The “living dead” are neither living nor dead, but they possess incredible longevity in our culture.
But have we ever stopped to consider what the zombie apocalypse genre has done for us, if not to us?
Prophesying scenarios about the end of the world is not new. According to scholars, zombies are as old as Ishtar’s threat to “raise up the dead” in the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the history of zombie films is old enough to be oddly personal. Or, in my case, personal enough to help me decipher scars inflicted by a movie I saw as a nascent teenager, and revisit as an adult. Certain films echo into the future and help make sense of the present. George Romero’s 1978 work Dawn of the Dead is that sort of film.
When it first hit movie theaters in a 1978 maelstrom of marketing promising “the most intensely shocking motion picture experience of all ages!” the promise of 1977’s Star Wars was still fresh. Special effects, swashbuckling adventure, and endless sequels were just around the corner.
Flesh-eating zombies, distinct from the sleepwalkers of Haitian Vodou, were ten years old, and still learning to lurch, moan, and lumber. Romero set the standard with his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. This follow-up transferred zombie hordes from the fields outside a small farmhouse to a shopping mall outside of Pittsburgh. The shadows of black-and-white in the original gave way to lurid color. The fear and dread remained, but Dawn of the Dead added multiple layers of bludgeoning spectacle.
My friends and I snuck into the mall theater to see Romero’s bleak vision of consumer America gone flesh-eating mad, returned home to find that our mothers had cooked rib dinners, then went to bed with heads ripe and bursting with nightmares. Director William Friedkin had terrified movie audiences in 1973 with The Exorcist, which was primarily about the displacement of a child’s soul. Romero, by contrast, seemed to care nothing about anything so antiquated as the soul. He instead traumatized and brutalized our psyches through relentless depictions of the destruction of human form.
Like reading Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Romero’s Dawn of the Dead teaches us through shock and disgust to see the world in a different way. That may seem a stretch for what is basically the story of four people— Stephen, a TV reporter; his pregnant girlfriend Fran; and two SWAT police officers, Peter and Roger—who escape the zombie hordes of Philadelphia by helicopter, land on the roof of a giant Pittsburgh shopping mall, wage battle against zombies and a nomadic biker gang then, finally, manage to escape in the same helicopter from the same place they landed. Romero’s horror film metaphors about the emptiness and savagery of American culture do not quite square with the power of Swift’s indictment of human cruelty.
The power of Dawn of the Dead resides in how it smashes so much of what we hold dear, along with so many behaviors and beliefs we escape to when we are afraid. We come of age not when we “leave innocence behind,” as is so often said. We instead come of age when we see our illusions destroyed wholesale in front of our faces.
Maybe you know the betrayal of a partner or spouse who cheated on you. Romero, early in this film’s opening, constructs a scene in which a zombified husband attempts to eat his wife alive. Maybe you were raised in a family religion that promised the glory of an afterlife. Dawn of the Dead turns life and death upside down. Life is a stress-soaked struggle to survive, while death is a lurching, subconscious walk through old, submerged impulses until you die again—by firearm, machete, or blunt force. And why do people refuse to die? Because they want to go shopping.
“What are they doing? Why do they come here?” asks Fran, the pregnant survivor, looking down on a mass of zombies walking the mall.
“They come out of some sort of instinct. A memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives,” answers her boyfriend, Stephen.
Dawn of the Dead arrived three years after the fall of Saigon. Tom Savini, Romero’s special effects maestro, said he drew a large part of his inspiration for the movie from his experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam. But there is much that this movie projects forward as well as looking back. The United States had experienced what was arguably its first mass shooting twelve years earlier from the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The gleeful manner in which Dawn of the Dead treats firearms and shootings shocked the conscience in 1978. Romero seemed to understand that mass shootings were only just starting up. Every other scene—almost every other frame—involves the toting of guns, the taking of aim to inflict damage on the human body. More than forty years later, this movie speaks to our nation’s death-devoted heart. Its violence exists in the liminal sphere between cartoons and real life. There have been horror movies since that tread ominously close to outright pornography in depictions of torture and violence—for that, see Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs, and consider yourself warned. But Dawn of the Dead arguably cleared the arena for every subsequent horror film to show its grisly wares.
Dawn of the Dead also speaks to the necessity of community and cooperation. Swiss Family Robinson, the 1812 novel and 1960 film of a shipwrecked family that makes do in a giant treehouse on a tropical island, showed how to evade roaming pirates at sea long enough to be rescued by a grandparent who also captains a ship. Survival is synonymous with family.
For Romero, by contrast, survival is a matter of making friends out of strangers when calamity forces us to. Arguments, painful decisions, and shaky consensus are the ramshackle, makeshift contraptions that get our four heroes through another day, and on to the next one. Zombies force them into deeper realms of adulthood and maturity.
Bone-crushing fear, soul-draining alienation and isolation, and the struggle to survive against a savage, unfeeling horde of outsiders: all these exist outside our doors, even without zombies. We enlist others in our cause for friendship and solidarity not because we feel like it, but because without friendship and solidarity, life becomes hell on Earth. Fran, Stephen, Peter, and Roger are not mere characters in a shlocky horror film. They resonate as archetypes created by the most desperate acts of what it takes to stay alive, and how we must cooperate if we are to survive.