Analysis of "Dawn of the Dead"

Dawn of the Dead is a 1978 zombie film written and directed by George A. Romero. It is, in a way, a sequel of sorts to his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, though it has none of the original cast or setting. Instead, it stars David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross, with Tom Savini (who also did the gory make-up effects). Music for the Italian version of the movie (Zombi) was by Goblin (named “The Goblins” in the credits), in collaboration with Dario Argento.

Zombies are swarming the urban centres, and Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews (Emge), Francine “Fran” Parker (Ross), and two men from SWAT teams (Foree and Reiniger) escape in a helicopter and use a shopping mall as a kind of sanctuary, until a biker gang led by “Blades” (Savini) breaks in and brings in more zombies.

With his first zombie film, Dawn of the Dead is considered not only one of Romero’s best films, but one of the best horror films ever made, too.

Here are some quotes:

“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!” –Dr. Foster

“How the hell come we stick these low-life bastards in these big-ass hotels, anyway? Shit, man! This is better than I got!” –Wooley

*********

[coming across a Zombie storage room]

Roger: Why did these people keep them here?

Peter: ‘Cause they still believe there’s respect in dying.

*********

“We’re still pretty close to Johnstown. Those rednecks are probably enjoying this whole thing.” –Stephen

*********

Francine Parker: They’re still here.

Stephen: They’re after us. They know we’re still in here.

Peter: They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.

Francine Parker: What the hell are they?

Peter: They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell.

Stephen: What?

Peter: Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Voodoo. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”

************

[Fran and Stephen are observing from the roof of the mall]

Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?

Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

************

“The normal question, the first question is always, are these cannibals? No, they are not cannibals. Cannibalism in the true sense of the word implies an intra-species activity. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other – that’s the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh. Intelligence? Seemingly little or no reasoning power, but basic skills remain and more remembered behaviors from normal life. There are reports of these creatures using tools. But even these actions are the most primitive – the use of external articles as bludgeons and so forth. I might point out to you that even animals will adopt the basic use of tools in this manner. These creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct. We must not be lulled by the concept that these are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions.” [the gathered crowd starts arguing] “They must be destroyed on sight!” –Dr. Millard Rausch, scientist

*************

Roger: Aww, God! Oh, Jesus Christ!

Peter: What is it?

Roger: My bag! I left my goddamn bag in the other truck!

Peter: [stops driving the truck] All right, trooper, you better screw your head on.

Roger: [hyped tone] Yeah, yeah, yeah; c’mon, c’mon c’mon, let’s go!

Peter: [grabbing him by the collar] I mean it! Now you’re not just playin’ with your life, you’re playin’ with mine! Now… are you straight?

Roger: [subdued tone] Yeah.

*************

[looking at the approaching bikers]

Peter: Just three of them, huh?

Stephen: Holy shit!

Peter: They’ll get in. They’ll move the trucks.

Stephen: There’s hundreds of those creatures down there.

Peter: Come on, man, that’s a professional army. Looks like they’ve been surviving on the road all through this thing. Well, let’s not make it easy for them.

*************

[about to whack a zombie in the head with a machete] “Say goodbye, creep!” –Blades

*************

[Peter and Francine are flying off of the mall rooftop]

Peter: How much fuel do we have?

Francine Parker: Not much.

Peter: All right. [last lines]

People in a TV studio in Philadelphia are arguing on air over what to do about the zombie menace. (One of the workers behind the scenes is played by Romero himself.) Martial law has been declared in the city, requiring all residents to give over any killed zombies to the National Guard.

The residents of a housing project haven’t been complying with the martial law requirement to give over their dead, so SWAT teams have been sent there to get the zombies and punish the lawbreakers. The SWAT teams’ aggression reminds us of a truism from the first movie: the zombies aren’t the only mindless killers; in fact, since the housing project is full of Puerto Rican and black residents, Wooley, a member of one of the SWAT teams, imagines he has the right to hurl racial slurs at the residents while brandishing his gun.

Amid the explosion of violence, a black woman is horrified to see her man having become one of the undead. Not wanting to accept his horrible fate, she tries, in all futility, to communicate with him; his only replies are bites on her shoulder and arm, tearing off huge chunks of flesh, leaving her screaming in pain.

As we know, zombie bites turn a victim into another zombie. This process of turning the normal (who, recall, are often hardly less murderous themselves to begin with) into the undead can be seen to symbolize what Melanie Klein called projective identification, which goes beyond mere projection (imagining others to have one’s own personality traits) by actually manipulating others into embodying what one projects onto them.

Wilfred R. Bion‘s extension of projective identification is normally applied to preverbal communication between mother and infant, in which the baby–without a thinking apparatus to process the external stimuli that agitates it–projects its frustrations onto the mother, who then soothes the baby by containing its agitated reaction to the stimuli; she processes its harsh feelings, and sends a tolerable form of those feelings back to the baby. In therapy, an analyst may also play this maternal role for a patient, who is in the infant’s role.

Sometimes, however, this containment can be a negative experience, causing one’s agitation to become worse, instead of the soothing a baby gets from its mother. This aggravation of the agitation, a nameless dread, is what’s happening with the infecting bites of the zombies.

Bion used a feminine symbol for the container, thus making it into a yonic symbol; he used a masculine symbol for the contained, making it phallic. In the movie, the yonic bite wounds can be seen to represent a negative container, and the phallic zombie teeth can symbolize the negative contained. Zombie bites are a rape of the flesh, as it were. So this negative container/contained relationship, originally a preverbal form of communication between mother and infant, has now been regressed to in the zombies (i.e., a fixation at the oral stage), who have lost the ability to use language.

They cannot speak or respond to verbal communication because the trauma of being bitten by other zombies, or of being exposed to radiation, has plunged them into the fragmentary, undifferentiated world of Lacan‘s Real Order, where experience cannot be expressed in language or symbol. [Click here for more information on psychoanalytic concepts.]

The above description is the psychology behind why zombies are mindless killers who can’t communicate or connect with each other, or with anybody, for that matter. Their growing presence has resulted in a breakdown of the social order, because one cannot have communities of people who don’t relate to one another. The root cause of such breakdown is psychological trauma.

Trauma results in even greater breakdowns in society because people communicate only by killing, in the gruesome, cannibalistic form of the negative container/contained relationship described above. The urge to kill has become epidemic, and it’s not just among the zombies.

Racist SWAT team members like Wooley delight in killing Puerto Ricans and blacks; “rednecks” (as “Flyboy” Stephen calls them) in the rural areas make zombie-hunting into a sport. When one speaks of the fight-or-flight response to traumatic experiences, in these people we can see an example of the former response.

As for “Flyboy,” Francine, and SWAT team members Roger and Peter, however, we see the flight response; for at least in Peter, we see a look of reluctance on his face when he has to shoot zombies…especially if they’re children.

The four find a shopping mall, and even though it’s crawling in zombies, they decide to make it their sanctuary. The sight of zombies wandering about the inside of the mall is an amusing one; it’s an example of how Romero put social commentary in his zombie films.

Mindless zombies plodding about in a shopping mall represent how we are all too often more interested in buying things than in connecting with each other. (Recall what George Carlin once said about Americans in shopping malls.) Zombies’ only form of communication is cannibalism (in the negative container/contained form discussed above), just like how we all too often communicate only in ‘biting’ remarks. We fetishize commodities, never contemplating the sweat of workers who make the things we covet, and we snap at servers because of the slightest inconvenience.

(Dr. Millard Rausch denies that the zombies engage in cannibalism because the zombies never eat each other, but eat only ‘normal’ people. This, of course, misses the point: the message of Romero’s movies is that we ‘normal’ people aren’t fundamentally different from the zombies, in spite of appearances. Therefore, it is cannibalism when zombies eat the ‘normal.’)

This inability to communicate outside of biting (whether it’s literal biting, or it’s cutting remarks), fetishizing commodities at workers’ expense, and wanting things more than people (except in wanting people to destroy in order to aggrandize oneself)…these problems are all symptoms of alienation, which itself is the social sickness that results from the capitalist mode of production.

That the zombie menace can be related to capitalism leads us to another issue: the epidemic nature of the menace, spreading everywhere, is symbolically a global spread, and it can thus be related to the imperialism of late-stage capitalism.

Zombies kill mindlessly. “Rednecks” hunt and destroy zombies mindlessly. Racists like Wooley shoot and kill mindlessly. Similarly, soldiers in imperialist wars shoot and kill mindlessly, too, their victims often civilians.

“Flyboy,” Francine, Roger, and Peter just want to get away from all the killing and dying. Once the shopping mall is secure from zombie infiltration (e.g., the entrances have been blocked with trucks), they’ll be able to live reasonably normal lives again.

If we can associate a potentially global zombie apocalypse with imperialism, then we can associate this shopping mall oasis with the notion of socialism in one country. Any country in the world whose government refuses to comply with contemporary US/NATO global neoliberalism (such countries include Cuba, the DPRK, Venezuela, and pre-coup Bolivia) are targeted for regime change. The zombie-like opposition in those countries will wreak havoc and destruction…unless the countries (i.e., Cuba and the DPRK) have a sufficient defence.

Our four protagonists want just such a level of assured protection from external dangers, not just zombie dangers, but also disapproving humans who might find out about their set-up. When the four of them seem to have got that assured protection, they start to enjoy the use of the commodities in the shopping mall.

It may seem that their enjoyment of these things, for free, makes them as much a target of Romero’s social commentary as are the zombies, “rednecks,” and trigger-happy SWAT team members. Perhaps Romero intended it that way, but I beg to differ. The four protagonists enjoy the stuff, but not in a mindless, zombie-like way, so why not? They’ve been through hell: let them enjoy themselves. Besides, they see the commodities as use-values, the way a communist society would, not as exchange-values, as in capitalist society.

It’s only when two of them, Roger and “Flyboy,” lose their nerve and get the killer instinct themselves that they have their downfall, get bitten, and become zombies. The trauma of a close call or two happening to Roger, that is, when a zombie just about bites him before being shot in the head by Peter, spraying blood all over Roger’s face (which is like projective identification), makes him act wildly, recklessly, and forgetful of his bag (his fight-or-flight response)…hence, he gets bitten.

When “Flyboy” is on the roof with Francine, teaching her how to fly the helicopter, they’re spotted by a biker gang led by “Blades” (Savini). The violent and destructive nature of this gang shows how easily it can be associated with fascism. In fact, one of the gang members is even wearing an SS helmet.

So, the gang’s attack on the mall, removing the shield of trucks and letting all the zombies in, can be seen to represent such things as the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June, 1941, Mussolini’s fascists attacking Italian leftists in the early 1920s, and, in current events, Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro replacing Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and the far right-wing coup in Bolivia…along with similar attempts made by the Venezuelan opposition, led by US puppet Juan Guaidó.

Whenever there’s a crisis in capitalism, as symbolized in this film by the social breakdown from the zombie pandemic, there can be two responses: a socialist, progressive one (symbolized by the efforts of “Flyboy,” Francine, Peter, and Roger), and a violent, destructive, fascistic one (represented by the biker gang).

That some bikers and zombies kill each other doesn’t invalidate my allegorizing: establishment capitalists and fascists fought each other, too, in WWII (i.e., Churchill vs. Hitler). The ultimate goal of both sides, however, was and is the same–the destruction of an alternative to a society of alienated, mindless killers and destroyers.

So, the zombie apocalypse, or “dawn of the dead,” is the beginning of the end: allegorically speaking, it’s late stage capitalism succumbing either to socialism or barbarism. There’s no third way–choose wisely from the only two options.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s