Written by John Edward Betancourt
There are few films, in my humble opinion as brilliant as George Romero's absolute masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead. This iconic zombie movie truly changed the nature of the genre for years to come. It was one of the first to put horrific violence front and center and while at times the special effects may not be as revolutionary as what you see on The Walking Dead, there would be no story of Rick Grimes without this motion picture.
But what makes Dawn such a masterpiece is that it is one of the few horror films out there that manages to layer in so much. At times it is pure black comedy, at times it is pure splatter entertainment, but what matters most is the fact that this motion picture was visionary in looking at how mankind deals with disaster, and quite frankly what truly matters most to so many, the things we possess in our lives.
Now the look at how we handle disaster is nothing new to Romero's work, and the endless debates about what should be done with the living dead are easy to compare to the real world, so quite frankly we won't spend too much time discussing that today. No, our focus will be the message of consumerism and materialism that the film put forth. One that in many ways predicted the landscape of our society for years to come and it stays true today.
Of course the mall is the most obvious symbol of this satire, it's their shelter, it has everything they could ever want and indeed it provides for the characters, but that's the trick to this tale. The mall isn't the message, the mall is more a terrifying character unto itself in the film. An empty husk of concrete, abandoned and ruled by the living dead as the society it provided goods and services to disappears, replaced by abominations. No the real magic in the story and the social commentary is what all the human characters do when it comes to the safety of the mall being threatened, simply because the decision to stay there makes sense, the decision to defend the mall does not.
The fact of the matter is, by the third act, mankind and the world as we know it, is gone. The dead now rule the earth, which means our main characters, are no longer fugitives who have violated martial law and stolen a helicopter. They are free to live their lives as they see fit. Yes the threat of the dead remains, but they could find another sanctuary, or build one on their own and completely start over in life, but instead they choose to defend the mall. The stuff within, which outside of the food no longer has meaning, or value, is the subject of a grand battle, that never needs to happen.
That's the brilliance of the film right there. They could all leave, they've already lost so much, but instead they battle it out for a bunch of stuff on shelves, making it a matter of who it truly belongs to. In this case, it belongs to the dead, but the battle costs every human so much in the end. That's where the message remains relevant. For one it shows the savageness of man, our ability to breakdown when unregulated from rules, but again, the stuff matters most. Every Black Friday image we see, or pulses of people waiting for the hot new product was Romero's vision, who saw a paradigm shift in our way of life after years of war and civil unrest that we would hide in these things and well...become no different than the dead.
It's a message that is heavy handed yes, and granted doesn't always apply since some products actually do improve our lives and as much crap as we can talk about cell phones, they have revolutionized the world and how we communicate. But either way, the message and the dangers of the stuff we so covet is still a powerful one to say the least, and it also makes the film that much more melancholy. In fact I will never forget those final images, with the dead roaming the mall as musak blares over the speakers, signaling the end of the world and that final battle for the world gone by, was all for nothing. Truly this is still the finest zombie film ever made, and truly my favorite film of all time.