Zombie Politics and Social Unrest: Beneath the Rotting Flesh of Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead poster


VHS Revival chews through the second instalment of George A. Romero’s seminal undead trilogy


Upon release, Dawn of the Dead was dismissed by many as a mindless exercise in gore and violence, and it is easy to see why. In many respects, that’s exactly what the movie is: a fun, comic book-style splatterfest which relishes in a plethora of creative kills at a time when the manner of a character’s death was somewhat peripheral. Since ‘Dawn’, horror has waded through so much blood and viscera that even the most prudish of movie goers have developed at least some level of desensitisation, while others have become so numbed out that they are drawn to explicit violence the way Romero’s zombies are drawn to living flesh.

In today’s graphic climate, the sight of a zombie having the top of his head sliced off by a helicopter propeller might seem pretty tame, but in 1978 it was enough to close people’s minds off to the subtleties that exist beneath the bloodshed, the sight of two rabid children being machine gunned to death still a shocking sight to behold. But the second of Romero’s famed zombie trilogy is much more than an exercise in carnage, and those who are unable to recognise as much probably have more in common with the movie’s undead cast than they might care to imagine.

Dawn Zombie

Before we get into all of that, let us first take a moment to celebrate the imagination and execution of the practical effects on show. This was Tom Savini’s second credited movie as make-up and special effects man, and it proves the perfect platform for his innovative brand of gore and obsession with all things grisly, as well as acting as a springboard for a career that would span five decades. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Savini had experienced a much more literal version of the walking dead, and as well as being a useful addition to Romero’s political entourage, it is likely he had witnessed some rather graphic incidents during his time in service, experiences that no doubt had a bearing on his similarly graphic work.

Mall Announcement: Attention all shoppers. If you have a sweet tooth, we have a special treat for you. If your purchases in the next half hour amount to five dollars or more, we’ll give you a bag of hard candy free! For the kiddies, or to enjoy yourself. So hurry and do your shopping!

The manner of the deaths in ‘Dawn’ were way ahead of their time, and though somewhat tarnished by the kind of blood that appears to be straight out of a paint can, the rubbery, chewed limbs still hold up today in their ability to make one cringe, and are perfectly suited to the movie’s often comic tone and flip approach to violence. Romero’s minuscule budget had an unquestionable bearing on the overall look and feel of the movie. A multitude of blue-faced extras is the most obvious example. Savini was purportedly unhappy with the outcome of some of his work – the faces were originally supposed to be grey to complement the movie’s predecessor Night of the Living Dead – but Romero seemed at ease with these amateurish oversights, and to some extent even encouraged them.

Dawn Cast

The shoot itself, filmed over four months in Pittsburgh and Monroeville, Pennsylvania, was something of a ramshackle experience which only seems to add to the aura of chaos and disorder of a society facing total dissolution. Romero purportedly used the same stunt dummy throughout filming, while Savini himself would deputise as stuntman, a fact that reduced him to operating from a golf cart for days on end after taking a particularity nasty fall. Savini’s friend, the second of the movie’s two stunt volunteers, managed to crash face-first into a ceiling after a badly planned, banner swinging set-piece. Extras were each paid twenty dollars for starring in the movie, the gang of pillaging bikers who run roughshod over the living dead actually members of the Pagan’s Motorcycle Club. All budget-squeezing decisions for sure, the kind that were required since members of the zombie cast would go off drinking in a local bar, causing almost $7,000 in damages after stealing a golf cart and crashing into a marble pillar. Those were certainly different times.

All interesting facts that add to the overall experience, but it is those other elements that make Romero’s zombie features so infinitely superior, the kind that lurk cutely beneath the film’s visual embellishments. The director’s first undead effort, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead is notorious for its social commentaries, touching on subjects such as racism and the Vietnam War, as well as being the first movie to cast an African American in a leading role. Dawn of the Dead is just as scathing in its political brand of satire, and though the themes of the first movie were perhaps more potent at a crucial time for American culture, those on display here are much more varied, and the movie pulls no punches with its critique of American society as a whole. The fact that it masqueraded as a brainless and violent zombie flick that was ‘beneath’ traditional audiences was the biggest irony of all.

Dawn Main Cast

By 1978, the counterculture movement was well and truly over, and the government had begun looking closer to home for a threat to national security. Following the widespread protests which contributed to the end of the Vietnam War, America took a hard-line on the recreational drugs that had become synonymous with social movements, a subject that would be used to establish fear and paranoia in American society and justify acts of police violence that would put the power back in the hands of capitalism, which required a much-needed boost following the financial disaster of a doomed and unprofitable war. In fact, prison was a cost-cutting device for the US government. Prisoners provided free labour while receiving none of the benefits expected from workers in a democratic society. This would lead to tighter laws on drugs such as crack cocaine by the early 1980s, which was cheap and readily available to poorer minorities, while laws on the distinctly affluent powder cocaine were loosened. This meant that those who were viewed as peripheral to society could easily be locked away and made useful.

As leading social dissident Noam Chomksy would explain in a 1998 interview with John Veit, “Poor people are basically superfluous for wealth production, and therefore the wealthy want to get rid of them… Also, this is a terrific work force. We hear fuss about prison labour in China, but prison labour is standard [in the US]. It’s very cheap, it doesn’t organize, the workers don’t ask for rights, you don’t have to worry about health benefits because the public is paying for everything. It’s what’s called a ‘flexible’ workforce, the kind of thing economists like: you have the workers when you want them, and you throw them out when you don’t want them.”

Wooley [in reference to the apartment building residents]: How the hell come we stick these low-life bastards in these big-ass hotels, anyway? Shit, man! This is better than I got!

The opening scene of ‘Dawn’ takes place in an apartment block in the inner cities and echoes the racist brutality that symbolised the so-called war on drugs, which statistics suggest was more about putting people in jail than it was about clearing the streets of narcotics. Poor, ethnic minorities were the targets, the same who had served their countries and who had acquired their addictions as a way to combat the horrors of war, an affliction that would render them useless as functioning cogs in the lower processes of capitalism. In the movie, Swat teams have been sent to enforce martial law after its residents – also minorities – refuse to give over their dead, and some of those SWAT team members, caught in the fervour of racial propaganda, use their authority as an excuse for all-out racism.

Dawn of the Dead 1978

Another, perhaps less noticeable social critique can be found in the pregnant Francine’s narrative, who often contemplates suicide as the tireless mass of zombies, still in their ominous slow-moving form, linger and stumble upon our survivors with a dumb inevitability. Francine’s predicament comes in the wake of a high-profile lawsuit which resulted in the passing of abortion rights for women, which is still a contentious subject in the 21st century. It is perhaps worth noting that an alternate edit actually had Francine pursue her suicidal contemplations by walking into a helicopter’s blade. The head cast made for the scene was instead used to pull off the movie’s exploding head shot, one that became something of an innovator in the graphic stakes in American horror cinema. Whatever Romero touched in his 70s pomp turned to gold.

This is all very dark and serious stuff, but Romero is not the kind of director who would mire his audience in misery, and the comic relief comes in the form of perhaps the movie’s most prominent criticism, that of the nature of capitalism itself. It is no coincidence that the majority of Dawn of the Dead is set in the confines of a mall. As well as being a fun and pragmatic location for a film of its nature, it is also the perfect window into that nation’s political climate, and the rise of one of mankind’s most sophisticated forms of mass control: consumerism.

Francine Parker – What are they doing? Why do they come here?

Stephen – Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Consumerism has been a form of indoctrination since the early 1800s, a subject that was discussed in Parliament by British MP Rigby Watson on June 10, 1833 as slavery abolition was being prepared in Jamaica. Those in power depended on slavery to maintain the kind of financial disparity that favoured the wealthy, as they would throughout history across the globe and still continue to do so. In fact, there was a concerted effort, documented in parliament, to maintain that slavery beyond the moral obstacle of abolition. As Rigby would proclaim, “To make [the soon to be former slaves] labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what once were luxuries, gradually came, among all classes and conditions of men, to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the negroes had to go through, and this was the sort of education to which they ought to be subject in their period of probation [after emancipation].”

That philosophy is still in operation today as a way to maintain what Noam Chomsky refers to as ‘wage slavery’, consumer goods a form of motivation for people to work longer hours in low-paying jobs that provide no sense of fulfilment. Of course, simple wants like tobacco are now the least of it. Today’s motivations come in the form of planned obsolescence, new model iPhones and laptops mass produced in ways that are harmful to the planet, while children crave the latest fashions for fear of being bullied, and it all plays into the hands of the world’s leading corporations. By now our desires are much more irrational, the seeds far more sophisticated. MPs no longer sit in parliament discussing how best to control the population because that control has long been ingrained and no one is free from such superficial trappings. Besides, those battles are now won in the advertising arena.

Today malls are everywhere, most notably at the click of a mouse pad, but back in 1978 they were a relatively new phenomenon, and the perfect setting for a cast of braindead wanderers who spend their time clawing at nothing in particular as if from some intangible, deep-rooted instinct to consume. At the time, such a concentrated consumer zone must have come as something of a shock; a delightful convenience to some and a worrying glimpse at the future for others. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead seems to take the latter stance. As a public address system blurts out a recording which lists the various offers of the day, one zombie sits in a make-a-wish fountain staring inanely at a handful of pennies, while his flesh-hungry counterparts claw and gawk at department store windows, almost recalling the days when their mindlessness was not only accepted, but encouraged.


Dawn of the Dead Logo



Written by Edison Smith Editor-in-Chief

Science Fiction Writer, Horror Enthusiast, Scourge of Plutocracy, Creator of vhsrevival.com

5 comments

  1. Very good piece, Cedric! I have actually been to the Monroeville mall. For a couple of years in the 80s before transferring to another college, I went to school in the Pittsburgh area. Romero is a god there. Some people actually consider this film to be his best effort out of the Living Dead movies particularly for the social commentary.

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  2. Thanks, Susan.

    In terms of social commentary, I would probably have to agree with you. I do have a soft spot for Night of the Living Dead however. I may even prefer it as a movie, but not because it is in any way superior.

    I saw a documentary once and got the feeling people regarded him as a god there. They were almost like zombies themselves. 🙂

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  3. Truly bloody fantastic read and execution of narrative and insight to the film and what was taking place during that time in America and these groups and has been really brought together incredibly well from the antidote of things that happened during the making of the film thrown in there for good measure.. a superb read for a film that contributed to what people though was passing wind ended up as a new pair of trousers during the main presentation.

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    1. Cheers, Darren.

      It’s always nice to receive such high praise from true fans because I know how dear this movie is to people and if you’re not on game they’ll let you know as much – and rightly so.

      What can I say? Groundbreaking is not the word. Romero’s various social commentaries really set his work apart, and they’re always delivered with acerbic wit in a way that is fun and entertaining, the true mark of a genius when communicating such grave social and political messages.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article and appreciate the feedback.

      Like

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