive postmodern zeitgeist, such as Christopher Lasch's melancholic Culture of Narcissism (1979). Of the film's characters, however, only Fran (Gaylen Ross) voices the film's moral insight. Accusing the men of being hypnotized by the mall, she tells Stephen: "It's so bright and neatly wrapped you don't see that it's a prison too." Fran is expressing, albeit rather preachily, Romero's own perspective: far from endorsing consumerism, she highlights the tendency of human beings to become cultural dupes. In this sense, the "fool's paradise" of the mall is a pretext for a classical humanist condemnation of visceral indulgence.
Romero's film also mobilizes classical images of female false consciousness which, while undoubtedly radical, are problematic from the perspective of postmodern feminism. In his article about Romero and feminism, Barry Keith Grant has less to say about Fran than any other Romero heroines, but she is in many ways the most complex and intriguing female figure. The Barbra (Judith O'Dea) of Night of the Living Dead is quickly reduced to helpless catatonia; on the other hand, Sarah (Lori Cardille), in Day, is a consistently stronger character than Fran, as is Barbara (Patricia Tallman) in the brilliant feminist remake of Night. Grant does, however, note that Fran is presented as a professional. Although this point is not discussed further, there are grounds to support this assertion. Fran helps the men to defend the mall; she also takes responsibility for herself and others, asking Stephen (presciently, as it turns out) to teach her how to fly the chopper lest anything should befall him. These qualities identify her as a spiky feminist heroine. "I'd have made you all coffee and breakfast," she tells the men ironically when they first arrive at the mall, "but I don't have my pots and pans."
Later in the film, however, Fran's feminist resolution is worn down. Bewitched by the hypnotic magic of the mall, she increasingly falls into stereotypically feminine patterns of behavior. In a particularly striking scene, Fran pampers and perfumes herself in front of a mirror, in the classic tradition of nineteenth-century fiction or twentieth-century film. Various techniques are used in this mirror scene to signal that Fran now identifies with her own glamorous reflection. As she applies her lipstick, she adopts the vacant gaze of the stereotypical female consumer who sees in the department store dummy an image of her objectified, commodified self. Fran becomes a human zombie, no more alive than the conspicuous mannequin heads on which the camera mockingly alights in a series of objective shots. As she makes herself up, she absent-mindedly toys with a pistol, indicating her implication in the film's system of commodity fetishism. In short, despite her own earlier warnings to the men, Fran becomes a cultural dummy.
Although it is fleeting, Fran's narcissism attests to the zombifying power of commodity fetishism on even the liveliest characters. In this sense, Dawn of the Dead may be seen as a modernist critique of the alienating effects of the consumption-led, post-Fordist society which, according to many commentators, developed throughout the 1970s (for a sceptical survey of views on post-Fordism see Callinicos, 132-144). In no sense does Romero regard Fran's absorption in fashion and image as liberating. On the contrary, Fran's increasingly lifeless behavior contrasts starkly with her spirited feminist attitude earlier in the film. It comes as no surprise when, in the very next scene, we see Fran in a domestic role, preparing a meal for Peter and Stephen in what appears to be an incongruous yet perfect recreation of a bourgeois living room. Despite her earlier feminist quip, Fran finds her way to the pots and pans after all. Consumerism alone, Romero implies, will not liberate women from their traditional subordinate roles.
Romero is not merely interested, however, in decrying commodity fetishism as spiritually deadening or politically inert; on the contrary, he stubbornly returns to the theme of exploitation. Towards the film's end, we are reminded of the exploitation that enables consumerism when one of the invading bikers (Tom Savini) calls the black survivor, Peter, "chocolate man." This racial insult is casual, but within the context of a film about consumerism, it is very resonant, as it identifies Peter with one of consumer society's most throwaway goods (it is no accident that, while Peter's priorities on arrival at the mall are to obtain "the stuff we need: television and a radio," the more frivolous Roger opts for two rather less vital commodities: watches and chocolate). More importantly, the "chocolate man" insult sharpens the film's focus on the economic origins, as well as the social effects of consumerism, since the production of chocolate depends on the exploitation of black labor. (In this connection, it is interesting to note that Peter is the only character in the film whose own production is foregrounded by Romero. While the backgrounds of the white characters are never mentioned, we learn that Peter has a Trinidadian grandfather and two brothers, who conform to the black stereotypes of professional basketball player and prisoner).
In both Dawn of the Dead and its sequel, a single phrase governs the film's concern with identification and difference: "they're us." This phrase — which oscillates suggestively between oxym oron and tautology — functions as a kind of shorthand for the troubled relations between human beings and zombies. The paradox posed by the zombies' human/inhuman condition is expressed in Roger's terrified, half-human face when he "returns" from the dead. It is also present when, having secured and "cleaned up" the mall, the survivors stand staring down at the zombies outside as they vainly claw at the glass doors. In this brilliantly conceived scene, it is Peter who makes the chillingly simple observation "they're us." Fran gives a slight shiver and pulls up the collar of her expensive fur coat (an apparently unnecessary garment under the air-conditioned circumstances), indicating that while guns constitute an effective defense from the enemy, consumer goods provide the psychological protection against any pricks of conscience. The scene dramatizes, perhaps better than any other scene in contemporary cinema, the senses in which consumers become guiltily aware not only of their own pleasures, but of the social costs of consumerism. Clearly, Romero's take on consumer society constitutes a humanist, radical, and one might say Adornian critique of racism, sexism and exploitation. As Tania Modleski writes, in many horror movies "the attack on contemporary life strikingly recapitulates the very terms adopted by many culture critics" ("The Terror" 288) and Romero himself has even been described as a "radical critic of American culture" (Shaviro 82).
Before comparing Romero's modernist critique of capitalism with some cultural studies writings on the subject, I wish briefly to discuss the reception of the film. The typical audience response to the film is, to say the least, enthusiastic. Modleski notes that in the years after its release, Dawn became "a midnight favorite at shopping malls all over the United States" and surmises that the movie-going consumers were "revelling in the demise of the very culture they appear most enthusiastically to support" ("The Terror" 290). Perhaps this explains why the film was one of the biggest grossing horror movies at the box office. Whatever the case, the film's transformation of the mall's rational, quotidian environment into a Dionysian orgy of violent indulgence has a deep attraction for its American consumers. The power of this aspect of the film derives from its relevance to the everyday activities of its viewers. As Virginia Nightingale reminds us: "audience is distinctively inflected by the nature and cultural significance of the interaction between audience activities and textual character" (105). This interaction seems to be particularly dynamic in the case of Dawn of the Dead: one North American fan related to me how, after viewing late-night showings of the film in a shopping center, he and other members of the audience used to roam through the deserted mall, imagining scenes from the film.
The audience reaction to this film suggests that people can have an ambiguous relationship with consumer culture. Indeed, the experience of viewing Dawn has even prompted some to question their consuming habits for the first time. Another fan of the film relates how he overheard a woman commenting to her friend in a New York City mall: "Oh, my god! Look! It's just like Dawn of the Dead! All of these shoppers look like zombies walking about the place!" "She seemed shocked", commented the fan. "It was as if a light had just been turned on, illuminating an aspect of her life never considered" (cited in England). From this piece of "fan" evidence, it is clear that the film has prompted at least one shopper to reconsider her relationship to consumerism. Clearly, the experience of shopping which "ordinary" people supposedly find liberating can also contain a degree of uneasiness. Certainly, it appears that the "happy shoppers" thesis is overgeneralized, as it fails to account for the contradictions which consumers find in their own habits. Cultural theorists need to recognize that radical views about consumerism are not restricted to a coterie of superannuated Marxian critics, but are inscribed within the quotidian experiences of consumers.
I would like to conclude by returning to the dispute about consumerism between the radical and the postmodernist camps of cultural studies outlined at the beginning of this paper. One often-advanced complaint is that critics in the Frankfurt School tradition tend to treat the consuming public as "witless and uncritical." This is an important and, in many cases, justified point (the conception of consumers as feckless dupes is plainly wrongheaded), but it would also appear to be something of a straw man. Most radical critics do not argue that people are simply cultural dummies, but that consumerism is both morally perilous to those who can afford to buy into it and economically exclusive to those who cannot. These two points — which even the film's audience seems perfectly capable of grasping — are made consistently in Dawn of the Dead.
It is among the easier tasks of cultural criticism to berate the Marxist fathers of cultural studies for their benighted refusal to concede any liberating potential to consumer practices. In her article "Things to Do with Shopping Centres," Meaghan Morris lightly mocks radical critics' portentous denunciations of commodity fetishism. She selects the following passage from Terry Eagleton for particular scorn:
In contrast, Morris aims "to make it more difficult for 'radical' culture critics to fall back quite so comfortably on the classic image of European bourgeois luxury to articulate theories of economic exchange" (408). For Morris, the radical critique of consumerism is itself a Eurocentric luxury, patronizingly aloof from the quotidian concerns of consumers, and women shoppers in particular.
Morris's postmodernist writings on consumerism are clearly at odds with the essentially modernist critique of capitalism and consumerism mounted by Romero (what could be more "classic" or more benightedly "European" than the legend of the Land of Cockayne, on which Dawn's satirical sting depends). This poses some difficult questions for the cultural critic. Which critique of consumerism is the more satisfactory—Morris's or Romero's? And to what extent can filmmakers supplement the sociological and cultural conclusions of academic criticism about consumerism?
As implied in my comments above, one of the many strengths of Morris's article is its emphasis on the diversity of shopping malls. It is not sufficient, she argues, to generalize about shopping centers: one must examine their specificities and the diversity of those who visit malls. One must also acknowledge, she argues, the importance of each mall's precise geographical location in the life of the individual shopper. The importance of place in the experience of shopping is explicitly acknowledged in Dawn of the Dead when Peter explains to Stephen that the zombies are continuing to clamour outside the mall because they feel a residual connection with the place: "It's not us they're after, it's the place. They remember that they want to be here." Romero even differentiates his zombies in this film to a certain extent by clothing type and occupation. Nevertheless, despite the film's postmodern awareness of individual differences, it might still be argued that Dawn bases its politics on hackneyed or stereotypical images of decadence and luxuriance from a dead European tradition. In Romero's defence, it might be said that the dramatic exigencies of cinematic narrative rarely permit sociological completeness; Romero's film, one might say, selects only the worst elements of consumerism for critique and should not be taken as a generalizing statement. But far more importantly (in my view), Romero's critique contains an important element that Morris's analysis does not: namely, a concern with exploitation (of women, of black labour and, by metaphorical extrapolation, of the "masses" symbolized by the zombie throng). Put simply, Romero's critique of consumerism, "Eurocentric" as it may be, contains an ethical concern with exclusion that is absent not only from Morris's work, but also from the writings of the growing number of journalists who have pitched into the consumerism debate in recent years, in Britain as well as America (see Lawson, Twitchell, and Brooks). These commentators illustrate all too well Marx's argument in the first volume of Capital that, under capitalist conditions, the productive origins of commodities are easily forgotten. Marx's insight is still relevant to the field of cultural studies as a whole. Judith Williamson long ago expressed concern about the undue concentration of several strands of cultural studies on the consumptionist perspective—a point elaborated most forcefully and eloquently by Jim McGuigan and Angela McRobbie. Dawn of the Dead contains a symbolic corrective to this critical tendency to focus on "consuming passions" at the expense of critical considerations of production.
Another reason for exercising caution in this regard is that oppositional views about consumerism may be far more widespread among both artists and audiences today than postmodern theory has hitherto been prepared to admit. If cultural studies is serious about identifying the politically progressive aspects of consumerism (and I agree that it ought to be), it must acknowledge that radical views about consumerism circulate not only among academic Marxists but also among radical artists.4. Cultural studies should also recognize that the oppositional views of consumerism contained in films can and do affect at least some "ordinary" people outside Europe, like the woman in the New York shopping mall. Although further audience research needs to be done, some moviegoers, it appears, are fascinated by the oppositional perspectives on consumerism that Romero's powerful images afford; this might explain why the film was one of the biggest ever grossing horror movies at the American box office. While I share Tania Modleski's concern that ethnographic studies of subcultural audiences might foster a dangerous "collusion between mass culture critics and consumer society," it would certainly be interesting to discover the extent to which other films that are critical of consumer culture—such as David Byrne's True Stories—inform audiences' opinions about consumerism (Modleski, Studies xii).
Eagleton's comments about commodity fetishism might be, as Morris says, "comfortable"; but they are no more comfortable than many of the more uncritical celebrations of consumerism. In any case, it is beyond the scope of this short paper to draw conclusions about the extent to which consumerism ought to be celebrated for its liberating possibilities or lamented for its baleful effects. This is a question that has been successfully addressed by sociology and cultural studies; but it is one that is seldom considered by film (or indeed literary) critics. The study of anti-consumerist texts and their audiences might contribute to a richer understanding of people's relation to consumerism than sociology alone can provide.
1. When I refer to consumerism in this article, I mean primarily of the system of values surrounding public, rather than private or domestic, consumption.
click here to return to your place in the article
click here to return to your place in the article
3. In Western visual culture, the most eminent representation of the legend is Pieter Brueghel the Elder's oil painting of 1567, which depicts three bloated men asleep after indulging in a feast. In this land, all desires can be instantly gratified, obviating the postlapsarian requirement for human toil. Around Brueghel's sleeping men, a pig walks with a knife attached to it, while a duck presents its head on a silver platter, patiently waiting to be killed; such details make the painting a grotesque but comic satire upon gluttony. The Time Out Film Guide's description of Dawn as a "Bosch-like vision of a society consumed by its own appetites" also contributes (Time Out Film Guide).
click here to return to your place in the article
4. In a recent magazine article Chuck Palahniuk, author of the anti-consumerist film Fight Club, complains in true Adornian style that "shopping has replaced adventure" and has become a "substitute for a real experience of life" (Hicklin 7).
Brooks, Libby. "Buy, buy, baby." The Guardian.
9 July 2001.