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The Zombified Marketplace: Dawn of the Dead and Late Capitalism by Charles Rudig
“[T]he difference . . . between ‘he is not dead’ and ‘he is un-dead.’ The indefinite judgment opens up a third domain which undermines the underlying distinction: the ‘undead’ are neither alive nor dead, they are precisely the monstrous living dead.” -Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View
George A. Romero’s classic 1978 film Dawn Of The Dead derives its formal unity and emotional power from an elegant metaphor; zombification is not only presented literally as this monstrous process that consumes the individual but also figuratively as the zombie survivalists occupy the space of becoming un-dead: the mall, which represents American “spectacular” culture, as theorized by Marxist philosopher Guy Debord in his 1967 book and critique of contemporary consumerist culture Society of the Spectacle. Romero chooses the mall due to its status as a sort of modern agora, a reification or concretization of spectacular society. The presentation of this space in a deconsecrated state prompts the viewer to explore his or her anxieties regarding the dubious sanctity and limited shelf life underlying the mechanisms of the spectacle (the mall). The film asks if the mall is already undead, if a cultural system reliant simply on its own self-affirmation has already or is in the process of entering such a monstrous state. Dawn of the Dead presents the mall as the survival place of physical life where many components exist only to fight against and distract from the imminent mortality of its occupants, who have been violently stripped of all cultural “prosthesis” (Stiegler 23). This usage of the word “prosthesis” is borrowed from French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, and represents the entire constellation of extra-biological additions to our being as humans – from a sharpened rock to the Internet. The survivalists in the film lose their status as citizens and are therefore reduced to the status of bare organisms (Agamben 9). The film extracts from us deep seated anxieties as we question whether this is the state of the mall in an apocalyptic fever dream, or simply a metaphor for its current condition.
Dawn of the Dead is a sequel to Romero’s 1968 black and white film Night of the Living Dead, which spawned the zombie as an archetype in modern cinema. In fact, the name “zombie” (from Haitian folklore) was applied retroactively to Romero’s nameless un-dead. Prior to Romero, a few films utilized zombies as a function of the exotic-Haitian-other, such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). These are, however, unrelated to my critique, and to the zombie genre as it is currently posited. Dawn of the Dead is a spiritual successor to Night of the Living Dead, continuing Romero’s exploration of the zombie Apocalypse event, but from the gaze of a new crew of survivalists and in a new spatial context.
Dawn of the Dead tells the story of Stephen, a man who works at a Philadelphia radio station, his girlfriend Francine, and two SWAT team members, Roger and Peter, as they commandeer a helicopter and take shelter in a shopping mall. Ten years since the release of the first film, the zombie has been codified as a pop culture object, and Romero radicalizes his creation as a tool for cultural commentary: Francine asks, “What are they doing? Why did they come here?” Stephen replies, “Some kind of instinct… memory… what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives” (Romero).
As zombies, the monstrous un-dead retain a spectral vision of the mall as a place of deep significance, despite the fact that they have no use for the spectacular artifacts it contains. Like the survivalists, the un-dead have been stripped of cultural prosthesis (Stiegler 23), but unlike the survivalists, the zombies have entered the monstrous third domain. Here the seemingly absurd attraction the un-dead have towards the mall exposes Romero’s fear that the mall (and thus the society it represents) has become a monstrous, self-affirming edifice. Manufactured desire continues to be functional even after the mall’s deconsecration. Like a zombie, the mall can be said to represent a corruption of a structure. In the case of the zombie, this structure is the human body. Zombification alienates the body from free will, ethics, and humanity in general, reducing it not to bare life, but to the monstrous “third domain” that “undermines the underlying distinction” between bare life and death (Žižek 21-22). In the case of the mall, the structure is the marketplace. Zombification alienates the marketplace from the exchange of legitimate commodities such as food and textiles, degrading it into an element of the spectacular, which Debord argues requires excess consumption as a means of living. By mindlessly moving towards the mall motivated by some monstrous, corrupt desire that has persisted beyond zombification (Debord 34), the un-dead are enacting the same sort of ritualistic “trip to mecca” performed by a participant in consumer culture. Even for non-zombies and non-survivalists, trips to the mall do not fulfill a practical purpose but instead amount to enacting meaningless rites of cultural performance. These meaningless rites operate within Žižek’s third domain, subverting the alive/dead binary and thus becoming monstrous, as Stephen indicates: “One stop shopping, everything you need right at your fingertips” (Romero).
Eventually, Stephen and Peter discover a hardware store and tools within to fight the encroaching zombie hoard. At this point in the narrative, the mall becomes weaponized. What is left of legitimate commodity exchange in the mall as opposed to spectacle (specifically utilities and tools which serve a practical purpose) is détourned (roughly, French for hijacked) by the prospective apocalypse survivors as a means to avoid death. This act is rife with revolutionary ramifications. As hardware serves a legitimate and vital purpose in human life, it is representative of the fragments of authentic culture that still exist in a reliquary state within the mass culture edifice. Within Romero’s story, this represents a tragic tenacity on the part of humanity to restore the current social atmosphere to one that is based more deeply on actual human life and communication, and less on the broadcasting archetype of mass media, in which social communication degrades to a network of individuals having their desires and perceived needs articulated to them by the mall, the television, the radio and print. These desires and perceived needs manufactured by the media and performed by society are ultimately in service of terraforming (literally, transforming to appear like Earth) the boundaries of dialogue and regulation of behavior. The one-sidedness of this widespread theme in communication leads to a specific type of social alienation posited by Karl Marx: Entfremdung (estrangement), or the state in which people are no longer free to communicate with each other authentically because their primary communication is with the mass culture assemblage. Specifically, Marx outlines the alienation of the worker from nature and his very species in section 24 of Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1884. Debord applies this Marxist conception of alienation to post-war mass culture in Society of the Spectacle: “The Spectacle’s function in society is the concrete manufacture of alienation” (Debord 23). Thus the fragmented cultural language with which the survivalists interact is not authentically personal or interpersonal, but instead branded. Our zombie survivalists are lashing out against this alienation by grabbing at the fragments of authentic culture that are left in the zombified marketplace and using them to fight against a zombified culture (represented by the literal zombies).
Towards the end of the film, Francine says to Stephen, “I’m afraid. You’re hypnotized by this place. All of you! You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary, it’s a prison! Let’s just take what we need and get out of here!” (Romero). Francine points out that the survivalists have become “hypnotized” by the mall, and the mass culture it represents. Francine specifically refers to the mall as a “sanctuary,” inviting formulation of the mall as a site of ritualistic worship within the pseudo-religious space of American consumer culture. This represents a moment of revolutionary awareness analogous to Marx’s identification of the role of knowledge and recognition of conditions in Proletarian Revolution: “to instill into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoise and proletariat” (Marx and Engels 40).
Francine becomes aware of the coordinates of her own exploitation but Romero is very clear that even this revolutionary awareness is not enough to escape cultural degradation. His message is diagnostic of a widespread zombification anxiety, specifically, that our own need for cultural popularly and passive absorption of mass produced goods and broadcast media dooms us to an eternal, monstrous alienation. It is very telling that Francine refers to the mall as a “prison.” Francine articulates her fear not in the direction of death or even (literally) becoming a zombie, but instead towards becoming trapped in the mall. Their bare life is in imminent danger from two monstrous threats: the mall and zombification. As the film closes, Francine attempts to transcend this cultural status quo through her revolutionary awareness, with unclear results. Peter asks, “How much fuel do we have?” Francine answers, “Not much,” to which Peter helplessly replies, “Alright” (Romero).
Ultimately, the fate of humanity does not look good in Romero’s imaginary world. The protagonists end up leaving the mall in a chopper that is almost out of gas. The ultimate effect that pervades the cliffhanger that ends the movie is one of confusion and anxiety. While the soundtrack is dominated by the goofy sound of 70s Italian progressive rock band Goblin, the “chopper ride into the sunset” is scored with a menacing descending tetra chord orchestrated for a large string section. This is then juxtaposed with a corny march as images of American popular culture wiz by and the credits roll. The menacing irony of this finale puts the cap on a film that is profoundly fearful. Romero offers no solution to the cultural degradation on which he comments. He offers no means of retaining authentic cultural prosthesis and escaping the monstrosity of the spectacle. He simply expresses a deep and unwavering sense of danger. Dawn of the Dead finds its singularly dark humor (as well as its success as a film) in the impossibility of escaping zombification of the marketplace and the hopeless pursuit of achieving authentic interpersonal expression in late capitalist societies.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 1967. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Marx & Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. Ed. Lewis Feuer. Anchor Books, NY: 1959. 1-42. Print.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1884. Moscow USSR: Progress Publishers, 1959. Print.
Romero, George, dir. Dawn of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1978. Film.
Stiegler, Bernard. Acting Out. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. Print.
Charles Rudig wrote this essay for a composition course while he was an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He recently graduated and is now composing music and pursuing a Master’s degree at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. His music examines performance and ritual in global culture. This essay won a prize in the University of Cincinnati’s annual writing contest.