“Never mind what’s been selling, It’s what you’re buying." - Fugazi
“Never mind what’s been selling, It’s what you’re buying." - Fugazi
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
IMDB Synopsis: Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Stars: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross
When we buy without thinking, motivated perhaps by a low, -low price, lust, or naked appetite, we are guilty of Zombie Consumerism. But the parallels to sustainability and zombies don’t have to die there. From gorefests like Quentin Tarantino’s and Robert Roderiguez’s 2007 double feature Grindhouse, to classic literature mash-ups like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to freeway sign hacks – “Warning: Zombies Ahead” – it’s clear that zombies represent something current in our culture. And, as media critic Marshall McLuhan said, “that which is current creates currency,” so our zombie fetish can be seen as having a kind of value. And acquiring this zombie fetish as a lens can provide us with a deeper look at our relationship with sustainability.
We start near the beginning of zombies in pop culture. Not the actual beginning, which would be Victor Halperin’s 1932 White Zombie, but near it. George Romero’s zombie movie Night of the Living Dead (1968) has been critically and classically read as a commentary on race -relations. The movie’s African American hero is seemingly mistaken (by a white redneck) for a member of the undead in the movie’s last scene. In 1978 Romero returned with part two of the ultimate zombie trilogy with Dawn of the Dead. True to his intent to shoot a zombie film every decade that would reflect modern culture, in Dawn, Romero keeps pace with our ever-changing American psychographics by turning his blade to consumerism. This late seventies flirt with anti-capitalism is a perfect place to begin a zombie guided dialogue about sustainability.
In Dawn, a band of heroes hide out in a mall, gorging themselves on free food as the zombies pound at the mall doors. It’s a perfect mirror image of modern Black Friday mall sprees. There are scenes of mass consumption as the survivors play with a pastoral sense of American bounty – everything at their fingertips to consume for free forever. And the zombies? They want in on it too. The thinly veiled undercurrent of the movie is revealed as two main characters ponder why thousands of zombies are stumbling around the mall parking lot, looking for ways to get in:
[Francine and Stephen are observing a zombie horde move towards the mall from the safety of the roof]
Francine: “What are they doing? Why do they come here?”
Stephen: “Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” Later, Peter says “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”
Like brain lust, shopping is in the zombie’s blood. As in the current sustainability movement, the “mall as hope” is a clear tope in Dawn. Almost gleefully, one survivor yells to others like a teenager in a John Hughe’s film, “we’re going to the mall!” as they escape from the undead.
The visual metaphor of zombies consuming their way through endless isles of low-priced, but culturally-costly goods without concern for their impact, save their own desire, is not a stretch. Spend time at any low- cost, big box retailer in the pre-dawn hours, and Romero looks like a sustainability prophet.1
Romero was pointing out that shopping malls are important cultural spaces, like churches. From coming of age films (Clueless, Mallrats) to chase and fight scenes (Blues Brothers, Terminator 2), the mall is an important social space that often forwards cinematic (and political) plots. It’s part fetish, and now the fetish has become images of the decaying mall. Compare the malls in this original Dawn to its remake in 2004, and there is little structural difference, aside from new anchor stores. The malls, the shoppers, and the zombies (aside from speed) haven’t changed much in 30 years. But culture change takes time…or apocalypse. Both work, one faster than the other.2
In the movie, the mall serves cross-purposes – to feed the consumptive hunger of the unthinking zombie and as a safe haven for the living. The irony is easily spotted as the survivors go binge-looting and consume nearly everything in the mall and must eventually find a new place and new source of food (or become a food source). It’s a bit on the nose as a commentary on consumption. To the survivors, it is at once the luxury of a shopping spree and a prison. As men are filling wheelbarrows with appliances, Francine says of the mall, “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!” But that’s not how shopping works psychologically.
Inside the mall it is unconscious consumerism. Outside the mall it is just the un-conscious. Consumerism in Dawn’s mall is just as liberating as in today’s shopping escapism – it numbs the pain. Indeed, today it replaces mental healthcare – Retail Therapy.3 And if shopping can be painted as part of the solution to climate crisis, then by all means, keep calm and carry on shopping. It is escapism and delusion and hungry ghosts. All of this of course is wrapped up in the sustainability strategy of “shopping our way out of climate crisis” and of replacement shopping – buy this not that. We’re told that voting with our wallet is the only activism that corporate America will listen to. But, of course, “voting with our wallet “is a corporate communication strategy. It’s their rule, their only rule: consumption for the sake of consumption.4
Ultimately, in Dawn, leaving the mall or not having access to a mall is synonymous with death. (No sprawl. No life. Know sprawl. Know life.) So when zombies attack, I hope to be a victim of sprawl and have a Wal-Mart within running distance. Of course the point Romero is making is that the difference between the mall-dwelling survivors and the mall-thirsty undead is blurry at best. In Romero’s view, we are they, they are we. But who creates whom?
Moreover to the comparison, in popular culture (as opposed to Haitian anthropology, Wade Davis, etc.), most zombies have a common origin story: man’s hubris creates some kind of virus or environmental accident that (1) makes the dead undead; or (2) makes the living undead. Either way, man always makes zombies. It’s not a chicken or the egg riddle. As in climate crisis, we are the makers of our own demise. In Bio Zombie (1998), director Wilson Yip’s take on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead set in Hong Kong, the zombies are created by soda pop tainted with Iraqi bio-weapons.
Control of the environment is as familiar a theme in zombie movies as it is in sustainability. Bioengineering, genetically modified food, clon– ing and now god-like climate engineering and zombies all seem to stem from the same master. Why inconvenience culture with sustainable actions when you can engineer the science around it? What could go wrong?
Even the zombie taste-buds can be used in this lens. The consumption of brains is an apt metaphor for both the movies and the dumbing down of America through advertising – think about Hulu’s playful ad campaign 4 This is also the ideology of the cancer cell according to Edward Abbey. Owning up to its role in culture – turning brains into mush. But really, hunger is about appetite. And as in the modern sustainability movement, Zombie Consumerism is about appetite for more. Not better. Just more. Zombies reproduce through consumption of the living, which serves as
a nearly endless supply of brothers and sisters. Consider earth’s current human population explosion as a metaphoric never-ending supply of both brains and new zombies (as consumers to consume). As one character in Dawn says when warning survivors of the process:
“It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill.”
It’s a never-ending supply of both consumables and consumers (a Capi– talist’s dream and the math behind the dream of infinite growth). But, of course, the perishable items (bread and bullets) in the mall run out. And when they do, survivors need to make very difficult choices. Where’s the next mall? What place do we pillage next? An island seems like a good idea until House of the Dead (2003), Zombie Island (2005), Rezort (2015) explore that folly.
Just like in the zombie world, sustainability and survival are interchangeable. When the resources for survival run out and the malls have been picked clean, then we will reach for sustainability as a final solution. Or we will eat brains.
1 You can find 69 different super cheap Zombie-related items for sale at WalMart.com.
2 Quick side note on zombie dexterity: It has been argued that the theatrical shift from slow moving zombies to fleet-footed gymnastic zombies as in 28 Days Later and the Dawn 2004 remake is a reaction to the digital age and speed of computers, or to continue the analogy, digital as opposed to contact transmitted viruses.
3 See Time Magazine’s April 2013 Article “Is Retail Therapy for Real? 5 Ways Shopping Is Actually Good for You”