Romero, Dawn of the Dead and its political Symbols Daniel R.


Stout It may not even be the tears that you have while you are in the darkness. It may not even be the immediacy of the imagery that causes you to change what you say or


what you do. In fact, it’s entirely possible that it will cause an epiphany right as you reach your vehicle to go home. This is the power of the movie. George A. Romero’s 1978 production of Dawn of the Dead fits neatly within the category of being a powerful and impactful movie. Before Romero, zombie movies were just movies. In 1968 Romero took hold of the horror industry and the use of zombies in movie roles. Romero took the zombie and reinvented it as a “progressive symbolic figure”1. Romero started with Night of the Living Dead by using zombies to make political commentary on the situation of the world. Night of the Living Dead focused on the racism and patriarchy that are rampant throughout the society as a group of individuals are locked inside a farmhouse during the very beginning of the zombie arrival. Part of what Romero did in his movies included making us feel for the zombies2. Romero did this in several different ways. First he made us realize that the zombies used to be human; they were parts of families, were loved, and loved other people. Second, he dressed up the zombies in clothes, just like humans wears clothes. Romero specifically ensured that he tackled all socioeconomic statuses by having rich-looking zombies and even poor-looking zombies. The third thing is that Romero makes the zombies look like animals. He does not do this in the way so that the zombies do not make any sense, but in the way that zombies are only attacking because they are hungry, and not for some malicious intent3. This humanizing of the undead while although paradoxal makes us, as an audience, relate to the plight of the zombies in the movie and try to take on their roles.



This understanding promotes us to critically reexamine what the zombies do because they look and act so similarly to us. It’s important to look at Dawn of the Dead as a rhetorical artifact for several reasons. First, Dawn of the Dead has inspired remakes. Romero opened the door for other zombie movies that would be used to criticize current structures of power and society. There are many examples of this. 28 Days Later is a movie that goes directly after the idea of militarism and patriarchy. This movie shows a group of soldiers who are locking themselves up in an erected fortress. Here they ensure that no males will enter to compete with fundamentally kidnapped women by killing them. The movie shows how the will to dominate, which is a fundamental ideal engrained in not only patriarchy but also in militarism, is ultimately self destructive as the base is destroyed. Dawn of the Dead (2004) by Zach Snyder is another example of how influential Romero’s work has been. This version of Dawn of the Dead goes after the very ideas that are ruling the present day; it attacks the legitimacy and trust that people have in the government. The movie focuses on TV news reports that indicate that the government has things under control and that we are to trust the government to protect us. These things become obvious lies as the movie unfolds and the streets only get increasingly filled with zombies indicating that the government does not have things under control. The members who lock themselves up in the mall realize that they have to rely on themselves in order to survive the crises as it unfolds, only to ….well watch the movie it is amazing. The second reason that Dawn of the Dead (1978) needs to be looked at is that it is one of the most successful horror movies while at the box office, as it became a favorite at shopping mall movie theatres4. It has created a cult-like following as a small group of



people have become obsessed with the movie and Romero’s work. The proof of this is the books that are getting published by Max Brooks5 entitled World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. Films have an inherent political dynamic to them. Film has the ability to reflect on events occurring in society and also create events in society6. By tapping into the common dreams of the people, movies allow us to reexamine what we currently think and feel about society as a whole. Movies allow there to be a visible scenario in which the destruction of society is going to come. This firmness that is presented allows the ideas of anti-capitalism in Dawn of the Dead to have more of a concrete formation because of the examples that people feel like they have been part of. It is these political dynamics that draw people to the movies that use zombies as symbolic arguments against society. With Dawn of the Dead we can point to the commentary and criticism that Romero employs against capitalism and consumerism as reason for the appeal the movie has. In order to further elaborate on this rhetorical act of criticizing we need to explain why Dawn of the Dead was successful. To do this we turn to the Social Values Model from Frentz and Rushing to analyze the symbolism inside Dawn of the Dead and conclude its effectiveness through analysis of how rhetoric of people inside the group that have watched Dawn of the Dead has changed through methods given in McGee’s article “Social Movement”: Phenomenon or Meaning?. Method

Stout First and foremost we must analyze and understand the Social Values Model. To


do so we are going to look at its five main components7, then generate questions we must answer, and then answer those questions. Frentz and Rushing contend that the first part of the process, which is essential for the value challenge to occur in the first place, is the existence of values in dialectical opposition. We must recognize that social values are fluid, meaning that they are dynamic and social change is constantly occurring throughout our country8. This fluidity of values within our society means that the dialectical opposition will constantly be switching which side is more popular within the public. Because of the dichotomous representation of values that occurs, the potential for social change is always ready to rear its head9. The second component is symbolic conflict. This occurs when there is a verbal or physical battle between ideas that are upheld through individuals and/or groups within the movie10. The battle will be presented in a way that shows that the current values are ones that will not be able to solve the problems of the world, and that we must embrace new values11. The third component of the Social Value Model is the patterns of symbolic conflict. Here there are two proposed ways to resolve the symbolic conflict; one is a dialectical transformation which means there is an abandonment of one value and the embracement of another value. The other option is a dialectical synthesis. This process involves a permutation of ideas where there is a new value standard created that takes components of both ideals to comprise the new value.12 The fourth component is known as a Psychological Prerequisite. The main characters in movies are in charge of presenting this new change of values. There is

Stout however a requirement of how the value change is to occur. In order to be credible and


therefore effective the audience has to see that the characters have gone through the value conflict and resolved the values in a certain manner in order to portray that there is a new value standard to be had. This explains why so often it is a dialectical transformation as opposed to a dialectical synthesis that is chosen because it is easier to show on a big screen the rejection of a value system in turn for another as opposed to taking items from both values in conflict and embracing some of each. 13 The fifth and last portion of the process is that of the audience role. Here we will analyze how the audience reacted to the symbolism that was used in the rhetorical act. This can vary from intensified awareness to the problems of the world and the values that are in conflict, to an active participant who is seeking to create a new value standard. In this fifth section we are also going to use Michael C. McGee’s analysis used in his article “Social Movement”: Phenomenon or Meaning?. McGee articulates that the way we can tell if a movement or change in ideas has occurred is if we listen to HOW people talk about things. McGee argues that the best way to understand if a movement is occurring is if people are presenting “changes in the “ideographic” structures of social norm systems”. This means in addition to describing how the audience is supposed to react, we are going to see if there is an effectiveness that Dawn of the Dead posses by seeing if there is a change in the rhetoric that people use after watching the movie. Analysis We must now develop questions that will be appropriate to apply the theory described above towards Dawn of the Dead.

Stout In order to fulfill the first and second part of the Social Value Model, we must identify the values that exist in dialectical opposition. So, since this one is very straight forward we must first ask what values are in opposition in Dawn of the Dead and then describe how Dawn of the Dead creates the tension of the values in opposition with the use of symbols inside of the movie. The main and underlying value conflict that arises throughout Dawn of the Dead is the “embracement of capitalism” versus the “abandonment of capitalism”. Romero uses this value structure to present a tragic viewpoint of how the world is going to be in the future. This is another value conflict, between the future being full of tragedy and suffering and that of the future being better than the day before and just having an optimistic outlook on the world. The Living Dead Before we look at specific instances of symbolism of despair that Romero presents in Dawn of the Dead we must first understand what the zombies, or as referred


to in the movie, the living dead represent. The living dead represent, as said in the movie, us. The living dead are us; they wear the same clothes, they do the same things as humans, the only real difference is that they are willing to eat humans. This is truly significant because the people who are still human, the survivors, are really just the ones who still have not made the choice between a full embracement of capitalism and a full denial of capitalism as our personal saviors. This means that while we criticize actions of the living dead from time to time, we will also criticize the survivors because really they are still embracing capitalism as our savior are really the same as the living dead, minus the killing and eating of other survivors.

Stout The Mall The unending symbolism Romero uses is the mall. The mall was just starting its infancy of predominance during the 1960s and was met with great enthusiasm and still remains a cultural iconic place for capitalist countries14. Malls are also set up in a way


that they are structurally stable, yet we are constantly having to reorient them because the dynamics of the mall’s population is always changing. Because of this fluidity of the space inside of the mall, it makes a great place for political statements. This is especially true with the fact that the mall is the epitome of corporate capitalism, and because it is such a strong scene of capitalist domination. It is also a fantastic location to show the horrors of capitalism because it will look more believable in that sense. 15 This scenery of the mall intensifies the symbolism that occurs within it and further brings together the needed pieces of the puzzle to show how Romero criticizes capitalism. The mall in the later parts of the movie, after all the zombies have been removed and the survivors inside the mall have plundered all the things they want leaving them with nothing to do, provides symbolism of a prison. The survivors cannot go outside or even open the doors because they would instantly be consumed by the hundreds and hundreds of living dead that surround the mall. It shows that even though the survivors have everything they could possibly want, they are not happy. They have been duped by capitalism’s tendency to tell you that if you are not happy all you need is more stuff, better stuff, and big stuff. This use of the mall shows the symbolism of how this process of always wanting better does nothing but place us inside the prison of capitalism which we can never escape, and never truly be happy. Greed Kills

Stout There are two main instances where capitalism’s desire for profit and desire to have the nicest and best stuff is portrayed as being responsible for the killing of


individuals. The first scene is at the very beginning of the movie when Francine, the lead female character in the movie, is at the TV studio where she works. At the studio, people are busy airing a news broadcast that describes what is going on and debating about what is the best way to handle the living dead crisis. Francine finds out that they are running a ticker down at the bottom of the screen informing the audience of the television show where the safe havens are located throughout the city. Francine discovers that the list that is being displayed on the ticker is hours old already and has several locations running that are not operational anymore. Francine tries to fix the situation contending that we are sending people to walk into a trap where the living dead have infiltrated and most certainly the persons going will die. She is abruptly stopped from leaving the ticker off until the accurate information could be displayed because the producer of the station demands it is on in order to keep people watching, saying that if we are not running the information then people will turn the channel. This shows how the drive for ratings, the drive to show that their channel is superior and needs to have all sorts of advertisements on it, has doomed individuals to death, all in a search for a quick buck. The second scene that stands out as symbolism for capitalist greed killing individuals is also at the beginning of the movie. Here Peter and Roger met each other as they are part of the same national guard unit. The national guard has been ordered to go to private residences and destroy all of the living dead that are present. The problem is they arrive at an apartment complex that still has many survivors inside, although they

Stout 10 had been ordered to leave the complex for a safe haven. A member of the National Guard unit have identified that the apartment complex that is filled with minorities is better than the life he has. This national guardsman is eager to get inside and just start shooting. Because of his jealously, he does just that, and when he gets inside of the complex, he just blindly opens doors and shoots anything that moves. This scene depicts that we become anxious or even jealous of other peoples belongings especially when they are better than our own. The scene concludes that if we think that someone of lesser worth (the minorities) have something they do not deserve (a better apartment complex than the national guardsmen) then they should die on the spot and the property should be taken away from the person of lower worth. Racism Towards the end of the movie there is an invasion of another group of persons who had, up till this point, survived the zombie crisis. This group is to signify the utmost personification of capitalism. This group is only concerned with gaining as many “valuable” possessions as humanly possible. This group of bikers breaks into the mall and begins to loot the entire thing taking as many possessions as possible. While they are there they see Peter, who is the leading male, and also has dark skin. The bikers call him “chocolate man”. While this is a milder form of racial insults that could have been used, it signifies heavily the way that the capitalist think about the people who work to produce their products. The reason this conclusion can be reached is because it identifies Peter as a disposable commodity, (chocolate). The status of disposal commodity is given to chocolate earlier in the movie when Peter’s priority upon arrival at the mall is to obtain

Stout 11 stuff they need, like television and radio. Roger on the other hand is going after less important things like watches and chocolate. 16 The rhetorical use of comparing Peter to a disposal commodity is one that is used in order to display that there is a hierarchy, and that white capitalist are better than the people who produce the products. Patriarchy Fran is the ideal role model for the modern day feminist. She is a powerful TV executive in the sense that she has the power to control what goes on air and what does not in the beginning of the movie. She demands that she is taught how to fly the helicopter in case something goes wrong. She demands that she is left with a gun so that she can be able to defend the group and herself. When they first arrive at the mall, Fran also tells the rest of the group that “I'd have made you all coffee and breakfast, but I don't have my pots and pans.” These symbolic scenes all show how empowered Fran is and how she is trying to ensure that she stays empowered. But this will all change. What is the cause of this change? Fran becomes hypnotically entranced with capitalism’s allure. She abandons notions of empowerment and equality for glamour and perfume. The more items that Fran was to consume and obtain, the more she would redefine her role and become more and more like the mannequins that she saw in the windows or a real life zombie. This is explicitly seen in two scenes. The first scene is when Fran and Stephen are enjoying a dinner that Peter created for the two lovers to enjoy. In this scene you see that all the lavish things that could possibly be imaged are present. It looks like a high class,

Stout 12 wine and dine experience. Fran, while in the scene, looks remarkably like a mannequin. Her make-up is all dolled up, and she is plastered to look pale and fragile, not the strong empowered woman that we see at the beginning of the movie. The second scene is like the first in that Fran is looking just like a mannequin with all the make-up, and all the high class expensive garments she could possibly want. But in this scene she is also mindlessly playing with a gun. This looks remarkably similar to a zombie from earlier in the movie who simply carried around the gun stolen from Roger while shutting the door to the department store at the beginning of the acquirement of the mall. This symbolism of looking like a lifeless doll and acting like one of the living dead shows how capitalism encapsulates one’s being and defines a person. Capitalism’s encapsulation of beings prevents women from breaking down roles that dictate power relations that work against women. Imperialism This scene is one of the most symbolic of Dawn of the Dead. The symbolism begins when the biker gang breaks and blitzkriegs into the mall. The biker gang is completely white persons. They represent the Western institutions that are constantly going around the world and trying to spread American ideals of free markets, and capitalism being able to make you live the way of the Americans. The living dead inside of the mall that enter because of the biker gangs break in become the representation of the third world countries around the world that the United States and the Western World are trying to change so that they embrace capitalism. These living dead are trying to become like the western world and acquire the resources and the items that the west already has.

Stout 13 While the bikers are taking all of the resources inside of the stores, they are also pinning down the living dead that have any amount of jewelry on and taking that jewelry. This is symbolic because both the bikers and the living dead are acting like capitalist persons, it is just the other (the zombies) are being exploited for their resources even when they are embracing capitalism. This represents the way that the west tries to persuade countries to embrace capitalism and then use it as an excuse for taking all their resources. This has occurred time and time again in South America and it’s exploitation of the civilizations and of the rain forest. Something even more symbolic occurs later in the biker gang attack scene where the bikers begin to use classic clown tricks of sprittzer bottles and pies to the face. This act shows how the way of life we try to endorse for others all across the world is not a way of life that can actually bring about the fulfillment of those ideals. The pie represents the American values of capitalism, freedom, and living the life the west promises to the other, flying in the face of current imperialistic tendencies. Environment The survivors, once they manage to clear out the mall, become consumed by the capitalistic way of life. They care only about what resources they can have and what they want at this particular second. This is symptomatic of how we treat natural resources in everyday life. This has caused us as a society not to worry about where the next drop of oil is going to come from, that we will get it, even if we have to destroy Alaska to do it. This is symbolically shown in the roof scene where Peter is playing a form of wall tennis. After he is done it is clear that he used several different balls; he unnecessarily opened multiple cans of tennis balls. Peter also does not bother to pick up and save the tennis

Stout 14 balls. This is the way we treat the environment; we get what we need or want and then just leave the mess without cleaning it up, causing pollutions of all forms. Ignorance of problems It seems like once you have secured a mall with all so many things, you have to shower yourself with amazing gifts and luxuries like fur coats and jewelry of all kinds. While in a scene right after the clearing out of the entire mall, the three remaining persons are standing on the second floor looking out onto the living dead that have placed themselves right outside of the mall doors and are trying to get in. The cast is ever delightful of their current situation, till they look at all the living dead. It is obvious that consuming all the goods that capitalism can offer in the mall is what side tracked them from the horrors of what was going on outside. Consuming and trying to ensure you have all the toys that are offered puts us into a world where all we do is think about how we are going to get the next toy. This scene also symbolizes how once we have the resources we want to keep them; we do not care what the outside world wants or needs, we have to keep the resources for ourselves. This is the treatment that the cast uses to the biker gang as they ask for acceptance into the mall; they reject their presence and do not let them inside of the mall. What it means The symbolism described above fits within the framework of showing how the embracement of capitalism is not going to be able to solve the problems that are occurring in the present or the problems of the future, and might actually be causing the problems to begin with. The symbols are shown to present a gloom and doom scenario

Stout 15 for the world just like we talked about earlier, where oppression, suffering, and violence are all inevitable under a world where there is an embracement of capitalism. Now looking upon the third component of the social value model we have to ask ourselves, is the movie advocating a dialectical transformation or a dialectical synthesis. In order to answer this I think it is important to look at the very end of Dawn of the Dead. The end of the movie involves a very dramatic scene where the zombies have infiltrated the hallway where the office turned apartment that the cast has been using is located. The hoards of the living dead are coming up to eat the two remaining people, Fran and Peter. Peter seeing no escape, and seeing no alternative to the capitalist lifestyle that has dominated his life decides that he is going to stay and commit suicide. Fran with her knowledge of how to fly a helicopter is going to leave, she does not know where, but she is going to leave. Peter while having the gun to his head has an epiphany, as he decided there is another way to live. There is another option, even if is not clearly defined right now at this moment, he knows he cannot go on further embracing capitalism’s ever potent poison. Peter decides in a bold attempt to make a run for the helicopter that Fran is preparing to have lift off. Peter just barely makes it and Fran and Peter fly off leaving and rejecting the capitalist domination and all it symbolism that the mall posses. The fourth part in the process is that of psychological prerequisites. Here I think it is easy to see that the main character Peter goes through this process that is required. He is completely embracing capitalism’s temptations by wearing fur coats, stealing high dollar guns, and pillaging all the food that he could possibly desire. As the movie goes on he is the one who sees that the living dead are “us” and that so much of what defines and

Stout 16 makes up a living dead also makes up what he is under the reign of capitalism. Peter has watched his friends die, watched himself become something that he critiqued in the gun store at the beginning of the movie, and most of all he watched how greed destroys things and causes things that are going good (their securitization of the mall) to be shattered instantly by one movement of greed. Fran also comes around in the same sort of process. She, in the beginning, was all about women’s empowerment, but towards the middle of the movie she abolishes that image of herself with all the items that she wears around and the make-up she applies. In the final scenes of the movie, she once again has empowered herself, she is flying the helicopter to another place, and is without all of the make-up and glamour that she had been wearing. She had brought herself back to where she originally wanted to be, a woman who was empowered and was not being held down by capitalism’s grasp. This decision also is caused by the death that occurs out of greed. She watches as Roger is killed and turns into a zombie and she learns of her baby’s father’s demise. All out of greed and the pursuit of keeping the resources they fought for, Fran rejects those ideals, and knows that the capitalist ways must be forgotten. For these reasons, she leaves in the helicopter, away from her fur coats, away from the symbolic mall, and its capitalist ways. This transformation obviously triggers the result that they are affirming a dialectical transformation, their flight away from the mall away from capitalism to a land of unknown. The fifth and last portion of the Social Value Model is the audience’s role. It is easy to see because the movie’s use of symbols instead of an outright message is purely trying to get the attention of the audiences to some of the problems that have arisen with

Stout 17 capitalism. This meets the dialectical transformation format, as all Dawn of the Dead needs to do is raise some awareness about the value of capitalism and how it might not be able to solve the worlds problems. 17 In order to prove that this occurred we are going to look simply at the ideographic descriptions as described by McGee. In other words we are going to prove that the audiences role of intensifying awareness occurred by looking at how people talked about Dawn of the Dead and how they talked about capitalism and consumerism after viewing the film. The typical audience response to the movie is one of enthusiasm18. Dawn of the Dead has become such a popular cult classic because it shows the demise of a culture that so many people participate in during their everyday lives. Fans also prove that the way we talk about consuming and embracing capitalism changes upon watching the movie. Stephan Harper explains what he heard from a fan of Dawn of the Dead;

“Another fan of the film relates how he overheard a woman commenting to her friend in a New York City mall: "Oh, my god! Look! It's just like Dawn of the Dead! All of these shoppers look like zombies walking about the place!" "She seemed shocked", commented the fan. "It was as if a light had just been turned on, illuminating an aspect of her life never considered"”

This just seems to be proof that the way people talk about the world after watching a movie does change when a movie can impact us. Conclusion

Stout 18 Dawn of the Dead is an important American piece of cinema because of the genre it upholds. The horror industry has always been used, much like the science fiction genre, to criticize the current state of the world. It seems to me that using a model such as the Social Value Model is instrumental in discovering what the movies underlying message is about the world we live in. Dawn of the Dead just happens to be about capitalism, and has ensured that the horror industry, and specifically the zombie movie genre, can continue to impact the culture we live in with its criticism. It has obvious effectiveness when all things our considered because people change the way they talk about the world upon watching movies. It means that when ideals are clashing, and when movements are trying to form, there needs to be some discussion of how movies do form a valuable tool in the creation and spreading of the movement.


Hendershot, Heather, Queens College CUNY. Lessons form the Undead: How Film and TV Zombies Teach Us About War, Flow Volume 3, Issue 10. Accessed October 28, 2006 2 Hendershot, Heather, Queens College CUNY. Lessons form the Undead: How Film and TV Zombies Teach Us About War, Flow Volume 3, Issue 10. Accessed October 28, 2006 3 Hendershot, Heather, Queens College CUNY. Lessons form the Undead: How Film and TV Zombies Teach Us About War, Flow Volume 3, Issue 10. Accessed October 28, 2006

Stephen Harper, University of Glasgow. Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Americana: The journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present). Fall 2002, Vol 1, Issue 2. accessed October 28, 2006

Former writer of Saturday Night Live and son of Mel Brooks who is the author of movies such as Robin Hood Men in Tights, Silent Movie, and Young Frankenstein 6 Rushing, Janice Hocker and Frentz, Thomas S.. The Rhetoric of “Rocky”: A Social Value Criticism, Western Journal of Speech Communication. Spring 1978. 7 As originally described and shown in Rushing and Frentz’s Rocky article. 8 Rybacki, Karyn and Rybacki, Donald. Northern Michigan University. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres. p. 135 9 Rybacki, Karyn and Rybacki, Donald. Northern Michigan University. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres. p. 135 10 Rushing, Janice Hocker and Frentz, Thomas S.. The Rhetoric of “Rocky”: A Social Value Criticism, Western Journal of Speech Communication. Spring 1978 11 Rybacki, Karyn and Rybacki, Donald. Northern Michigan University. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres. p. 136 12 Rybacki, Karyn and Rybacki, Donald. Northern Michigan University. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres. p. 136 13 Rybacki, Karyn and Rybacki, Donald. Northern Michigan University. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres. p. 136

Stephen Harper, University of Glasgow. Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Americana: The journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present). Fall 2002, Vol 1, Issue 2. accessed October 28, 2006

Stephen Harper, University of Glasgow. Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Americana: The journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present). Fall 2002, Vol 1, Issue 2. accessed October 28, 2006

Stephen Harper, University of Glasgow. Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Americana: The journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present). Fall 2002, Vol 1, Issue 2. accessed October 28, 2006

Rybacki, Karyn and Rybacki, Donald. Northern Michigan University. Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres. p. 137

Stephen Harper, University of Glasgow. Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Americana: The journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present). Fall 2002, Vol 1, Issue 2. accessed October 28, 2006

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