It’s 11:35 pm on a Thursday night and I’m writing whilst listening to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon. Normally I’d be fast asleep thanks to some Melantonin and general exhaustion but I’m currently on fall break holiday. Not that it’s a work holiday or anything, but the kids are off the last half of the week for fall break and I figured it’d be a good time to burn up some vacation days. Besides, the wife is in Pennsylvania for work-related reasons and it seemed to be a good idea to be home to make sure the kids don’t burn the place down while I’m hard at work…at work.
Today was the boy and I’s annual viewing of one of my all-time favorite movies, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It’s been a tradition since 2011 for us to sit and watch Romero’s classic zombie flick. Sure the make up is dated and the acting is spotty at times and characters sometimes do ridiculously stupid things, but none of those things really matter. You see, Romero captured something in his Pennsylvania-shot horror epic. You get the vibe that you could’ve known these people. You feel their angst as the beginning shots show a newsroom in chaos. Medical experts argue on air with local authorities about the situation as the camera crew, engineers, and producers scream at each other, chain smoke, and gobble down cup after cup of coffee. Racial tensions between cops and tenants at a housing project show race divisions are still alive and well, 10 years after the original Night of the Living Dead arrived. Our four main characters, a helicopter pilot, his pregnant news producer girlfriend, and two S.W.A.T. officers make it out of the crumbling Pittsburgh and find their way to “one of those indoor malls”. Inside they find the dead walking among the empty clothing stores, shoes stores, and candy shoppes. Despite death taking their ability to reason and think, they still shuffle along inside the indoor Monroeville Mall as if they were there to buy some shoes.
I’ve seen this movie several times in my life. You’d think once or twice would be enough, but I could watch it two or three times a year I think. It’s one of those films that not only has several layers of meaning to me, but it takes me back to when I first saw it over 30 years ago. I’d been at my aunt’s house for a week. It was fun going to my aunt Brenda’s house, as she had a son that was just a year younger than me so we had a blast playing together. They had a big two-story home in a neighborhood in Plymouth, Indiana, so there was plenty of room for us to get into trouble. But they were also very religious, so by the time I’d get to go back home I was ready to get back to my sinful ways of watching scary movies, listening to my hard rock, and just enjoying the general laid back attitude my parents had when it came to parenting. When my mom and I got back from her picking me up I stepped into the house and saw some videos from Video World on the kitchen counter. One of them was Dawn of the Dead. My dad had heard about the movie and picked it up before he came home. I remember we watched it after dinner that night and I was blown away. My dad rewound two or three scenes laughing out loud at the part where the zombie stood up onto the wood crates and the top of his head was sliced off by the copter blades(I think we even slow motioned that part.) We laughed at the blue-tinted Hare Krishna, the shirtless fat zombie, and the old man stumbling zombie that was on the escalator. The goofy mall music, the sales announcements(“Sales-a-poppin!”), and the store fronts; as well as the arcade, ice skating rink, and photobooth all went to create this timeless feeling for me.
Seeing that mall our protagonists were trapped in reminded me of my own mall. It looked just like the Glenbrook Mall where my mom would take me clothes shopping for school. It was set up just like the mall in Dawn of the Dead, complete with fountain and ice skating rink. Every time I’d go there after seeing Romero’s film I’d look at the expressionless faces I’d pass and think these people weren’t far off from being undead themselves. Going through the motions, mindlessly performing the act of supporting the economy by spending money they had(and in some cases didn’t have.) Stalking through the mall was like this involuntary muscle movement. We knew it so well we didn’t really have to be there in our heads. We just shuffled along, dumping money at the Foot Locker, Musicland, and Chess King. Instead of dining on the flesh of the living we’d dine on hot pretzels and a cold drink from Hot Sam. We’d go blind at the arcade, thoughtlessly dropping quarter after quarter into arcade games like Asteroids, Frogger, and Tron.
Where there’s no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the mall.
I don’t know if George Romero knew what he was creating when he made Dawn of the Dead. While he went on to make many more films(some good, some not-so good), I don’t think he ever hit all the right buttons again like he did with Dawn. It was a mix of social commentary, horror/gore, dark humor, and nostalgia. It wasn’t nostalgia at the time the film was made, but given that most of those indoor malls have gone by the wayside and have been closed, in lieu of more trendy outdoor malls and the more convenient online shopping, Dawn of the Dead is showing something that most millenials these days probably wouldn’t understand. Even though I can’t stand going to the mall, there’s still a part of me that misses those days of walking the halls of Glenbrook as a teenager with my pals and gawking at girls I never had the nerve to talk to in person, or dropping coins at the Gold Mine arcade. Buying a slice of pizza in the food court and reading Fangoria zines at Waldenbooks. The mall was a rite of passage for the 80s American youth. It was ingrained in us. So much so that even in death we were searching for some great deals, an Orange Julius, and maybe a cute girl to take to the movies.
Or maybe we were just looking for some living flesh to devour. Either way, bring lots of coins.