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OUR SCARY SUMMER: DAWN OF THE DEAD and the New American Malaise

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by Jed Mayer
June 12, 2014 4:35 AM
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As tag lines go, George Romero’s seminal zombie epic sports a pretty good one: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.”  As a thirteen year old, I had repeatedly stared at the lurid poster bearing these ominous words in the front windows of the Maplewood Mall multiplex in the weeks before the film was released in the summer of 1979.  But like most tag-lines, these were grossly misrepresentative of the film they advertised.  The notion of an overfull Hell spewing forth its denizens is too mythic, too Dantesque, by comparison with the abjectly modern and mundane world the film depicts.  A more fitting tag-line might have been taken from a speech given by President Jimmy Carter later that same summer: “Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift.  What can we do?”

Addressing what he described as a “crisis of confidence” in America, Carter’s July 15, 1979 address has been called “the malaise speech” for its focus on the country’s financial woes and lack of direction.  Though neither provide answers to the dilemmas America experienced at the end of the 1970s, both Carter’s speech and Romero’s film offer disturbing visions of a world succumbing to “paralysis and stagnation and drift,” visions that clarified and vitally shaped my own perception of the world, then and now.

Now that we are inundated with zombies, in the movies and on television, it’s hard to remember how off-the-wall Romero’s film seemed at the time.  There was something both funny and disturbing about seeing monsters that looked more or less like ordinary people, though well past their “sell by” date.  Massed together in vast hordes, these creatures, stupid and slow-moving on their own, collectively assumed the contours of a nightmare, one that hadn’t been realized on such an expansive cinematic canvas before. 

Yet despite of all its originality and strangeness, Dawn of the Dead made sense to me, largely due to the fact that much of its action takes place in an enclosed shopping mall.  As a Minnesotan, I grew up in the land of malls.  The Mall of America may be the most massive example of my home-state’s mall obsession, but Southdale was the first mall of America, opened in 1956.  Many others followed, including the Maplewood Mall, where my family and friends experienced their own version of the uniquely American malaise evoked by Carter, and where I later saw Romero’s film.

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns," said Carter. "But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”  For all his failings, it’s hard to imagine a President since Carter having the guts to offer such an honest criticism of our country, verging on sacrilege against major tenets of the American commercial gospel.  This description of vacuous consumption is an apt description of zombie appetites—joyless and never satisfied—as well as of the situation in which the four human protagonists find themselves in Romero’s film. 

Holed up in the Monroeville Mall of Pennsylvania, an odd collection of refugees from the zombie apocalypse gradually form a community based on escapism and greed.  Sadly, escapism and greed are also at the core of the uninspired “solution” offered by Carter to our national dilemma.  Reducing the “growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation” to our dependence on foreign oil, Carter advocated using more coal, building a pipeline, and conserving what we’ve got until something better comes along.  At least Romero had the insight to foresee what the end result of this shortsighted thinking would be, as the horizon of possibilities gradually closes in on the film’s protagonists.

It’s easy to forget about the larger world when you’re in a mall, which offers a virtual environment catering to seemingly every consumer demographic.  The Maplewood Mall had two bookstores, three record stores, two hobby and gaming stores, eight cinema screens, and two video arcades: these so fitted my limited needs and consumer choices as a thirteen year old that I could hardly imagine what more the world could offer me.  It took me some time to realize that my consumer desires were not being catered to so much as created by the Mall itself.  As with the protagonists of Dawn of the Dead, what began for me and my family as an escape turned into a lifestyle.  The walkways were lined with trees and shrubs to create an illusory natural environment, and the utopian vistas of its vast central court, crossed by gently rising and falling escalators, resembled the sets of seventies sci-fi films like Logan’s Run, Futureworld and Rollerball.  In my eagerness to live in a virtual reality, whether through video-games, films, or malls, I somehow missed the point that these visions were meant to be dystopian. 

Watching the film now gives me a strange frisson.  Those muted earth tones, those defunct store-fronts with their period fonts, those broad lapels and flared pants worn by the mannequins: they resemble the lost iconography and ambient set-pieces of my youth, brought uncannily to life.  The film’s soundtrack consists largely of commercial background music of the period, what came to be called “library music”—LPs that could serve as a ready source of musical interludes to be played in the background of low-budget films, commercials, or educational videos.  The genre has become a popular one for collectors, largely because these virtually anonymous musical pieces provided the sonic backdrop of our collective past.  An unofficial soundtrack release collects many of these from Romero’s film, and for anyone who grew up in the 70s, listening to it is the aural equivalent of watching a super-8 movie of an average, anonymous day out of the past.

Dawn of the Dead is less a horror film to me than it is a distorted snapshot of my youth, one into which I still sometimes escape.  As the characters frolic through the Monroeville mall, indulging their consumer whims while zombies menace them from behind glass doors, I find the premise disturbingly seductive even as I recognize its abject futility.  It’s a fantasy I could never really experience, since even if there was some version of a zombie apocalypse, I wouldn’t want to be holed up in some mall of the twenty-first century: I only want to be alive in the mall of the 1970s.  The final irony is that my own response to the New American Malaise has been to retreat into nostalgia, but what I discover in watching films from the 1970s is an America hardly dissimilar from the one from which I’d hoped to escape.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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