I’ve dreamed about this scenario my entire life: some vaguely-defined crisis strikes the area in which I live, giving me and a select group of friends (OK, actually nubile ladies) no choice but to hole up in the local shopping mall and survive within for months. Lock all the doors! Sleep in the Macy’s display beds! Eat the giant chocolate chip cookies before they go bad!
I’m not kidding; since I was a little kid, entering my first mall and gazing up and about in wonder, I’ve plotted out my survival strategies for just such an emergency. (Truly a child of the Eighties here.) Little did I know, however, that a classic horror movie dealt with this exact situation the year after I was born!
It’s true: I’d never seen George Romero’s 1978 opus Dawn of the Dead before this year. Obviously I knew about its towering influence over modern, zombie-obsessed culture—even more than Night of the Living Dead, Dawn was the gateway drug for everything we’ve seen since. I’d read odes to its brilliance and influence . . . but never knew the meat of the movie depicts four desperate survivors pulling my mall-as-shelter-from-the-apocalypse scam. If someone had told me that was the plot of the movie, I can assure you I’d have seen it much, much earlier.
. . . And so I found myself comparing mental notes with the protagonists of the film as they secure the mall, then gleefully loot it. Certain differences made themselves instantly manifest; no mall I ever visited featured an armory on par with Dawn’s gun shop. But it was mostly reassuring to know someone else had managed to express the truth of this primal human desire: to find the literal, paradoxical Eden we all seek. A safe place with no laws. That’s really what my or anyone’s mall-as-fortress fantasy is about.
This October I’ve watched and researched horror movies spanning decades, from the 1930s to this very year, and it has been fascinating to observe how the critical consensus gradually, inexorably bends to the will of the culture at large. Dawn of the Dead is relatively tame by today’s standards, of course, though it was reviled in some quarters at the time for being violent and disgusting. This strikes the modern viewer (this one, at least) as being almost precious, as the vast majority of the movie is a lusty romp through a shopping mall cleared of the undead. Most of Dawn makes the zombie apocalypse seem fun.
I think that’s what really got to critics of the day, even as many of them named Dawn one of the best movies of the year: the unrestrained nihilism of the film. Our survivors aren’t trying to find a cure to the zombie plague; instead, they absently watch emergency broadcast TV footage of a doctor and a host screaming at each other over “solutions” that will never be realized. It’s just the background noise to their dinner, much like my family kept TV on during Desert Storm just in case some really important news dropped and we needed to rush from the kitchen to see. Nor are our survivors trying to find a safe haven; having stolen a helicopter to escape Philly, they self-identify as thieves who actually have to avoid other survivors to keep their ill-gotten gains. And when the end comes, it’s not directly because of the zombies—it’s a marauding motorcycle gang. Other living, breathing humans. This kind of nihilism is so common as to be clichéd today. But it must have come as a crude shock back in ’78.
One “those were the days” note—I love it that, as their chopper flies over the mall, one of our protagonists wonders aloud what that is. I suppose the enclosed shopping mall was a new enough concept in 1978 that this was crucial information to impart to the viewer. I also love that George Romero came up with the idea for this movie whilst being taken on a tour of the very mall in which he filmed Dawn.
And one last note: the opening scene, in the Philadelphia newsroom, made me laugh out loud. Take a look at the picture below. Scarves, mustaches, studiously unkempt beards. . . . No, that’s not a Brooklyn coffee shop in 2015. That’s 1978, y’all!