Collins’ Crypt: Dawn Of The “Dead Malls”

When there's no more malls to visit, DAWN OF THE DEAD's satire will fall flat.

One of the things I hate about repertory screenings is when people laugh at "old" things to an excessive degree. Sure, if a character is outraged over gas costing $1.50 a gallon or something like that, it's fine to chuckle a bit, but for the most part I just don't see how something being a bit out of date is cause for laughter - especially when it comes at the expense of hearing the next line, as the filmmakers didn't work in a pause for their "joke" (it might be a revival screening, but some of us are seeing these movies for the first time!). However, there is one thing that's always tickled me for whatever reason: the conversation between Roger and Peter when they first see the Monroeville Mall in the original Dawn of the Dead:

Steven: What the hell is it?
Roger: Looks like a... shopping center. One of those big indoor malls.

Roger's tone of voice suggests only a passing familiarity with the idea of a shopping mall, the way I might describe a vape bar or one of those weird restaurants that don't serve anything with meat in it. I saw the movie for the first time not too long before I started working at a mall myself, and because I was a teenager with little sense of history, it was insane to me that they wouldn't know exactly what the mall was when they first saw it, as if it was a completely foreign concept and not, you know, THE WAY OF LIFE. But over time it made more sense to me - the fully indoor mall had only been first introduced about 20 years prior (not too far from where Monroeville was, incidentally), and they were still fairly rare at the time Dawn was produced. It's fair to assume even some 1978 audiences needed the explanation, but by the time I saw the film in 1995, there were at least three malls within my general area (one in my town, two in the next town over), with a dozen more within an hour's drive or less. Malls were just part of life, same as grocery stores and pharmacies, and would be forever and ever!

Or, not. Thanks to big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, not to mention online shopping*, malls have lost both their appeal and their usefulness over the past twenty years, to the point where they are no longer being built on the regular (after the 2008 recession, no new mall was built in the US until 2012), down from about 140 new ones a year as relatively recently as the mid 1990s. We now have frequent online pictorials of "Dead Malls", which ideally would have some connection to George Romero's masterpiece, but instead are merely all but abandoned malls, who saw their anchor stores go out of business and thus take the bulk of their traffic with them. The smaller stores start closing up as a result, and eventually there are only a few random shops (often nowhere near each other) left open, isolated and unlikely to catch anyone's eye unless they were already heading there. My usual AMC theater in Woodland Hills is located in one such mall, the former Westfield Promenade; a few stores were open the last time I bothered to venture any further from the cinema than the food court (which is also mostly gone), but I understand as of last month the last few businesses also closed up, as the mall will be demolished and turned into condos and such. 

For nostalgic reasons this makes me sad, because, well, to paraphrase a line from Dawn of the Dead itself, it was an important place in my life. The mall is where I'd do my Christmas shopping for my family when I was younger, and I paid for my first car with earnings from the job I eventually had there. In turn, that job is where I met friends I still have to this day, and while they have gone unrealized, a good chunk of the ideas for screenplays I wrote during college stemmed from brainstorming sessions during slow shifts. But there's a bigger reason it bums me out - how will people enjoy the satire of one of the best horror movies ever made, if there are no more malls? Will Roger's explanation once again be necessary to new viewers? Fans my age will always get it, but I'm not sure if it will translate as well when the idea of "going to a mall" is as foreign a concept to the next generation as "going to the drive-in" is to mine. I've gone to the drive-in a couple times, but it comes preloaded with the idea of doing something nostalgic and "outdated", rather than something that's just how it IS as going to the mall was/is for me. If mall-going is a niche activity that kids won't fully appreciate in a decade or so, will "this was an important place in their lives" make enough sense to them to know how damn sad/amusing it is? Or will the zombies flocking to the shopping center take on no more meaning than the ones going to a random farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead

What makes it interesting is that Dawn was actually way ahead of the curve when it came to the thing it was satirizing, as if Romero saw into the future and realized that malls would be everywhere before long. Even when they started declining in popularity, the film's relevance remained just as strong, perhaps even more so, as the popularity of Black Friday "doorbusters" and the like continued to rise. In the '90s (i.e. peak mall time), when I worked at the mall on Black Friday, it was just a really busy day - there was no real incentive for customers to come other than the fact that they probably had the day off and could get their shopping done early now that the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade had officially kicked off the Christmas season. The big anchor stores eventually started offering timed sales for this day, and others followed suit, each year trying to top the last, though it was really Wal-mart and their ilk who turned it from a busy shopping day into something potentially dangerous, offering limited quantities of "must-have" items at record low prices. It was all in good fun (I myself slept outside a Best Buy in 2006 hoping to score a dirt-cheap but seemingly good laptop for my wife), but in 2008 a Wal-mart employee was trampled to death by shoppers who were literally busting the door down when the store officially opened, hoping to score "amazing" deals like an 800 dollar plasma TV (the regular price would be lower than that just a few years later). Thankfully death by shoppers remains otherwise unheard of, but this behavior still killed most of my enthusiasm for the event - I find it amusing to see two idiots coming to blows over a toaster or something, but when they literally kill a man to save a few dollars on crap they don't need, it makes me not want to take any part of it.

Thankfully, despite the rarity of such tragedies (there has been only one other death, of an elderly man with a heart condition who was also trampled and later died at the hospital), the stores have diminished shoppers' thirst by extending store hours and offering most if not all of their doorbuster deals online. While it takes the "sport" out of it, this has more or less ended the need to go into a physical store at all on the day unless you just want to pick your items up instead of having them shipped (we are a nation that requires instant gratification, after all). It's had both positive and negative effects; over the past couple years, not only have Black Friday revenues declined somewhat, but tragedies have also been rarer - you still see videos of idiots fighting in Wal-mart (it's almost always Wal-mart, for whatever reason; Target shoppers are just chill I guess), but beyond some pulled hair and the occasional bruise there's usually no serious harm done. The last actual DEATH related to the holiday that I could find was in 2012, when a man fell asleep at the wheel and crashed, killing two of his daughters - the whole family was out late shopping, as it turns out. The "official" site for such things, Black Friday Death Count, didn't report any major incidents at all for 2015, as most of the few reports of violence (such as a shooting in Lousiana that injured one) were determined to be unrelated to anyone trying to score a cheap TV (there was also a staged video of a lady taking a young child's, er, vegetable steamer? Try harder, fakers!). But with people buying online, they're also cutting back on the impulse buying, which is what leads to the zombie-like behavior in the first place. Like the other zombies following the Hare Krishna one to the heroes' hideout, it's people seeing others getting a good deal and deciding they have to have it to that results in a lot of that carnage we've seen on Youtube - when you're buying at home there's no sense of what others are doing.

I bring up these sales because every year, without fail, someone will take an image off the news of people lined up outside a Best Buy or something, and juxtapose it with the above shot from Dawn. As malls died off, it was basically this sort of behavior at the big chain stores that would keep the satire alive, but now even that seems to be a declining fad thanks to early sales and online shopping. I went to Best Buy last year to pick up my new toy (a PS4 I ordered) and it didn't really look much different than a normal busy day at the retail giant - the giant bins of games, controllers, thumb drives, etc. were slowing me down more than the people, a far cry from just two years before where I waited in line for 90 minutes to get a discounted Kindle (I spent my time in line talking to a guy who had four TVs in his cart, asking me if I knew if any of them were "any good"). Likewise, since I have to go to Target every week anyway for household supplies and food, I opted to go on Friday instead of the usual Saturday, in case any of the cheap Blu-rays caught my fancy - and I actually managed to get in and out FASTER than I do on average, as they had every register opened instead of the usual 3-4, but with roughly the same number of customers that are in the store every weekend. Granted, my experience does not mirror everyone's, and it might have been a fluke, but it seems that the mob mentality and bloodthirsty behavior that reminds folks of Romero's nightmarish vision is, if not dying out like malls, becoming more manageable. I don't doubt there will be reports of violence this year, but if we can count on the press to do their due diligence (HAH!) I'm sure we will discover that most incidents were over politics, not Playstations.

Luckily, Romero already thought of that, too. His 2005 film Land of the Dead was very much influenced by 9/11 and political climate that followed (Dennis Hopper's character was modeled after Donald Rumsfeld, in fact), but as I pointed out last week, it can just as easily be an early satire of Trump, as Hopper's villain stays protected in his tower with the other rich people while poor folks fight his battles for him, and then scoffs when one of them assumes he will care about their support. Not that Dawn couldn't be reassessed as a more politically minded zombie film, but with Land doing it so much more overtly, it doesn't make a lot of sense to make a case for it. And they already did a remake, which I quite liked but will be first to admit had almost zero social commentary, so we're probably (hopefully?) a ways off from the time where it's OK to do another, perhaps using the death of mall culture as a backdrop. No, as far as mocking excessive consumerism goes, Dawn of the Dead is and always shall be the gold standard, and if the world eventually moves away from in-person shopping entirely, leaving the metaphor a complete wash, we can at least enjoy it on its face value... and continue buying it on whatever format comes next, watching it on our increasingly bigger and better TVs.

*It has its advantages. For example:

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