It's midnight. A horde of glassy-eyed teenagers descends upon the brightly lit multiplex. They look almost like normal film-goers but their gait is shuffling, awkward. “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” “Some kind of instinct. Memory . . . of what they’ve seen before and crave again.”
The Maplewood Mall Theater, in a suburb east of Minneapolis, featured a Midnight Movie series showing a half-dozen revived films each weekend during the early 1980s, their cheap admission fees providing a refuge for bored and alienated youth, and an accessible and affordable introduction to the art of film analysis for burgeoning aficionados. The chance to see a cult film you might have missed in its original, brief run, like The Warriors, Rock and Roll High School, or Wizards, was itself something of a thrill, but to be able to watch one over and over again was a real gift in the era before VCRs. Sometimes these unassuming B pictures would turn out to be works of cinematic art as complex as anything produced in the classic studio era of Hollywood or the European New Wave, turning jaded repeat viewings into reverent close reading.
This is not to say that my friends and I would have thought of our developing viewing habits in this way. If someone had asked us how in the world we could watch George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) so damn many times we probably would have shrugged and said we liked the gory special effects, or because it was scary and funny at the same time. In retrospect I can now say that this was the first film I’d ever seen that made its gruesomeness so relentlessly visible, and in which I was fascinated by the experience of seeing a horror movie, as it were, with the lights on. Even the most innovative and iconoclastic films I’d seen before showed the lingering influence of German expressionism in their addiction to shadows and darkness. As its title makes clear, Romero’s film offers an entirely different aesthetic, taking a step beyond its predecessor, Night of the Living Dead, in its stark rendering of the emergence of nightmare into the cold light of dawn.
The effect was particularly striking when viewed through blood-shot, sleep-starved eyes, jazzed up on caffeine or something stronger. Watching Dawn of the Dead became a ritual, and we were increasingly committed members of a filmic cult. Although we were cool with people who dressed in women’s clothing and wore make-up, we never really got into the whole Rocky Horror Picture Show thing, which seemed to us more like a refuge for frustrated thespians than an expression of countercultural identity. The DIY aesthetic of independent horror films, and their disturbing commentary on the ills of society, seemed much closer to the punk records we were listening to than “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.” And thanks to cheap midnight showings, we discovered that Dawn of the Dead was every bit as worthy of repeated plays as London Calling or Unknown Pleasures.
Initiation to a cult horror film has at least one thing in common with being initiated into a cult: the induction ceremony is likely to be painful. The first image of Romero’s film is of a blood-red, deep-shag carpet, which is gradually revealed as soundproofing on the wall of a studio from which the zombie revolution is being televised. Accompanied by library music composer Paul Lemel’s stark orchestral groans, this opening shot perfectly encapsulates the film’s ability to imbue the mundane with an uncanny sense of unease. It is as much the distasteful shagginess of the carpet as its sanguinary color that gives the film its mood of distinctly postmodern and suburban grotesquerie.
Aesthetically, it is a surprisingly short journey to the tenement building where the undead burst from the decaying walls. One never forgets one’s first sight of human flesh being eaten by glassy-eyed, decayed humanoids, particularly when that flesh is eaten at a leisurely pace, under lurid lights leaving little to the imagination. It was only on repeated viewings that my friends and I came to notice that all of the zombies were Black or Latino and their victims were predominantly white members of the National Guard. As my initial shock gave way to understanding, I learnt one of the basic rules of good macabre filmmaking: effective social commentary emerges out of horror, not the other way around.
After the Guard’s botched ethno-zombie eviction attempt, two of the soldiers decide to join forces with a friend at the television studio who has access to a helicopter. As with Night of the Living Dead, the only consistently sensible member of this group is an African-American man, Peter (Ken Foree), who does not suffer fools gladly but has little choice in the new world order. The most foolish of this group of four is the helicopter pilot, Stephen (Kenneth Emge), who nearly kills Peter in an ill-advised rescue attempt during a refueling stop at a rural filling station. The most complex character is Fran (Gaylen Ross), the unfortunate bearer of Stephen’s child, who holds her own against the rising testosterone levels that seem an inevitable part of most apocalyptic scenarios. Their escape route takes them over a hellish tableau made of equal parts Hieronymous Bosch and James Dickey (of Deliverance fame), as bib-overalled, bearded militia groups drink beer and take potshots at the undead. As middle-class suburban kids, my friends and I particularly enjoyed this sequence, as we laughed at the stupid rednecks while train-spotting make-up artist Tom Savini’s seemingly infinite variations on the theme of fleshly decay.
The film’s satirical edge sharpens when the group decides to hole up in a giant shopping mall, and Romero’s portrayal of undead-consumerism has become a central component of the now-ubiquitous zombie-apocalypse mythos. Explanations for the current popularity of such narratives are, of course, as abundant as the narratives themselves, but few have much to add to the meta-commentary offered by Romero’s film. My friends and I grew up in the Land of Malls, and while this is in some sense true of all Americans, it was literally true for Minnesotans, who escaped frigid winters by holing up in the first enclosed shopping mall, Victor Gruen’s Southdale, later migrating through its endless architectural and marketing variations. As with the rednecks shooting zombies, we laughed at the zombie-shoppers, so driven by consumerism that they shopped even after they dropped.
Looking back, I can now see the irony of laughing at mindless mall-goers from inside a mall theater. I can also see that many of the most important events of my early life took place in that mall theater: I cried when Pinocchio became a real boy, I took my first date to see Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, and later put my arm around her and had my first kiss during The Hunger. And in looking back on these air-conditioned experiences, I realize how susceptible I am to Peter’s observation late in the film while watching the zombies trying to get in: “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just . . . remember.”
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.