Posted on April 27, 2015

Trapped In a Mall: Consumerism & Religion in The Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

Elizabeth Erwin

With the hiatus of The Walking Dead, I’ve been missing my daily zombie fix and so I wanted to do a rewatch of The Dawn of the Dead (2004), a surprisingly satisfying remake of the 1978 original. While the two films share zombies, that’s about the only point of comparison. Unlike its predecessors, this film features zombies of a more threatening variety and is meant to critique American consumerism. In the wake of a zombie outbreak, a group of people take refuge in a mall where they attempt to salvage a little of their humanity.

As a huge fan of Johnny Cash, I thought the use of his “The Man Comes Around” in the opening credits was a brilliant move. The song references a number of figures found in Revelations and speaks to the apocalypse which will precede the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It is a song which suggests a day of reckoning is inevitable given the human state of transgression. It is this same sense of an impending judgement day which I believe is at the heart of the televangelist’s rant. By specifying a litany of “crimes” straight out of the Religious Right’s playbook, the film seems to be suggesting that the zombie plague is a holy punishment. Yet, I’m reluctant to agree that this film advocates a strictly conservative viewpoint. Instead, I wonder if it isn’t a subversive statement that negates the idea that Judgement Day will follow a prescribed set of rules in which people are clearly marked as sinners or faithful. Rather, I think the film may be suggesting that society’s downfall will stem from a breakdown in community.
dawn-of-the-deadOne reason I suggest this reading is based on how the virus is transmitted. In a departure from Night of the Living Dead, people don’t automatically become zombies upon death. Rather, they must be infected with the virus.  It is telling who becomes infected in this film and who does not. Throughout the course of the film, the characters who tend to get infected are representations of “clean living.” For instance, we see the heterosexual mother to be (Luda), the innocent child (Vivian), the heterosexual husband (Luis), and the devoted father (Frank) become zombies while those of dubious heterosexual orientation (CJ, Norma and Glenn), those who have a criminal background (Andre) and those who engage in sexual promiscuity (Monica) die natural deaths. The exception to this rule is Steve whose death isn’t a response to his sexual promiscuity but to his refusal to help his fellow survivors. In other words, none of the reasons specified by the Religious Right as leading to Judgement Day are born out. Instead, it is those whom society deems “safe” or who operate out of self-interest who are the ones who ultimately perpetuate the virus. The survivors who do the most to support a sense of community (Ana teaching Vivian to skate, CJ sacrificing himself for the group) escape the zombie virus while those who eschew the community (Steve who is only concerned for himself, Luda who constantly requests to leave the community for the hospital) become victims of the virus.

It is telling that the media imported from the outside world has a completely different significance than the media produced within the confines of the mall. The media streams which enter the mall are largely messages meant to moralize (the televangelist) or to inform (the newscaster). Yet, the video produced within the mall is utilized to express the sins being moralized against in the outside world. For instance, film is used for voyeurism (Terry watches Ana changing and watches Nicole crying) and to record sex outside of marriage (Steve and Monica). Within the confines of the mall, sin is being expressed openly and unapologetically and yet, the people inside are safe. It is only on the outside, where the sins are repressed for fear of biblical retribution, where chaos reigns.
That is not to say, however, that the film escapes supporting societal norms. Norma engages in masculine pursuits (drives a big rig, knows how to handle a gun) and eschews feminine dress (she stomps a cigarette out with her work boots) while clearly wearing no wedding ring. Her demeanor is almost androgynous which is why I think it is so interesting that she is the one who has the final showdown with Andre. He perceives her as a threat to his nuclear family which is why he kills her. It is impossible not to read some gender subtext in this scene. Ana has been marked as feminine thanks to the sex scene with her husband as well as her flirty interactions with Michael. So while both Ana and Norma contribute to the eradication of Andre’s family, it is only the woman who has stepped outside her socially prescribed feminine role who pays the price.

I was also interested in how humor was used in the film. In the wake of September 11th, the humor inherent in 1980s horror was replaced with an overriding seriousness. Instead, villains like Jason from Friday the 13th return to being “true monsters” whose killings are devoid of levity. Yet, what I saw in this film wasn’t so much an absence of humor as much as a decidedly fatalistic type of humor. For instance, the sequence showing the survivors basing their names of the zombies on famous celebrities before gunning them down is pointed. The humor being used doesn’t so much grant the audience a reprieve and a chance to catch their breaths, like in the 80s slasher films, but instead adds to the horror by increasing the sense of nihilism permeating the film. We also see a similar usage of humor in Saw in Adam’s various responses to the tests set up by Jigsaw. So in a way I feel like shades of playfulness still exist except that it has been repackaged to serve a different purpose.

While I still think the original film in the Dead series is hard to beat, this one does a valiant job of extending the social critique via zombie so beautifully manipulated by Romero.

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