Attack of the Bourgeois Braineaters: Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and the Rhetoric of Race, Class, and Consumer Culture

©2004 Ross E. Lockhart

Have you made it out to the mall yet this holiday season? It’s chaos out there, with all those people shambling aimlessly from store to store, every one of them caught up in the madness of consumption. They’re like zombies, like something out of Dawn of the Dead. Even if you haven’t seen George Romero’s 1978 zombie cult classic, odds are still very good that you got that reference. As Dawn of the Dead makeup artist Tom Savini has stated, “when you say the word ‘zombie’ to most people, Dawn of the Dead comes to mind. It is the zombie movie” (Dead Will Walk). Dawn of the Dead is the movie by which all other entries into its horror subgenre (the zombie film) are measured. Zombies have invaded American popular culture, and the legacy of Dawn of the Dead can be assessed in part by the numerous imitators it continues to spawn, including a 2004 remake, the style over substance Resident Evil video game turned movie franchise, and even a romantic zombie comedy called Shaun of the Dead. Among this year’s most popular Halloween costumes for children you could find a “zombie cheerleader” and a “prom zombie.” Stop into your local Suncoast Video and you can easily find zombie-themed action figures, lunchboxes, and video games. From DVD movies to Halloween costumes and even to the shelves of toy stores, throughout the consumer marketplace, zombies are everywhere.

It seems a little strange that what is often characterized as a “satirical film about consumerism” (Harper 1) has inspired such an enormous and financially successful industry. Dawn of the Dead is used by Romero primarily as a rhetorical tool to examine and comment on the state of race and class issues in the United States, including the very consumer culture that feeds the industry. In this essay, I will investigate the rhetorical statements made by Dawn of the Dead, and the way in which they question traditional American views on race, class, and consumer culture. I will also consider the legacy of Dawn of the Dead, and the responses to it made by subsequent entries into the subgenre.

The horror film could be characterized as the modern equivalent of a classical rhetorical device known as controversiae, a type of judicial declamation in which divisive hypothetical crimes are imagined and expanded upon. “There were traditional themes for controvresiae, for which a speaker needed to find a new twist, and new themes were constantly invented. Most were lurid, often involving sex and violence” (Kennedy 170). But a horror film does more than just imagine the legal ramifications of a crime; instead, according to John McCarty, “many directors have also found the medium to be an ideal forum in which to expose their own fears and anxieties or to experiment stylistically with the mechanics of screen fearmaking” (viii). It is this forum for the expression of fears and anxieties in conjunction with controversial topics which helps to ground horror films within a modern definition of rhetoric as “an art of suasion and seduction that secures our belief in claims of truth and our pleasure in representation” (Naremore 2). As with traditional rhetoric, film “is intended to move us by means of verbal skill, bodily eloquence, spectacle, color, performance, and all the well-known elements of cosmetics, stagecraft, and mise en scène” (2). However, film rhetoric also works by “arousing passions” and “proves its worth or lack of worth through the emotional effects it creates on auditors or spectators” (2) by involving its audience so deeply in its story and characters that the audience often forgets that they are watching a film.

Although George Romero “dislikes being tagged as a ‘message filmmaker,'” his films tend to wear their messages openly, “and it’s hard to believe those messages end up in his films without Romero’s knowledge or permission” (McCarty 117). This habit of coupling heavy-handed social commentary with entertainment has prompted some, including San Francisco independent horror publisher Jeremy Lassen, to criticize Romero’s work for being “about as subtle as a hammer to the face.” Lassen’s critique misses its target entirely, however, by anticipating subtlety in a genre not generally celebrated for its delicate nuances. I would instead argue that the genre of horror itself, with its over-the-top violence, monsters, and copious amounts of gore is akin to the forcible style of rhetoric, and, in particular, what Demetrius once characterized as “the unpleasant” (Matsen, et al. 321), which “occurs in the subject matter when a speaker mentions publicly things which are disgusting and defile the lips” (Matsen, et al. 321). Demetrius further states that “violence […] may in composition produce force” (Matsen, et al. 314), anticipating the stylized violence-as-rhetoric world of the modern horror film. I would further argue that Romero, by keeping his message of social commentary central to his art, embodies Quintilian’s concept of “the ideal orator,” and he would be seen by Quintilian as “a good man, skilled in speaking” (Matsen, et al. 233) for expressing this larger moral viewpoint.

The story of Dawn of the Dead does not begin in 1978 when the film was released. Instead, to fully understand Dawn’s legacy, we must rewind the clock another ten years, back to 1968 and the release of Romero’s first feature film and the first of what will ultimately be a quartet of zombie films, Night of the Living Dead. Romero openly admits that the earliest version of Night, a short story called “Night of Anubis,” “was basically a rip-off from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend” (Dead Will Walk), and certainly Matheson’s vampire novel and its first film adaptation (the second, and better known, would be 1971’s Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man), 1964’s Italian-made Vincent Price thriller L’Ultimo uomo della Terra [The Last Man on Earth] can both be seen as major influences on the plot and style of Night of the Living Dead.

Night of the Living Dead was also influenced, explains Shawn Rider, “by the turbulent 1960s, events such as Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and rampant consumer culture” (3). Furthermore, Night of the Living Dead “is really concerned with looking at the monster within all of us. We watch as society turns in on itself in its bid to survive” (Engall 3). As Rider elaborates, “Night lays the groundwork for a series of cultural critiques. […] Romero takes on both the issues of his time, and larger issues, extrapolating the effects of capitalism and colonization of the mind” (3). It is this unflinching gaze towards the issues of its time that helps Night of the Living Dead remain a relevant and challenging piece of rhetoric some thirty-six years after its theatrical debut.

Night of the Living Dead “forever changed the face of fearfilm” (McCarty 117) by reinventing a staple of horror cinema, the lowly zombie. While previous film zombies typically relied upon the machinations of a diabolical Svengali such as Bela Lugosi’s ‘Murder’ Legendre from 1932’s White Zombie (the first zombie horror film), the Romero zombie is “a cunning blend of elements from the classic Haitian zombie (returning from the grave, glassy-eyed and eerily silent), the vampire (its bite converts its victims to the undead), and the cannibal” (Horne 99). Romero’s zombies are not animated through the will of evil men; instead, “due to some unspecified radioactive or viral or other event, seemingly the result of a disaster rather than a conspiracy, the recently dead are returning to life-up to a point-and wandering about in search of food (the living)” (Horne 98). By removing zombies from the sugar plantation and placing them within an unsuspecting world, Romero, according to Shawn Rider, extrapolates “the effects of capitalism and colonization of the mind. The following films, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), complete the series, leaving no doubt that they form both a fable of colonization and an act of revolution” (3). Rider’s characterization of Romero’s zombies as embodiments of fable recalls Aristotle’s writings on the appropriateness of fable as a rhetorical tool: “Fables are suitable for public speaking, and they have this advantage that, while it is difficult to find similar things that have really happened in the past, it is easier to invent fables” (Matsen, et al. 142). Through the fable of zombies taking over the world, Romero is able to insinuate an even larger social critique and moral sensibility into his films.

As in written and spoken rhetoric, the visual rhetoric of film demands that certain elements of style be present. Even in an early film like Night of the Living Dead, Romero has a deft technical style that sets the film apart from the usual Hollywood fair. These stylistic touches, as illustrated in Roy Frumkes’ Document of the Dead, show themselves “in his cutting, his camera angles, in his two-dimensional design within the film frame, great special movements from shot to shot, and even within shots.” This daring visual sensibility would carry over into Romero’s subsequent films, including Dawn of the Dead.

Whereas Night of the Living Dead reinvented the zombie genre, “Romero’s Dawn of the Dead raised the bar for gore factor” (3) by bringing to the table the talents of special-effects artist Tom Savini. Although this stylistic choice of amplifying the level of violence to cartoonish extremes stood a chance of alienating and chasing away some viewers, “its serious, intelligent ideas about society and civilization in America and where each may be headed make the film impossible to dismiss” (McCarty 119). Amplification itself is an important rhetorical tool, one recommended by the author of “Rhetorica ad Herennium,” who describes it as “the principle of using Commonplaces to stir up the hearers” (Matsen, et al. 166). In Dawn of the Dead, violence itself becomes a commonplace which underscores the film’s message. “In a film that makes such strong critical points about American culture,” writes John McCarty, “the treatment of violence is an essential theme. Dawn of the Dead is an epic view of a civilization in decline” (119). It is the violence at the heart of the American experience that Romero turns his critical eye towards in Dawn of the Dead, and the only way to adequately showcase it is through the extremes of exploding heads and splattering viscera.

The setting of Dawn of the Dead is “a follow-up on the zombie invasion that began in Living Dead, when, in Yeats’ classic phrase, ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world'” (McCarty 118). Here, instead of an isolated rural farmhouse, the action is moved to a suburban shopping mall. This location, explains Nick Shuit, “was suggested [to Romero] by a visit to a mall in Pittsburgh. The location, with its crowds of dazed shoppers, suggested a vision of consumer culture that proved irresistible to him” (10). Romero takes full advantage of the opportunity provided by this location to parody American consumer culture. In fact, much of the film’s black humor derives from “the idea of the dead returning robotically to a mall where they once spent many happy hours,” particularly when coupled with “scenes of the living dead falling into fountains, stumbling on escalators, and clamoring for admission to department stores” (McCarty 119). There is a great deal of irony to be found in the fact that “three decades later our entire country is one big mall governed by a man who, responding to one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall it, urged its citizens to go shopping,” observes Nick Shuit (10).

But Dawn of the Dead is more than just a zombies-at-the-shopping-mall critique of consumer culture, as elements of racism and class war are also included within its framework. In one of its opening scenes, “a SWAT team clears out a tenement building in Pittsburgh. The residents are primarily Puerto Rican and Latino, kept captive by the undead both within and without the building” (Rider 7). Despite the abject poverty of these residents, one of the police officers makes a statement reflecting what Stephen Harper calls “the film’s theme of material insecurity and envy” (5). “Shit man, this is better than I got.” Harper further observes that the tenement sequence “invites the audience to consider zombiedom as a condition associated with both racial oppression and social abjection and, therefore, sanctions socio-political interpretations of the film as a whole” (6). The tenement sequence also introduces the audience to two members of the film’s core quartet of protagonists, Ken Foree’s Peter and Scott Reiniger’s Roger, a pair of SWAT officers, one black, one white, who manage to remain civilized as their fellow officers “end up indiscriminately murdering residents and zombies, uttering racial epithets and generally being hysterical” (Rider 7). When Peter and Roger decide to leave the tenement and their posts in order to fend for themselves, they are both aware that military and civil authority has been stressed to its breaking point and that their best chance for survival can be found in separating themselves from organized society.

On the other side of the equation that makes up Dawn of the Dead’s quartet of heroes are Francine (Gaylen Ross), a television news producer, and Stephen (David Emge), the television station’s helicopter traffic reporter. Francine and Stephen, in fleeing the “safe” confines of the television studio, form a matched pair to Peter and Roger, but while Peter and Roger were escaping from the breakdown of civil and military power structures, Francine and Stephen are evading the collapse of rhetoric and dialectic. As they commandeer the station’s helicopter and fly off towards uncertain fates, a pair of experts emotionally argues before the television cameras, attempting to make sense of the zombie invasion. “People aren’t willing to accept your solutions, Doctor,” shouts the first, “and I, for one, don’t blame them” (Romero). The second expert, who, according to Nick Shuit, “vaguely resembles Francis Ford Coppola and in his rhetoric anticipates Colonel Kurtz, lays it out with stark clarity” (13) for the television cameras. “Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them! It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!” (Romero). It does not matter to these experts that their audience is ever dwindling thanks to the zombie plague, their message becomes tantamount, their rhetoric central to their very identities. As Nick Shuit observes, the message of the second expert is one of “feed the zombies or kill them, but decide on a course of action. There’s no middle ground. Learning to coexist with the apocalypse outside your door is not living, it’s just a short postponement of death” (13). By abandoning the increasingly vestigial responsibilities of an ever-collapsing society and striking their own path, Stephen, Francine, Roger and Peter have decided on a course of action beyond the empty rhetoric of experts, and, although they may only be postponing death, they are at least fighting against the increasingly dangerous zombie menace.

Once the four protagonists arrive at the shopping mall, however, they become complacent. Through this complacency, Romero “shows how hollow a solution commercial culture really is. The survivors become bored, even when faced with a plethora of products at their disposal” (Rider 7). At first the mall, once it is secured and fortified against the zombies, seems like a paradise. Our heroes “run amok through the stores, indulging in the same fantasy of unlimited consumption parodied in the zombies’ behavior” (McCarty 119). This complacency is the undoing of Roger, who is bitten by a zombie at the climax of the film’s truck barricade sequence, and becomes a zombie himself, leaving “the party of settlers […] at a loss as to what to do next” (McCarty 119). The truck sequence is also notable for Romero’s use of visual style throughout, and its use of “close ups, medium shots, long shots, visceral, disorientating angles, rhythm and tension potentials” (Frumkes) serves to make the impact of Roger’s mortal injury even more pronounced and hope-shattering. “Indeed, this hopelessness is the major framework of Romero’s zombie trilogy,” comments John McCarty, “wherein goals as we’ve come to know them cease to exist. Money is useless. Nobody cares what car you drive. And staying alive means being constantly engaged in a fight against the undead.” (119). Although the audience is allowed to feel pity at the death of Roger, Romero shows an understanding of a suggestion made by the author of “Rhetorica ad Herennium,” “the appeal to pity must be brief, for nothing dries more quickly than a tear” (Matsen, et al. 167), and rather quickly complicates his protagonists’ situation with an even graver threat.

That new threat which complicates the lives of our heroes is a “gang of marauding bikers which, in the movie’s violent climax, seeks to take over the mall” (Harper 1). With this new complication, “our heroes, having defeated the immediate threat of the zombies for the time being, are now faced with something worse-their fellow humans” (McCarty 119). In a masterful twist, Romero plays the biker invasion as a chance for the audience to root for the zombies as our protagonists’ last line of defense against the bikers, showing that, while the zombies are not necessarily “good,” they are, as Aristotle wrote, “the opposite of which is advantageous to our enemies” (Matsen, et al. 130). As Dawn of the Dead draws to its climax, Romero’s use of style is in full force, underlying and amplifying its audience’s sense of having stake in the survival of the film’s remaining heroes.

In the nearly thirty years since Dawn of the Dead premiered on American movie screens, the zombie film has established a foothold in American cinema which cannot be ignored. Many of the films inspired by Romero’s zombie films, have, like Dawn of the Dead, had their own larger social agendas to expound upon, thus continuing the tradition of the zombie film’s place as the most rhetorical of horror movies. In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, for example, the zombie film is used to explore such controversial themes as animal experimentation, contagion, and media violence. Likewise Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake turns its gaze onto family dynamics, racial tension, and the idea that, in the words of one of its protagonists, “America always sorts its shit out.” The style-over-substance Resident Evil films are filled with ironic nod-and-wink anti-corporatism. The Japanese schoolgirls-as-zombies film Stacy is used as a rhetorical tool to explore the practically untranslatable concept of Moe. Shaun of the Dead questions pop-culture consumerism and the social dynamics of friends and lovers. The list goes on and on. Thanks to the zombie rhetoric of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the world of horror films have a place where complicated ideas can be elucidated upon and, to paraphrase the words of Aristotle, we can discover “the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever” (Matsen, et al. 120).

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