Dawn of the Dead Malls

Friday A/V Club: George Romero and his zombies


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.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another installment that says a bit about zombie movies, go here.)

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  1. Romero wasn’t no commie. Pittsburgh didn’t have commies back then. GO PENS!

  2. Malls are dead… Long live malls!!!

  3. Well, it may be argued that malls ate brains too.

  4. Pfft, I will never give kudos to anything Martin Lawrence did. Particularly his dreadful TV show. Terrible list.

  5. When I saw Dawn of the Dead on video, the setting was familiar because my family used to take us to the Monroeville Mall when it was new while we were visiting aunts & uncles in Pittsburgh, McKeesport, & Brownsville, because we used to stay at Conley’s Motel, & later the Holiday Inn, on Route 22. Before the mall, the Miracle Mile was the big shopping center there.

  6. Bonus argument-starter: The top five Romero movies:

    Not The Crazies?! You’ve started an argument w me there.

    1. I’ve never seen The Crazies. It’s the biggest gap in my Romero-watching.

  7. Day of the Dead–the THIRD chapter in the trilogy– was absolutely fascinating to anyone with an interest in philosophy/history of science, for (at least) two reasons:

    1. It beautifully characterizes the tension between the public and the scientific community during the HIV-AIDS pandemic (it was made in 1985, when the pandemic was at its height)–the public stridently demanding “when are you gonna show us something we can use?” and the scientists trying in vain to explain that science is a slow, uncertain process. It’s especially relevant to our situation now, where, in our frustration with the experts’ failure to deliver satisfactory solutions to our problems (slow economy, expensive health-care, terrorism, etc.) we have elected the supreme non-expert who exults in ignorance and has a non-solution to every problem. See here:


    (comment continues below)


      2. Day of the Dead reveals something scientists do called “proof of principle”. This means exploring a strategy which MIGHT, CONCEIVABLY solve a problem, but is not remotely practical. Sort of like “we should get some eggs, so we could have ham and eggs, if we had any ham (which we don’t)”. The “Star-Wars” missile defense people were guilty of this in the 1980s: claiming success based on rigged, ultra-simple model experiments of “hitting a missile with another missile” in situations which had no bearing on the real world. The scientist in Day of the Dead has an idea which could, in principle, solve the zombie problem: he has a way to make zombies docile and obedient. It really works! But it’s completely impractical, for a reason which becomes obvious during the movie. See here (WARNING: SPOILER):


      The movie also includes one line which totally sums up Romero’s whole philosophy, which underlies all his movies, and also seems especially appropriate now: “Civility must be rewarded, Captain. It it’s not rewarded, then there’s no use for it. There’s just no use for it at all!”

      RIP, genius.

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