The Shopping Dead: How Dawn of the Dead Satirized Consumer Culture

The 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead provides a chilling vision of late 1970s American consumer culture gone mad. Set largely within the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania, the film uses the setting of the sprawling suburban shopping center as a metaphor for the mass conformity, materialism and loss of individuality that director George Romero saw emerging in society at the time. 

With its hordes of zombies shambling through brightly-lit department stores and clumsy attempts at consumption, Dawn of the Dead serves up a vivid satire not just of consumerism, but of the American middle class suburban experience. Nearly 45 years after its release, the film remains a seminal critique of shopping culture and conformity that still resonates in an era of big box stores, eCommerce and mass marketing.

While ostensibly a horror film, Dawn of the Dead wields its frights in the service of social commentary. Its vision of zombies driven only by an urge to consume, and survivors who remain trapped by their desire for material goods, provides a dystopian extrapolation of 1970s social dynamics. Through gory metaphor, the film suggests that the mall culture promoted a kind of “zombification” of society which sacrificed individual identity in favor of material gain and conformity.

In this article, I examine how Dawn of the Dead employs its mall setting and scenes of over-the-top consumption to craft a satire of what Romero and others saw as the excesses of 1970s American consumerism and suburban lifestyles. Nearly five decades after the film’s release, its indictments of thoughtless materialism and conformity remain bitingly relevant. With zombies and social critiques in equal measure, Dawn of the Dead stands as a pioneering work of cinematic satire and a lasting portrait of the cultural dynamics of the 1970s American middle class. 

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The Rise of Shopping Malls in the 70s

Dawn of the Dead Shopping Mall Scene

The 1970s saw a massive rise in disposable income and consumer culture in America, particularly among the new suburban middle class that emerged after World War II. The postwar economic boom, rise in automobile ownership and growth of suburban communities led to the development of giant shopping malls, which became bustling social hubs and symbols of upper mobility.

The Monroeville Mall used as the setting for Dawn of the Dead was one of the first major shopping centers of its kind. Opening in 1969, it represented the apex of this new mall culture. The sprawling space of franchised shops, food courts and product displays offered not just a place to shop but an experience, a kind of materialistic mecca for the suburban bourgeois.

For Romero and others, the mall represented the conformist aspirations of the middle class and their obsession with consumption. Borrowing from the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s notions of “consumer society” and “sign value,” Romero saw malls as temples not just of commerce but of status where people went not just to shop but to gaze upon a sea of brand names and experience a sense of abundance—whether or not anything was actually purchased.

In Dawn of the Dead, the mall is portrayed as at once glittering and sinister. Its familiar facades of dime store kitsch appear warm and inviting yet also soulless and interchangeable. The droves of zombies wandering its halls consume without thought in a gross parody of the mall experience. For the surviving characters, it becomes a complex snare—promising safety, entertainment and extravagance but ultimately promoting empty escapism and a false sense of plenty that renders them trapped.

Through this vivid metaphoric use of the Monroeville Mall, Dawn of the Dead provides social commentary on how these temples of goods and plenty could feed a kind of ravenous inner hunger that leads to a loss of self—an idea as disturbing as any of the film’s undead ghouls. Romero suggests that in the “consumer society,” we risk becoming zombies in our own right.

Scenes of Consumerism in Dawn of the Dead 1978

Early scenes in Dawn of the Dead show characters casually engaged in shopping and trying on clothes, enjoying the mall experience. This establishes a sense of normalcy that is then disrupted when the zombie outbreak begins. However, even as chaos breaks out, we see characters clinging to items they want to acquire, unable to break from their consumer mindset.

One telling example is when two characters, Fran and Stephen, stop their escape from zombies to take items from an expensive furrier. “It’s like Christmas,” Fran exclaims, unable to pass up the consumerist urge even with danger closing in.

Another pointed detail is the mall’s promotional sign that reads “Take what you want but eat what you take.” This tongue-in-cheek slogan reflects how consumption has become mindless and meaningless, devoid of rational thought. The mall invites patrons to gorge themselves without limits and without utility—much like the zombies themselves do.

When the main characters take refuge in the mall, they revel in its entertainments, luxuries and escapism at first. But they soon become trapped not just physically but by their desire for the material goods around them, from impressive clothing and jewelry to a veritable wonderland of empty amusements.

One character reflects on how it was “[their] inexhaustible nature that ultimately led to [their] doom.” The mall’s endless diversions lulled them into a false sense of comfort and abundance that they then became unable to leave behind—not unlike the zombie virus itself, which spread rapidly through the close-quartered excess of the mall environment.

These scenes paint the mall as an insatiable vortex that promises satisfaction but delivers only ensnarement. Romero suggests that the impulse to mindlessly consume and acquire within such spaces cultivates its own kind of inner zombie that subsists on goods rather than thoughts or meaningful experiences. Through vivid metaphor, the film proposes that we must escape the “wonderlands” of commercial culture lest we become trapped by our desire for more and numbed against rationality or individuation.

A Deeper Meaning Rather Than Zombies

The zombies in Dawn of the Dead are portrayed as mindless consumers, driven solely by the urge to shop and feed without reason or restraint. In this way, the film suggests the new mall culture promoted a kind of “zombification” of thought, where individuals become absorbed by material acquisition for its own sake.

The main characters themselves become almost “zombified” during their time in the mall, brainlessly browsing stores, trying on clothes and reveling in the delights of consumption while losing track of the bigger picture or their own survival needs. Like the zombies, they are enthralled by the mall environment and trapped by the impulse for more stuff.

Through this vivid metaphor of zombification and consumption, Romero suggests that suburban shopping culture fostered a kind of thoughtless conformity where individual identity gives way to mass commercial values. There is little distinction drawn between the human survivors and the zombies themselves in their shared “feeding frenzy” within the mall’s walls of goods and escapism.

Both zombies and humans in these scenes are shown gorging themselves on what the mall provides without reflection or meaningful purpose. And while the zombies do so with literal hunger, the humans indulge a kind of inner craving for more and better stuff—a force that, like the zombie outbreak, seems to spread contaminatingly in such a space devoted to boundless consumption and acquisition as ends in themselves. 

The film’s disturbing social commentary proposes that the sort of rampant commercialism embodied in the suburban shopping mall could reduce us all to compliant cogs in a consumer machine, sated by surplus and spectacle into a stupor that overrides reason, morality and individual choice. Through the zombies, Romero suggests our “innate nature” may in fact be a consuming impulse gone rabid in the environs of late 20th century America if we do not guard against zombification of the mind and spirit.  Dawn of the Dead serves as a chilling vision of humanity enslaved to goods and hypnotized by “the wonderland in hell” that was the 1970s mall. 

The Impact of the film and consumerism

Dawn of the Dead is a seminal work of social satire that provides a biting critique of consumer culture which remains powerfully relevant today. Although set in the 1970s, its themes of mindless materialism, conformity and the loss of individuality in the face of mass commercial values resonate even more in today’s era of big box stores, ecommerce, social media advertising and mass marketing. 

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The film serves as a prophetic dystopian vision of American suburban life and values at their most extreme. It extrapolates the dynamics of 1970s consumer society into a vivid metaphorical “zombie apocalypse” where humanity is enslaved to empty consumption and spectacle. This disturbing social commentary casts the suburban shopping mall—that ultimate icon of commercial comfort, excess and artifice—as the lair of a kind of contagion that spreads by greed, escapism, and the search for more and better “stuff.”

Nearly 50 years after its debut, Dawn of the Dead remains the preeminent satire on society’s descent into mindless consumerism and materialism at the cost of reason, ethics and social good. Its use of zombies as a metaphor for the brainless urge to acquire and conform within the artificial wonderlands of commercial culture gives the film a lasting power and relevance in an age where those forces have only become more widespread, technology-enabled and culturally engrained.

At its heart, Dawn of the Dead is a plea for escape—not just from the undead, but from the grip of empty materialism and the loss of humanity’s spirit to mall culture, excess and spectacle. Its lasting impact lies in how potently it has translated that plea into a vision of horror we recognize all too familiarly in the world around us and may see the seeds of in ourselves. A pioneering work of cinematic social commentary, Dawn of the Dead stands as a striking portrait of suburbia’s latent dystopia that calls us still to break free from the trance of consumption and rediscover reason, ethics and human purpose.

Final Thoughts on the Connection of Consumerism in the movie

Dawn of the Dead uses its hordes of zombies and scenes of gory excess to craft a biting satire of 1970s American consumer culture and its threat to individual identity. Through its setting within a sprawling suburban shopping mall, the film portrays how a “consumer society” built around spectacle, escapism and the impulse to endlessly acquire promotes a kind of contagious “zombification.”

Both metaphorically and literally, Dawn of the Dead suggests we must escape the grip of mindless consumption and rediscover our humanity beneath the artificial trappings of commercial wonderlands. It stands as a prophetic vision of how society’s descent into empty materialism and conformity can spawn a kind of dystopia where we become trapped and enslaved to goods, losing reason and purpose to an insatiable craving for more stuff.

Nearly 50 years after the film’s debut, its themes remain powerfully resonant in an era where mass marketing, ecommerce, social media and big box mega-stores have made the dynamics it critiques even more widespread. Dawn of the Dead appears today as a pioneering and essential work of social commentary on suburbia, consumer values and what we stand to lose—our individuality, spirit and ethical compass—should we succumb to the excesses of commercial culture.

Romero’s film suggests the zombies we should fear most are not the literal undead, but rather the parts of ourselves that can be so easily zombified into conformity and mindless consumption within the gallery of options and empty experiences the “mall life” provides. His lasting message is that we must guard against inner ghouls and break free from the cycle of more—to seek purpose and meaning beyond what can be bought. As both horror film and cultural satire, Dawn of the Dead stands as a striking testament to how the suburban dream could descend into dystopian nightmare if commercialism reigns unchecked, and humanity’s primal urge to feed—whether literally or by means of consumption—subverts all else.

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