Dawn of the Dead


With Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber and Mekhi Phifer
Directed by Zack Snyder


There is no space for liberalism in the horror story, which proceeds from the assumption that there is something drastically wrong with the world. The horror story is thus dominated by either a conservative view that something has disrupted the natural state of affairs, or the left-wing view that there is something askew with that very state of affairs itself.

For the liberal, it is a matter of a little tweak here, a small change there, and society will right itself, just as one might offer a vampire a bloody mary in the hope it will decide not to take to your neck. Neither strategy is likely to succeed.

The zombie movie has a long history of social critique. It emerged after the second world war as an expression of the anxieties of the time, most obviously communism and conformity. For the conservative, the zombie may well be the enemy within, the group mind (or mindless), infiltrating the good society and destroying what is best. In the United States this means especially Americans' precious individualism.

However, the conservative horror movie preferred the alien as a metaphor for communism because it was an external enemy. The zombie lent itself to left-wing critiques because it was an essential part of that society — usually your neighbour, your friend, your partner, your child.

Zombie movies take place in the suburban belts that grew so fast in the post-war period, with their apparently perfect blend of country and city, of identical houses filled with the latest commodities for easy living, of shopping centres each modeled on each other.

With identical haircuts and clothes, our four-door station-wagons perfectly suited for our two children, with our television shows at night aimed so clearly at the "middle-Australia", is it not possible that we have turned into zombies? Such, in any case, is the terrain from which much horror narrative springs.

Dawn of the Dead ploughs this terrain without the obvious social critique that distinguished earlier horror movies such as the (soon to be released remake of) feminist Stepford Wives.

A remake of the 1977 sequel to Night of the Living Dead, which was more ambitious in its social critique, Dawn of the Dead keeps the trappings of suburbia, with the characters trapped in a mall surrounded by zombies, yet prefers to concentrate on a deft yet superficial blend of action, suspense, humour and love story. It is all standard Hollywood fare, done well but without originality. If zombie movies are your thing, you'll like it.

That Dawn of the Dead comes quickly after the zombie movie 28 Days After, which reflects the decaying British social structure, the degenerating capitalism of a used-up empire. By contrast, Dawn of the Dead is an American movie, and its characters are resourceful action heroes, good in a pinch.

The production of these two movies indicates the heightening of anxieties and fears in a world that has lost its way, in which your neighbour is just as dangerous as anyone else is. This should not surprise us in the wake of the 9/11 and the incessant government campaigns warning of the threat of "terrorists" living among us. The horror story indicates again that people feel there is something drastically wrong.

From Green Left Weekly, July 7, 2004.
Visit the