The last word (in movies, anyway) on consumerism | Bleader

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The last word (in movies, anyway) on consumerism

Posted By on 11.29.12 at 06:52 AM

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This was an important place in their lives.
  • "This was an important place in their lives."
First released in 1979, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead remains the definitive filmic statement about American consumerism. Little needs to be said about the visual motif of brain-dead zombies swarming around a shopping mall; it's a perfect metaphor for consumer culture at its worst. In the recurring image, shopping has been internalized to the level of base impulse, no longer attached to material need or even want—it's simply what people do when they no longer have the power to think. No matter how many times I see the movie, I'm overcome with bitter laughter when David Emge's newsman comments gravely on the horde that's trying to break into the shopping center he and his friends have transformed into a fortress. "[They're driven by] memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."

Many have tried to claim Dawn as an anticonsumerist parable (as an undergraduate, I was one of them), but the movie's greatest quality may be its open-endedness. The mall is an idiot's paradise, sure, yet it also provides the heroes with everything they need to survive—food, clothes, lodging, weapons. In fact, Dawn often plays as a consumerist fantasy, with the four protagonists enjoying free reign over an entire mall's worth of goods. (It's like an apocalyptic variation on the great Buster Keaton comedy The Navigator.) The fantasy turns unexpectedly poignant when the characters put together a New Year's holiday in the final act: no matter how extravagant their celebration gets, there remain all around them more gifts than they could ever give or use.

In this sequence, Romero quaintly visualizes one of the looming fears of the nuclear age: that we've created a civilization that will outlive us (the model of planned obsolescence central to latter-day consumerism may exist to help us forget this fear). When presented with the alternative of no human activity at all, shopping seems profoundly human—an example of free will in action. The sentiment here marks a complete reversal of the earlier comedic scenes, yet it speaks to Romero's greatness as a satirist that he can get us to identify with both.

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