by Nikkolas Nelson
“I’m still dreaming,” is one of the first lines of dialogue uttered in George A. Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. It’s possible that the character is simply referring to the overall state of things — this apocalypse has to be some sort of stubborn nightmare and not reality — but could also be interpreted as a moment of profound foreshadowing for the film’s subject matter. The traditional idea of The American Dream ultimately centers around consumerism: house, spouse, kids, cars, white picket fence — the best of all possible worlds. She is perhaps hoping that, despite the world obviously unraveling, that she will still be able to somehow eke out this dream, and this idea is played out with the protagonists throughout the remainder of the film.
The first real glimpse of the world from which this hope will have to be wrested is, masterfully, a housing project. The national guard seems to be attempting an evacuation, although, there is never discussion around the full plan, namely, where they will be evacuated to — perhaps the inoperative rescue stations? Wooley seems to be in on the actual plan. His comments, “I don’t know why they stick these low-lives in these big-ass fancy hotels. Shit, man, this is better than I got. Hey?! You’re not gonna talk ‘em outta here! You’re gonna blow ‘em out!” hints at, perhaps, not only the national guard’s true intention (extermination), but the disgruntled consumerist undercurrent that drives that intention. Wooley proceeds on his murder spree and though accused of “going apeshit,” it seems obvious that he is simply jumping the gun, pun intended, on the overall plan of extermination.
It’s no accident that Wooley dies at the doorstep of the first zombie reveal. His delight in the bullish (Get it? Wooley? Mammoth?) assault speaks to a catharsis. Wooley vents the frustrations to which he previously referred (“better than I got”) and in a very real sense becomes the hero of that idea — it’s not my flawed character or a system aligned against my prosperity, it’s that they are given everything at my expense — a rather prehistoric idea (again — Wooley Mammoth). This idea is swiftly destroyed. And it’s a black man that destroys it — Peter — the real hero of the piece. Perhaps Romero is intending here to set the ideological stage. Wooley’s type of heroism (and the ideas he defends with it) will not be the prevailing virtue. But the convenient distraction of the monster reveal leaves the mystery of what will be for later in the film. This scene, on the surface, is meant to capture the militaristic response to a national catastrophe but Romero seems to hint instead at the militaristic response to poverty. The monster revealed — contagious flesh-eater — but following the thread of this idea, the zombie isn’t just a zombie, it’s a representation of poverty (a literal loss of all life except for the clothes on your back) and poverty is the disease that it spreads.
The idea of wealth through possession is introduced in one of my favorite moments of the film. Credited as ‘Officer at Police Dock’ but here referred to as ‘Cigarette Guy’ — that glorious goofy bastard — asks the protagonists for a cigarette. They all deny having any but the instant they are up in the air, all light up. This reveals the tragic flaw that the four protagonists all have in common — selfishness. And they fly (above the zombies — poverty) to the neo-mecca of selfishness, wealth, and possession: a shopping mall. The characters constantly allude to (and there are constant moments alluding to) their desires for wealth and possession. During Peter and Roger’s first “Hit and Run,” they admit they have no idea how they will get back to safety, but “Who cares?! Let’s go shopping!” Roger immediately thinks jewelry and Peter, ever the pragmatist, tries to scale it back a bit, “Let’s get the stuff we need first,” he says. Another favorite moment is the sweater Roger grabs and ties around his waist only to later abandon it in the grasp of Custodian Zombie (again — poverty/wealth/possession).
Later, the creation of wealth is addressed in the gun store. Heavily decorated with an indigenous motif, the protagonists load up arms to Goblin’s “Safari.” Perhaps the idea here is that the original wealth in America was generated (and thus inherited) through genocide — an idea cemented by the fact that the guns are used to carry out genocide (in a sense) when all of the zombies inside the mall are eradicated. A more overt spoof of this moment can be found in 2009’s Zombieland when the characters trash an indigenously decorated gift shop. Both moments visit the idea that wealth cannot be achieved without exploitation and/or extermination.
In perhaps the most referenced portion of the film, a lot of these ideas reach their culmination. Peter, Fran, and Steven stand looking out over their domain all wearing fur coats. Roger, however, is not. Considering that he should be the coldest of them (dying), the absence of a fur coat instead lends itself to the idea that since Roger has essentially been infected with poverty, he is no longer allowed to wear any semblance of wealth. And Peter, before his iconic line about hell’s capacity, comments on the motivation of the zombies, “They don’t know why. They just want to be in here,” — the blind desire for wealth and possessions.
This all plays out when the bikers invade. Despite the territory obviously being lost, Steven stands on the principle, “We took it. It’s ours,” again, selfishness leading him to doom. Although Peter joins Steven in the resistance, it’s only after he is personally attacked. In the final moments of the film, Peter takes off his jewelry, tosses it on a pile of money, and redresses in his national guard uniform. This literal shedding and abandoning of wealth is perhaps what ultimately allows Peter to escape because, again, though the idea is that the zombies are after flesh, what they’re really after is wealth, and with Peter giving it all up (including his gun—the symbol of inherited wealth), he is allowed to escape with his life, bringing the idea that this is perhaps the greatest wealth of all, full circle.