We Don’t Need Another Zombie-Killing Hero: Political Horror in Dawn of the Dead (1978)

By Johanna Isaacson |

In the age of dying malls and zombie overkill does George Romero’s much discussed Dawn of the Dead still have something to tell us? The classic sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968) that stages a protracted battle between humans and zombies in an abandoned mall has been read as a lament for the end of the masculinized blue-collar worker and as a scathing indictment of consumerism. Or the film has been criticized (by Barry Keith Grant and others) for its lack of overtly feminist or left-wing protagonists. But it’s just this absence of positive heroes, feminist or otherwise, that makes Dawn so powerful. This negativity is not nihilistic, but revolutionary – Dawn is a film in which the riot itself is the protagonist. The temptation of our moment is to place our hopes for the left on charismatic leaders. Dawn reminds us that it is not heroic individuals but collective action that will star in our hoped-for future.

Dawn opens with a world devolved into chaos as the zombie apocalypse spreads. The plot that will ensue can be broken down into three parts: First, we get a sense of the chaos of Philadelphia where — as Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” diagnoses — forces of extreme authoritarianism take advantage of the zombie crisis to crush any facade of democracy. A mass genocidal program is ordered and media outlets continue to tell citizens to go to rescue points that are inoperative. Most tellingly, SWAT teams are deployed to violently evacuate a low-income housing project. There, they slaughter both the living and the undead with evident racist glee. In this first part we are introduced to the four characters we will follow throughout the film. Fran and Stephen work as mid-level staff in the media industry while Peter and Roger are members of the SWAT team. All of them, then, are complicit with the worst aspects of this totalitarian dystopia, and yet as we meet them they are all refusing their roles and planning their escape. The second part has the four characters flee the city in a helicopter and fly to a suburban mall, where they decide to hide out. In this part we see them effectively barricade the mall against the zombies and begin to enjoy the commodities on offer. Away from the collective struggles of the city, a gender divide instantly emerges, with the men leaving Fran behind while they imagine themselves as action heroes — reveling in the micro logistics of fighting off zombies. When they are not engaged in self-congratulatory battles they bask in the luxuries the mall has to offer. In the third part, crisis hits as a gang of motorcyclists raid the mall and go on a destructive rampage. Stephen sparks an all out war with the bikers and the ensuing destructive rampage makes waste of all barricades, setting the zombies loose in the mall. Stephen is turned and goes on to lead the zombies’ pursuit of Fran and Peter. After Peter briefly considers suicide, the two survivors escape via helicopter but this seems hopeless, as we know that most of the earth has been overrun by zombies and there is really nowhere to go.

As can be seen by this synopsis, the film’s four central characters are not heroes fighting monsters, but walking contradictions.

Dawn‘s mall, as palimpsest and ruin, exceeds a critique of consumerism. It is a place where shiny products, brightly colored plastic plants and meticulously arranged storefronts are inhabited by catatonic zombies, motivated only by the traces of social desire. Several times in the film, Peter insists that the zombies are attracted to the mall because of its irrepressible draw — it is a memory that persists after all other consciousness fails. This has been understood to speak to an all-encompassing consumerism that persists even after death. This is not wrong, but these structures of consumerist desire have a more primal relationship to memory. In his moment of post-revolutionary urbanism, Walter Benjamin sees the commodities of the shopping center as “wish images” that evoke both a persistence and repression of public memory, which “deflect the imagination” back to a “classless society.” [1] Even as these commodities are meant to swallow and repress revolutionary desire, they serve as its persistent reminder.

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In my reading of the contemporary implications of Dawn, this repressed insurgency is the film’s protagonist. The central characters are marginally related to this insurgency, reflecting class contradictions rather than heroic individualism. Their battle with the zombies is quixotic and humorous, riddled with false moves and morally compromised decisions. The zombies themselves are also abject bumblers, but as a collective they are an overwhelming terror, more than the sum of their parts.

The zombies’ habitual everyday behavior is comical — they slowly amble around the mall with marked purposelessness. But when they gather together for an attack, they become galvanized. This distinction is underscored by the way they are shot in their different states. When the four central characters are securing the mall, the zombies are filmed in full shots — that is, there is enough distance to see their full-bodied bumbling movements as they trip over escalators and plunge into fountains but we are close enough to see the campiness of their make-up. In short, they are not scary. Toward’s the climax of the film when the zombies finally corner Stephen in an elevator, they are filmed close up and with quick cuts so that individuals cannot be clearly distinguished. Now, the power of their collective gnashing and ripping overwhelms the viewer, and the unconvincing cheesiness of their make-up and movements are forgotten. This is the power of the crowd.

The film begins with these revolting undead hordes, not only in the form of the zombies but in the crowds that resist authoritarian responses to the zombie crisis. Early on we see African American and Puerto Rican tenants of an urban housing project resist law enforcement’s attempts to contain the zombie epidemic. In the moment of emergency, SWAT teams are released to slaughter the poor, who have refused to sacrifice their zombified kin. The stylization of the people’s clothes and hair as well as the cinematography in this scene connotes the backlash against militant Third-Wordlist groups of the sixties such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. As the SWAT teams throw tear gas and assault men, women, and children, the home-invasion/murder of Fred Hampton is evoked. Sporting bandanas, denim, long hair, and afros the high-rise dwellers fearlessly fight the heavily armed cops, who are openly racist. This is clearly about more than zombies, it is about insurgency and counter-insurgency.

This rebellion is mirrored by the media workers who sabotage a deadly television spectacle. The very first scene of the film takes place in a chaotic television station. A talk show is being filmed where talking heads are arguing about how to respond to the zombie terror. But rather than sit in thrall to the spectacle, the media staff are roiling. As in the scene at the high-rise, the look of the participants and the documentary style connotes the uprisings of the late sixties. The media workers are all long-long haired, bearded, plaid and denim wearing youth, and their feverish arguments bring to mind the impassioned debates seen in documentary footage of University occupations and protests. It is this collectivity that gives Fran her power in this moment. When she finds out that the higher-ups have been announcing false rescue sites and are sending hordes of people to their doom she “kills the supers” (turns off the supertitles) and directly refuses her bosses order to turn them on again. She then secretly airs his admission that the sites are inoperative.

Her whole stance in this scene is assertive and competent, but this is a function of her continuity with a collective. Later, after the retreat to the mall we will see her drained of this spirit.  The mall is an airless, futureless gilded cage where she eventually gives herself over to consumerism. Finally she goes full Stepford Wife — appearing in a flouncy flowered dress and lacquered make-up. Worse, she is silent and still, posed like a mannequin.

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So, in the first part of the film, the characters have some heroic potential, but that is a function of their relationship to collective political mobilization. All signifiers point to these crowds as signifying the revolutionary hopes of mass action in the sixties, and the despair that followed the end of this revolutionary period. As Fredric Jameson has argued, the uprisings during this period were global and radical, but they were followed with a retrenchment and reorganization of capitalism that built on the structures the sixties unleashed. The feelings of absolute possibility and creativity in the sixties were systematically harnessed to the unfreedom of markets and jobs that were “free” and “flexible” according to the needs of capital rather than the desires of the collective. The individualist hellscape of the eighties was built on the ruins of sixties sensibilities and desires, but it could not entirely eradicate that period. The zombies of revolt regularly arose and threatened the status quo.

The flight to the suburban mall (the quintessential sign of 1980s consumerism and white flight) then, represents this aftermath of collective action. The group that arrives in this barren fortress is no longer a collective but four individualized survivors clinging to their privilege. They band together but also form their own hierarchies, with Stephen, the one middle-class white man, sometimes belittling and subordinating Fran (a white woman), Peter (an African American man), and Roger (a white working class white man).

Once the quartet take refuge in the mall, Stephen consistently makes bad tactical decisions and becomes enthralled by commodities, and yet he exhibits an entitled sense of authority, as when he begins a war with a murderous biker gang (galvanized when they begin taking useless money from the mall) because “It’s ours. We took it.” At the same time he gaslights Fran into thinking her opinions and abilities are irrelevant, as when he expects her to be excited about the “stuff” — a word he reverently repeats — he has gathered from the mall, even though she has just been attacked by zombies. He sees himself as a heroic survivor and disparages the desire to survive in others, acting as a walking “great man” theory of history and monstrously trying to assert the difference between himself, the “survivor,” and others, “the looters.”

Along with the other men in the group, Stephen also immediately begins to systematically marginalize and exclude Fran, who soon finds out she is pregnant. Through this exclusion she becomes the unheralded Cassandra of the group. When she overhears the men discussing terminating her baby without consulting her, she’s not only disgusted by her treatment but also by the overall effect the mall is having on them accusing, “You’re hypnotized by this place all of you. It’s so bright and neat.”  Although Stephen is clearly under the mall’s spell he uses sexism against her as a cover for his own desire. When she urges him to leave he spits, “you were the one who wanted to set up house.”

The longer they stay in the mall, though, the more Fran becomes estranged from the possibility of a feminist politics. At the beginning she is assertive. When the men revert to a kind of animalistic patriarchy they systematically exclude her and she responds strongly:

I would have made you all coffee and breakfast but I don’t have my pots and pans…May I say something…I’m sorry you found out I’m pregnant because I don’t want to be treated any differently than you treat each other …and I’m not gonna be den mother for you guys and I wanna know what’s going on and I wanna have something to say about the plans. There’s four of us ok?

As she becomes more settled in the mall, though, she reverts into passivity and lassitude. After months in this torpor and as her pregnancy advances, we see a scene that is worthy of the feminist collage artist Barbara Kruger. First, Fran sitting expressionlessly in front of a maternity store. Cut to the men shooting at female mannequins in an ice rink. Flash to a portrait of servitude as Peter prepares a fancy dinner for Stephen and Fran, and then waits on them. Fran has clearly here given herself to a patriarchal, racist, hierarchical consumerist fantasy as the remains of the group (Roger is dead at this point) wile away the end of the world in shallow pursuits. She, like the rest of the group, is as far from a hero as it gets.

Fran takes a while to devolve into a mannequin, but the men’s devolution happens more immediately and definitively. The film seems to take on the clownish militaristic point of view of the men as it follows each of their micrologistic decisions in their exuberant and excessive battle with the zombies. The fact that the quartet are stuck in an existentialist Robinsonade with no exit is occluded and deferred by the meaningless details of their tactics and by the brutal glee of their battles. The film clearly sees this behavior as unheroic and laughable, offering punchlines to the men’s pyrrhic triumphs as in the scene where Peter and Stephen are looting a store for bread and they compare the sizes of their phallic baguettes. Cliched lines from action movies pepper the long, largely silent scenes of the men securing the mall: “Bastards. We got ‘em didn’t we? We got this by the ass.” The nicknames — “Flyboy” for Stephen and “Trooper” for Roger — further underscore this infantile broishness.  In nearly every scene, these menexemplify what Steven Shaviro calls “The macho paternalistic traits of typical Hollywood action heroes [which] are repeatedly exposed as stupid and dysfunctional.” [2]

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The men’s battle is hubristic and clownish, deflating any sense of the zombies as meaningful adversaries. Rather than symbolizing evil as a contrast to the heroic good of the survivors, the zombies are mirrors, repressions, and recrudescent public fantasies. They reveal, as David McNally argues, “the hidden secret of capitalism, its dependence on bondage.” [3] Yet, at the same time they signify an excessive, riotous, collective utopia. The zombie is a nod to corporeality in the face of a stultifying official culture that is “anti-sensuous” and a means to “tame bodies and desires, enclose property and personality, regulate labor and recreation, control festivity and sexuality.” [4] In this upside-down world, the grotesque, “bizarre, fractured, and oversized human body” overruns the previously groomed and tamed mall, laying waste to the orderly, rationalized, masculinized, sublimated symbolic order. [5] All this, of course, is deeply gendered. Even though the zombies are not all women, they are all feminized by their relation to the body, to irrationality, to excess.

It is this feminized excess that is the political power in this film, rather than the “heroic” antics of the would-be GI Joes. That is, we don’t need another hero — we need a zombie riot.

In this light, the explosive deaths of the zombies are a kind of joyous riot rather than a sign of individual heroism. In Dawn, the special effects ensure that we will have the full impact of what Mark Stevens calls “splatter capital.” The zombie deaths in the film are imbued with excessive and lurid gore exposing the “protracted mutilation” experienced by bodies under a repressive regime. The famous splatter scene in Dawn comes when a motorcyclist is enclosed by a group of zombies who rip open his stomach and gorge themselves with his intestines, reveling in tearing and fondling the bright red, stringy innards. In another post-sixties turn, these effects were designed by Tom Savini, who developed his craft through his experience fighting in Vietnam.

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This visceral violence illustrates the horizon of crisis capitalism where, as Sherryl Vint argues, there is an ongoing process of figuring out “who to ‘make live’ or ‘let die.’” [6] Zombies show the always-racialized, colonial, necropolitical dimensions of this process, embodying “that which is expelled… as dark and dirty.” [7] Zombies are the feminized cannibalistic savages that must be expelled to preserve “civilization” through arraying the militaristic, masculine, white forces of rationality against them.

The zombies, then, are surplus populations whose riotous rebellion is incomprehensible and unrepresentable. They are emblems of what I have been thinking of as “riot horror.” These are riotous, irrational and therefore feminized forces. They are a counter violence against structural violence, what Robin Wood sees in horror as the “inexorable return of the repressed,” [8] or as Barbara Creed has it, the abjection “which crosses or threatens to cross the ‘border.’” [9]

I name this violence “riot” after Joshua Clover’s periodizing argument that the riot has become a dominant form of resistance in our moment of feminized reproductive labor, deindustrialization, and economic crisis. It has taken precedence over the labor-centered strike that dominated an era of industrialization and production. While both strikes and riots have always been treated as a threat that must be socially managed, the riot form is particularly vilified for its association with disorder and violence. But, argues Clover, it is the riot’s excessiveness, when it “slides loose from the grim continuity of daily life,” that signals the possibility of “social contest” in a moment when social regulation appears impermeable. [10] The only weapon for those in this cornered situation of immiseration, Clover argues, is “die or fight,” that is, riot. [11]

Insofar as we are degraded and subjugated by capitalism, then, the zombies, as Peter declares, are us. Even after a long, tediously detailed battle with the zombies he admits: “They’re not after us, they’re after the place. They don’t know why. They just remember that they want to be in here.” While this is taken by many critics and viewers to refer to mindless consumerism — I say they are “us” because of their overall subjugation. This is why the film speaks to us in a moment where dead malls have become part of the landscape of ruin porn. In fact, then (1978) as now, most people are not able to afford the luxury goods on display in the mall except through incurring debt. The goods in malls are not simply signs of greed and shallowness, they are exoskeletal emblems of the social desire for what Kristin Ross calls “communal luxury,” the utopian drive for collective plentitude that capitalism perverts and exploits.

It is precisely by not having positive heroes that Dawn can show these structural impasses and potentialities in the current social order. It isn’t progress, but testimony to an attenuation in viewers’ imaginations that the later Dead films depict the protagonists as heroes. This positivity forces the viewer to admire these protagonists’ murderous slaughter of the zombies, watering down the monsters’ riotous utopian potential. Barry Keith Grant sees the remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990) as the most feminist of Romero’s Dead films because of the protagonist Barbara’s agential role. Grant characterizes the new Barbara’s professionalism as “defined by knowing one’s limits and abilities.” [12] She is better than men at her “job” of killing zombies because she is less egotistical and sentimental (i.e. better at affective labor). What this new Barbara is adept at is feminized labor. What she doesn’t do is refuse participation in this feminized labor.

And if we see Barbara’s professionalism as heroism, we ignore the oppression and riotous joy of the zombies. Yes, Barbara efficiently and professionally executes zombies — but the zombies themselves are, as Grant himself admits, ambiguous figures, as much victims as monsters. Does creating a heroine who efficiently and professionally destroys one after another of these brutes really exemplify the culmination of zombie feminism?

The beauty of the Dead movies is not their positive heroes but their gleeful and explicitly left-wing apocalypticism. By choosing the mall as the site for this apocalypse in Dawn of the Dead, Romero conjures a world redesigned for and by capital — a world, like the post-revolutionary Haussmannized Paris of the 19th century, built on “strategic embellishment” in the war against the poor– designed to neutralize militant barricades. However, this dystopian mall cannot destroy revolutionary desire. It is not the final word. Even as it is modern, it is already a ruin. Its own destruction is imminent in its rise. Individual heroes would only distract from this monumental tracking of a gleeful, excessive, necrophilic drive that can penetrate even the gated, sterile, commodity centers of modern suburbia. Not only can the revolution not be televised, it cannot be personified by (for instance) a strong (white, professional, sexy) woman.

No, the zombies themselves in all their feminized abjection and destructive, anti-heroic, exuberance must stand for the revolt to come. But don’t worry, as unrecognizable as they are, they are us.

Works Cited

[1] Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Belknap Press, 2002. 4.

[2] Shaviro, Stephen. “Contagious Allegories: George Romero.” Zombie Theory, edited by Sarah Juliet Lauro, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 10.

[3] McNally, David. “Ugly Beauty: Monstrous Dreams of Utopia.” Zombie Theory, edited by Sarah Juliet Lauro, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 124.

[4] McNally, 125.

[5] McNally, 125.

[6] Vint, Sherryl. “Abject Posthumanism: Neoliberalism, Biopolitics, and Zombies.” Zombie Theory, edited by Sarah Juliet Lauro, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 173.

[7] Vint, 173.

[8] Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, Edited by Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett, The Scarecrow Press, 2004. 123.

[9] Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” The Dread of Difference, edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 1996. 42.[7]

[10] Clover, Joshua. Riot – Strike – Riot: the New Era of Uprisings, Verso, 2016. 2

[11] “The Widening Gap Between The Working Class and the Proletariat: A Conversation with Joshua Clover.” Verso Blog. 27 March 2018, available atwww.versobooks.com/blogs/3711-the-widening-gap-between-the-working-class-and-the-proletariat-a-conversation-with-joshua-cloverAccessed 1 Dec. 2018.

[12] Grant, Barry Keith. “Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film.” Dread of Difference, edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 2015. 232

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