Dawn of the Dead, Romero (1978), Shopping Mall


In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas’s concept of dirt as ‘matter out of place’, describes the experience of the ugly object as something ‘which is in the wrong place;’ something that is there but ‘should not be there.’ This concept of monstrosity generously lends itself in regards to place as well as object. In Romero’s 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, the main characters take sanctuary inside a suburban shopping mall. The mall is overrun with zombies, as traces of the dead’s former memories lead them to the place they once spent so much leisure time. The shopping mall is monstrous in how it so genuinely attracts, ‘that which is in the wrong place,’ the mall then in itself becomes ‘the wrong place’ as the survivors trapped inside must work to clear the space, ‘radically excluding’ the dead and creating a makeshift home for themselves. The mall was once a place where law, order and cleanliness resided; this image of the place is confronted when it becomes that of the criminal, disorderly, dirty, immoral and monstrous.

The shopping mall is monstrous architecturally, in that in its newfound purpose, it lacks clear boundaries, allowing for transgression. This lack of confinement poses a major threat to the survivors inside; the threat of contamination. The fear of contagion begins to alter the mindsets of the people inside, driving them mad. The major goal in the plot of Dawn of the Dead is to avoid the zombies by clearing out the mall, creating boundaries to separate the living from the dead, the respectable from the “threat.” In Approaching Abjection, Kristeva argues that the abject confuses categories, as it exists between subject and object. Being something that essentially disturbs order and transgresses, her notion of the abject relates to Douglas’s ideas about dirt. As Kristeva states: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order, what does not respect borders, positions, rules.” The living find themselves hostage to the dead while dwelling in a place that once represented the luxurious and material advance of society.


1. Kristeva, Julia, and Leon S. Roudiez. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Web.

Kristeva’s essay explores the concept of the abject within the realm of psychoanalysis and its philosophical foundations. She argues that the abject is neither object nor subject and suggests that the object puts one in search of meaning and the abject collapses meaning. This statement is also posed in psychoanalytic terms: “to each ego its object, to each superego its abject.” Kristeva goes on to consider the protection that comes with repugnance; she indicates retching, vomiting, loathing, gagging, spasm as modes of being that impel one away from what she describes as defilement, sewage. I found it interesting and relevant to my research on the monstrosity of place, that Kristeva argues that the conditions of living are not merely the bodily processes but also the psychological. As Kristeva states: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order, what does not respect borders, positions, rules.” The zombies in Dawn of the Dead are examples of the Kristeva’s concept of the deject: the deject is the one by whom the abject exists. Kristeva describes this figure as a kind of transient. Later in the essay, Kristeva locates the place of the abject in a variety of other disciplines and thinkers. It is from this perspective that she identifies a formative capacity to the abject in the domain of religion and continues her critique of psychoanalysis, extending it to its philosophical roots in Plato.

2. Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger; an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966. Print.

This essay is split up into three general ideas about Purity and Taboo: dirt and pollution, rituals and religion, and them and us. Mary Douglas argues that all modern cultures have concepts of what is pure and impure, clean and taboo. She offers a view on how cleanness and uncleanness serve as symbolic functions to maintain society’s boundaries, and argues that being “unclean” is being out of place. Additionally, she argues that rituals help create clearly defined boundaries around purity and aberrations that assure society that the world is more certain and that help provide a set of tools with which to more easily understand the world and act in it. She writes about ritual cleanness and uncleanness, and the role that rituals of purity and pollution play in both primitive and advanced societies. Since her focus is on ritual cleanliness and pollution, she is only addressing certain kinds of situations in which disgust may or may not arise, and the disgust itself is not her main focus. Her overarching claim is that ritual pollution tends to reinforce the structure of a given society, defending the boundaries of that structure when they’re threatened. As such the idea of pollution is fundamentally conservative, helping to maintain the status quo in the face of whatever forces may be threatening it.

3. Gannon, Todd. “Return of the Living Dead: Archigram And Architecture’s Monstrous Media.” JSTOR. JSTOR, 2008. Web.

This essay focuses on the social message Romero sends in his production of Night of the Living Dead, and how this message is also reflected in the architecture of the 1960’s. He begins by asserting that zombies inhabit the unruly space between categories and demonstrate the transformative potential lurking within all of us. The zombie is the ordinary individual transformed by and absorbed into an overwhelming mass of humankind. Zombies are usually the product of human intervention or science gone awry. The main claim in this article is that too much technology leads to trouble—humans experiment at everyone’s peril. Architecture is explained as a static form imbued with representational meaning; it vanishes and is replaced with an ever-updated kit of gadgetry purposed to enhance human life. I found this point particularly striking in regards to my topic. In architecture as elsewhere, such advice is rarely heeded. By a pervasive revolutionary zeitgeist, radical upstarts in England, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere unleashed projects and polemics that shook the discipline to its core and in their wake, a series of un-built and unbuildable aberrations—the architectural undead. The shopping mall opens the possibility of eradicating the difference between the human and the non-human. Like Romero’s contemporaneous zombies, this bold step into a technological future suggests a fundamental transformation of human subjectivity.

4. Bayer-Berenbaum, Linda. The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art. Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1982. Print.

This text demonstrates the connection between Gothic literature and art by analyzing the plot patterns, characters, and settings in Gothic stories and the construction and motifs of Gothic art from a stylistic, historical, and psychological approach. The reader experiences several main objectives in the text: literary terms, the main elements of gothic literature, gothic architecture and the role of the unknown. The content of the gothic generally refers to the social or political events that surround the composition and publication of a literary work or gothic art, and how gothic texts reflected and responded to these changes. Gothic literature violates many mainstream values and norms. As such, it exists as a commentary on the ways eighteenth-century society was structured. Gothic texts critiqued everything from the standards of art and literature to the roles of women in society. Gothic literature takes its themes of terror, darkness, sublimity, and confusion from Gothic architecture. Most gothic buildings are religious buildings: abbeys, cathedrals, and monasteries. I found it applicable not just to gothic literature, but the horror genre as a whole, its attempts to explore the innermost recesses of our society and ourselves. Gothic novels attempt to create for their readers “pleasing terror” by considering elements of human psychology and social acts that were often suppressed in the polite culture of the eighteenth century. These elements are the supernatural, the past, and the exotic.


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