ichard Petaccio 11/17/10 Dirmeyer My thesis focuses on the social commentary found in the second entry of George A. Romero’s “Living Dead Tetraology” Dawn of The Dead (1978), specifically on issues of the representation of race, class, culture and violence in the four films, and how these representations, along with the social critique evident in Romero’s work, change in response to the upheavals and developments which have occurred in the American social, cultural and political climate over the past four decades.
While many may assume that the blood, guts and the horror genre are the ingredients for mindless entertainment, George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is concrete proof that extreme gore and violence doesn’t always equal a dumb movie and that the two can make very nice bedfellows. Dawn of the Dead is used by Romero primarily as examine and critique the state of race and class issues in the United States, including the very consumer culture that feeds the industry.The plot of this film follows four survivors of the zombie apocalypse that has ensued after the events of Night of the Living Dead as they hold up in a shopping mall to try while the dead shamble aimlessly. However, this poses another problem, as once their home has been built up in the midst of the atrocities; will our hero’s be able to give up all that they have built? Dawn of the Dead is an epic view of a civilization in decline”.It is the violence at the heart of the American experience that Romero turns his critical eye towards in Dawn of the Dead, and the only way to adequately showcase it is through the extremes of exploding heads and splattering viscera. The movie, which takes place at the Monroeville Shopping Mall outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a biting satire of the modern consumerist way of life. It may also be considered a mocking portrayal of mankind’s persistent inability to cooperate or make decisions based on logic ather than emotion in the face of danger, a consistent theme throughout the entire Dead series.
The setting of Dawn of the Dead is “a follow-up on the zombie invasion that began in Living Dead, when, in Yeats’s classic phrase, ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world'” (McCarty 118). Romero takes full advantage of the opportunity provided by this location to parody American consumer culture.In fact, much of the film’s black humor derives from “the idea of the dead returning robotically to a mall where they once spent many happy hours,” particularly when coupled with “scenes of the living dead falling into fountains, stumbling on escalators, and clamoring for admission to department stores” (McCarty 119). There is a great deal of irony to be found in the fact that “three decades later our entire country is one big mall governed by a man who, responding to one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall it, urged its citizens to go shopping,” Nick Shuit (10).But Dawn of the Dead is more than just a zombies-at-the-shopping-mall critique of consumer culture, as elements of racism and class war are also included within its framework. In one of its opening scenes, “a SWAT team clears out a tenement building in Pittsburgh. The residents are primarily Puerto Rican and Latino, kept captive by the undead both within and without the building” (Rider 7). Despite the abject poverty of these residents, one of the police officers makes a statement reflecting what Stephen Harper calls “the film’s theme of material insecurity and envy” (5).
“Shit man, this is better than I got. Harper further observes that the tenement sequence “invites the audience to consider zombiedom as a condition associated with both racial oppression and social abjection and, therefore, sanctions socio-political interpretations of the film as a whole” (6).The tenement sequence also introduces the audience to two members of the film’s core quartet of protagonists, Ken Foree’s Peter and Scott Reiniger’s Roger, a pair of SWAT officers, one black, one white, who manage to remain civilized as their fellow officers “end up indiscriminately murdering residents and zombies, uttering racial epithets and generally being ysterical” (Rider 7). When Peter and Roger decide to leave the tenement and their posts in order to fend for themselves, they are both aware that military and civil authority has been stressed to its breaking point and that their best chance for survival can be found in separating themselves from organized society.
On the other side of the equation that makes up Dawn of the Dead’s quartet of heroes are Francine (Gaylen Ross), a television news producer, and Stephen (David Emge), the television station’s helicopter traffic reporter.Francine and Stephen, in fleeing the “safe” confines of the television studio, form a matched pair to Peter and Roger, but while Peter and Roger were escaping from the breakdown of civil and military power structures, Francine and Stephen are evading the collapse of rhetoric and dialectic. As they commandeer the station’s helicopter and fly off towards uncertain fates, a pair of experts argue the emotional dilemma before the television cameras, attempting to make sense of the zombie invasion. People aren’t willing to accept your solutions, Doctor,” shouts the first, “and I, for one, don’t blame them” (Romero).
“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them! It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill! ” (Romero). It does not matter to these experts that their audience is ever dwindling thanks to the zombie plague, their message becomes tantamount, their rhetoric central to their very identities. The message of the second expert is one of “feed the zombies or kill them, but decide on a course of action. There’s no middle ground.Learning to coexist with the apocalypse outside your door is not living, it’s just a short postponement of death” (Williams).
“By abandoning their responsibilities of an ever-collapsing society and striking their own path, Stephen, Francine, Roger and Peter have decided on a course of action that may be only postponing death, they are at least fighting against the increasingly dangerous zombie menace. (Ska)” Once the four protagonists arrive at the shopping mall, however, they become complacent. Through this complacency, Romero “shows how hollow a solution commercial culture really is.The survivors become bored, even when faced with a plethora of products at their disposal” (Rider 7). At first the mall, once it is secured and fortified against the zombies, seems like a paradise.
Our heroes “run amok through the stores, indulging in the same fantasy of unlimited consumption parodied in the zombies’ behavior” (McCarty 119). This complacency is the undoing of Roger, who is bitten by a zombie at the climax of the film’s truck barricade sequence, and becomes a zombie himself, leaving “the party of settlers […] at a loss as to what to do next” (McCarty 119).The truck sequence is also notable for Romero’s use of visual style throughout, and its use of “close ups, medium shots, long shots, visceral, disorientating angles, rhythm and tension potentials” (Frumkes) serves to make the impact of Roger’s mortal injury even more pronounced and hope-shattering. “Indeed, this hopelessness is the major framework of Romero’s zombie trilogy,” comments John McCarty, “wherein goals as we’ve come to know them cease to exist. Money is useless.Nobody cares what car you drive. And staying alive means being constantly engaged in a fight against the undead. ” (119).
That new threat which complicates the lives of our heroes is a “gang of marauding bikers which, in the movie’s violent climax, seeks to take over the mall” (Harper 1). With this new complication, “our heroes, having defeated the immediate threat of the zombies for the time being, are now faced with something worse-their fellow humans” (McCarty 119).In a masterful twist, Romero plays the biker invasion as a chance for the audience to root for the zombies as our protagonists’ last line of defense against the bikers, showing that, while the zombies are not necessarily “good,” they are the opposite of which is advantageous to our enemies”.
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