George Romero, the Pittsburgh filmmaker who died last weekend, was best known for two of his horror movies. One of them, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, completely reinvented the zombie genre. The other, 1978's Dawn of the Dead, set his zombies loose in a shopping center.
The spectacle of those appetites on autopilot shuffling mindlessly through a mall has inevitably sparked arguments that Dawn is a critique of consumerism. The picture definitely has a strain of that, but its script is far too sly to stop there. When our heroes hole up in the abandoned Monroeville Mall, the place feels like a cornucopian playground; one sequence in the film may well be the most appealing portrait of mall life ever set to celluloid:
It might not be so cornucopian in the long run, of course, given that we don't know whether anyone's still producing the goods that fill those shelves (and even if they are, they don't have any reason to deliver them to the mall anymore). But for this moment, Pittsburgh's post-apocalyptic future feels more utopian than dystopian—at least until the end of the sequence, when we see the zombie hordes outside trying to push their way in. And then yet another layer of meaning presents itself, one where most of the world is locked out of the wealth that a lucky few get to enjoy. At that point you might be tempted to sympathize with the zombies. (Indeed, when you get to the next picture in Romero's series, Day of the Dead, you're pretty much obliged to sympathize with the zombies. But that's another story.)
Dawn works perfectly well as an entertainment—it's suspenseful, exciting, and at times quite funny. But it's something more as well: a social satire that doesn't merely mock an institution but shows its appeal. Watching that four-minute sequence in 2017, a time when abandoned malls litter the landscape, I feel…nostalgic. It's an unusual emotion to have while watching a zombie movie, but Romero was always an unusual filmmaker.
Bonus argument-starter: The top five Romero movies:
1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
2. Martin (1978)
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
4. Day of the Dead (1985)
5. Knightriders (1981)
Yes, Knightriders. We're all poorer for the fact that Knightriders didn't spawn an entire genre of Arthurian biker flicks.