Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dawn of the Shopping Dead

I wrote this one two years ago, but somehow "Black Friday" has only gotten more out-of-hand in that time.

It’s that time of year again: The annual post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping orgy known as “Black Friday.” Shoppers are expected to take to the malls and retail chains in droves this weekend, hoping to get early discounts on Christmas gifts.

Despite the economic recession and the fact that hundreds of Americans remain unemployed, retailers have beefed up their “Black Friday” promotions and advertisements. Popular stores at South Portland’s Maine Mall opened at 4:00 or 5:00 am Friday morning in anticipation of early shoppers hoping to be the first in line. (Wal-Mart and Old Navy opened at midnight.)

The National Retail Federation predicts 138 million shoppers will take advantage of Black Friday bargains, with an estimated 70 million preferring to do their shopping online. Should those numbers hold up, they will represent a slight increase in shopper turnout from last year.

It seems, despite the painfully slow economic recovery, we remain a nation of consumers. Indeed, one could view Black Friday as Day Two of a weekend-long binge-fest that starts with Thanksgiving. After gorging themselves with high-fat, calorie-loaded meat, gravy, pies and desserts, Americans then move on to overindulging on new laptops, cell-phones, Kindles and video games. The American feeding frenzy, the endless thirst for more, never ceases. George Romero was right: We are a nation of shopping zombies.

It is fitting then, that I recently re-watched Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—perhaps the best horror film to satirize consumer culture with the shoppers-as-zombies metaphor. Those themes are worth examining again in light of our recent Black Friday feeding frenzy.

(For purposes of clarity, I am referring to the original 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead—not Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake.)

In the sequel (what would be the first of many, for better or worse) to Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, the nationwide “zombie-plague” introduced in the first film has reached Doomsday proportions. All forms of local and federal government seem to have collapsed as the few remaining humans struggle to escape the mayhem.

Four such survivors take refuge in an abandoned (well, abandoned of all human life, anyway) shopping mall in the center of town. Though initially weary of how they will escape their fortified shelter (zombies in pursuit of the humans descend upon the mall, surrounding the outside), the group members quickly realize anything they need (food, clothes, medical supplies) is readily available in the empty mall stores, free for their taking.

Though judicious at first—“Let’s just take what we need,” one character suggests—the humans are unable to resist the temptation to grab expensive bottles of wine, fur coats, chocolate, and a TV. (At one point during their raid, the character of Roger walks by a store mannequin that bares an eerie resemblance to him.) Even during times of crisis, Romero seems to suggest, citizens cannot suppress their consumerist urges.

A key scene occurs when the group first arrives at the mall. Wondering what leads the zombies to aimlessly roam the empty mall’s corridors, the character of Stephen suggests they are drawn to it by “instinct.” “Memory of what they used to do?” he offers. “This was an important place in their lives.” Romero is never particularly subtle with his social observations, no. But the truth of Stephen’s statement nonetheless stings. Ironically, a number of Black Friday shoppers told local newspaper reporters how “important” the post-Thanksgiving shopping tradition was to their families.

What is interesting is the almost imperialist attitude the humans take toward the mall. Throughout the film, the mall is never a safe haven so much as it represents unoccupied space for the protagonists to conquer. In the film’s second-half, when a moronic group of bikers attempts to commandeer the mall, the humans fight them off to defend it. “It’s ours,” says a furious Stephen, as he fires at the goons. “We took it.” (The characters become particularly angered when the bikers begin helping themselves to the unguarded money in one store’s cash register.)

Finally, Dawn of the Dead, like all the films in Romero’s series, invites critical analysis of exactly who the undead are meant to represent.

Like many scholars, I choose to view Dawn’s zombies as the underprivileged poor, or some other minority group. Romero drives this view home in the film’s first-half, wherein a SWAT team descends upon the home of zombiefied Puerto Ricans. During the ensuing fight, one SWAT officer makes crude racist remarks, leaving viewers to wonder which group (the zombies, or the Latinos) his hate is directed at. (Perhaps both…?) Similarly, Romero’s more recent Land of the Dead (2005) further emphasizes the zombies-as-underclass theme.

Clearly, one could write a lengthy academic essay on the cultural themes Dawn presents us with. Indeed, what I have provided here is a brief overview of the film’s social insights. Though typically associated with Halloween, I find Dawn of the Dead highly appropriate (prescient even) for this Black Friday weekend.

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