November 22, 2012
My favorite Thanksgiving movie? "Dawn of the Dead," the 1978 George A. Romero follow-up to his zombie paean of a decade earlier, "Night of the Living Dead." Here's why.
So many films from so many countries have captured the essence of festive or turbulent holiday gatherings of one kind or another, from the candle-lit family dynamics of Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" to the Steve Martin/John Candy acrimony turned to affection in John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." The holidays, using the phrase and the late November/late December timeline loosely, are about simple pleasures. The bond of family. Old friends. New friends. Tradition spiced with tantalizing intimations of the future.
But Thanksgiving is also about Black Friday, the shopping day after Thanksgiving. And Black Friday means a trip to the mall, for millions of stuffing-stuffed consumers determined, single-handedly, to bring the economy back from the fiscal cliff.
This is why "Dawn of the Dead" spells Thanksgiving: It reminds us, forcefully, of the consumer angle, with great good cheer and a few thousand gallons of fake blood. Much of Romero's film takes place in a Pennsylvania shopping mall, after the zombie apocalypse. Think back to the late '70s, when malls were new. Romero's script couldn't take the audience's familiarity with these urban entities for granted. Can you imagine such a time? "Looks like...a shopping center," one survivor says to another, as they spy their new home away-from-home from an aerial view. "One of those big indoor malls."
The zombies like this place. Why? Why do they continue to congregate here? "A kind of instinct," opines the human. "Memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."
In Romero's jaundiced world view, the sight of the undead stumbling up and down escalators to nowhere, or splashing in a typical unglamorous mall fountain, grabbing fistfuls of pennies out of the water, is no more or less troubling than any other mall crowd.
Today, the relative sparseness of the zombie crowds in "Dawn of the Dead" is enough to give a recession-strapped retailer serious pause. This is where Romero and Black Friday part company. On the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, retailers dream of "Day of the Locust" mob scenes, not a few handfuls of "Dawn of the Dead" casual undead shoppers. Part critique of consumer culture, part head-splattering effects blowout, Romero's film is a period piece for the ages.
Would the online shopping experience be as conducive to a zombie picture? Unlikely. And yet I'd love for Romero, or a Romero-inspired filmmaker, to prove me wrong.
Hope your Thanksgiving was nice.
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