Monday 10 September 2012

Zombies, Social Commentary, and Dawn of the Dead

Some critics claim that the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake lacks social commentary.  That it's just another mindless, money-making action-disaster picture.

That sells the film short. True, it doesn't push the sophomoric, mindless-zombie-as-consumer angle. Not much, anyway.

That doesn't mean there's no message. In fact, it has a much more potent, frightening one than the fear we're brainless automatons buying unneeded lavalamps at the behest of Machiavellian advertisers. That theme was always flip at best. A joke for Foucault. Honestly, people oversell this aspect of the zombie genre.

After all, medieval peasants would drool in awe at the most modest of our modern consumer palaces. Products commonly available to ordinary people year round were once only available to royalty, if then. Fruit in winter? Fresh meat? Cloth? Lighting? Gortex? Medical care? Antibiotics? Not to mention reliable electrical appliances. Magic by their standards! I like being able to go to the mall and I have a modicum of willpower. I don't buy shit I don't need. Well. Generally. Still can't explain why I have a vinyl figure from Yellow Submarine on my desk.

The remake of Dawn of the Dead touches on something far more frightening than being a brainless consumer, the dread fear of ennui hobbled university undergraduates everywhere. I know. It's a wonder they can sleep at night.

Can you guess what it is?

You can see it in the opening credits, in one short but explicit scene that depicts a reporter in Baghdad being ripped to pieces... by zombies.

At the time of the film's release, Iraq was in dire straits and descending into bloody anarchy. Neighbors were turning against neighbors, just as they did earlier in Bosnia-Herzegovinia and Rwanda, as society unravelled around them. That is what Dawn of the Dead is really about: social collapse. The exact opposite of a fear of being a spoiled consumer, it's the fear that our privileged existence will break down into mass murder. The fear that our neighbours may turn upon us.

Zombies running about what was once a peaceful, idyllic paradise (or consumerist nightmare, depending on your point of view) and ripping people's throats out is far more frightening to me than the fear I'll buy crap I don't need.

Just how far are we from social collapse? Three meals, is the common refrain. Now THAT is a scary thought.

Human society is more fragile than most of us really want to accept. People who have lived beside each other for decades can, and on occasion do, turn on their neighbours and hack them to pieces with machetes. On a subconscious level, we can't help but wonder if such collapse could happen here.

And that fear, to me at least, is what Dawn of the Dead is really about.

And I'll take The Mall over the ethnic/religious strife ridden Baghdad of 2005 any day of the week.

Call me crazy.

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