George Romero’s 1978 film “Dawn of the Dead” is often considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. But beyond the blood and gore, the film offers a scathing commentary on American society in the late 1970s. Through the lens of a zombie apocalypse, Romero critiques consumer culture, racism, and the decay of civilization. Let’s take a deeper look at the societal commentary of “Dawn of the Dead.”
Capitalism and Consumerism
One of the most overt criticisms in “Dawn of the Dead” is directed at American consumerism. The film’s opening scene takes place in a television newsroom, where reporters are discussing the zombie outbreak. In the background, we see monitors displaying ads for products like air conditioning and luxury apartments. The juxtaposition of horrific news with capitalist propaganda sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Later, the film’s protagonists take refuge in a shopping mall, which serves as a metaphor for consumerism and capitalism run amok. The zombies flock to the mall, as if drawn by some unconscious memory of their former lives as shoppers. The mall is full of goods, but the characters quickly begin to realize the futility of their quest for material comfort. They are surrounded by wealth, but in a world without order or structure, the things they once coveted mean nothing.
In this way, the mall becomes a microcosm of society at large. The characters futile attempts to live a “normal” life amidst the chaos reflects how consumer culture has supplanted human values in modern America. Romero indicates that people have become so preoccupied with material possessions that they have lost sight of what’s truly important – survival and human connection.
Racism and Prejudice
While “Dawn of the Dead” is primarily focused on consumerism and capitalism, the film also touches on issues of race and prejudice. The opening of the film includes a SWAT raid on a Philadelphia housing project, where the predominantly black residents are shown as being hostile and uncooperative with authorities. Later, when the characters arrive at the mall, they are joined by a black couple, who are shown to be resourceful and strong.
The inclusion of these characters points towards Romero’s belief in the universality of human experience – that people of all races and backgrounds can come together in times of crisis. However, the film also calls attention to the ways in which race and prejudice can exacerbate tension and division. In one scene, a white character argues with the black couple over whether they should allow other survivors into the mall, revealing the underlying racial biases that still exist in society.
In this way, “Dawn of the Dead” offers a nuanced exploration of race and prejudice, while simultaneously indicting the ways in which these issues can betray our shared humanity.
The Decay of Civilization
At its core, “Dawn of the Dead” is a story about the collapse of civilization. The world of the film is one in which the rules and norms that normally govern society – law enforcement, government, social customs – have all broken down. The characters are left to fend for themselves in a world that has become chaotic and unpredictable.
In many ways, “Dawn of the Dead” can be seen as a critique of the larger American society that was undergoing similar changes in the 1970s. Watergate, Vietnam, and the oil crisis had all eroded the public’s faith in government and institutions. The film reflects the feelings of disillusionment and uncertainty that many people felt during this time.
However, Romero also suggests that in the face of such challenges, individuals have the power to create their own communities and to forge connections with one another that transcend external circumstances. The characters in the film are able to find moments of camaraderie and even joy amidst the chaos, giving hope for a new, more connected form of society.
George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is a film that has endured over time both for its visceral horror and for its commentary on American society. By using the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse, Romero is able to critique consumer culture, racism, and the decay of civilization in a way that is both frightening and thought-provoking. Though the film is over forty years old, its message remains just as relevant today as it did in 1978.