Romero’s and Bakhtin’s Apocalyptic Carnival

25 June 2014

George Romero’s movie, Dawn of the Dead celebrates the violent excess and grotesque spectacle that Mikhail Bakhtin would be likely to term a world turned upside down. The film is filled with zombies invading the public spaces, wandering the streets all hours of the day and night like the revelers of carnival. According to “Mikhail Bakhtin: Carnival and Carnivalesque – Summary and Review” from the website The Cultural Studies Reader, “But the town square and its adjacent streets were the central site of the carnival, for they embodied and symbolized the carnivalesque idea of being universal and belonging to all people” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.)  The zombies thrive on the basest of urges, the urge to eat. The zombies of Dawn of the Dead are male, female, rich, poor, powerful, and lowly. The zombies in this film are diverse with examples of nun zombies and Hari Krishna zombies as well as a zombie in a nurse’s outfit and one fat zombie in swim trunks. There are zombies dressed for every profession and every recreational activity. In fact, the zombies have the look of individuals in costume. And when you include thick white makeup that the actors must wear to look like they are dead, the zombies in this film begin to resemble clowns on parade. As clowns, the zombies of Dawn of the Dead fit perfectly into Bakhtin’s of carnival. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead fits perfectly into the literary tradition of the carnivalesque; horror movies in general and especially zombie movies supply the cultural transgression that audiences need to continue to live within the strictly controlled structure of today’s society.

Dawn of the Dead begins by showing the chaos going on inside the newsroom of a television broadcasting network. While the people inside the newsroom are safe from the riot and death in the streets, their job as purveyors of mass media make them especially aware of the danger that is brewing in the streets. The awareness of the danger in the streets causes then to act erratically and panic. The fear and panic that the newscasters feel is spread to the individual residences through television programing. This radiating of fear, panic, and bad decisions from the streets to the media and then out to the people’s private residences parallels the way that carnivalesque is able to penetrate into all facets of society. The web article says, “[The carnival] penetrated the house […] and did not exist just in the public sphere or town square” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) And the fear and panic that spreads to everyone in immediate danger or just informed of it is given license to do things that would have been unthinkable before the beginning of the zombie outbreak. The web article states, “…Behavior that was otherwise unacceptable is legitimate in carnival, and human nature’s hidden sides are revealed” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) Peter, Francine, Roger, and Stephen all show no remorse when stealing gas to refuel their helicopter or looting the stores in the mall for the items that they need (Dawn of the Dead 1979.) But they did not just stop at the necessities; they looted high end clothing, electronic devices, and other luxury items that they definitely did not need. And all of this was deemed acceptable because of the extreme circumstances of the zombie outbreak. In fact, there is even a news cast within the film that directs the survivors to “remove the head or destroy the brain” of the zombie (Dawn of the Dead 1979.) The idea that a news authority would authorize the general public to murder other people on sight indicates the extent to which the laws have been loosened during this time of zombie carnival.

According to the web article, “The central ritualistic act of the carnival is the false coronation and deposition of the carnival king” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The initiating act of all zombie films, not just Dawn of the Dead, is the rise of the zombie to a position of power, and the main conflict in Dawn of the Dead is the deposition of the zombie usually by inflicting some sort of violent trauma to the head of the zombie. In Dawn of the Dead, the supplanting of normal society by zombies acts as a de facto coronation of the king of the carnival. The carnival king is chosen from someone that is the exact opposite of a king (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The zombies of this film are far from regal kingly material. While a king is an exalted example of what a human can become, a zombie is the most degraded example of what a human become. A king is stately and impeccably dressed while a zombie is hunched over, decomposing, and dressed in the tattered remnants of clothing. The web article states, “The carnival unites the two poles of change and crisis, birth and death, old and young, down and up, wisdom and stupidity etc. the dualistic imagery is characteristic of the carnival for their contradiction” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) Carnival’s dualism is also apparent within the desiccating corpse of the zombie. Birth and death unites in the zombie. The moment of a zombie’s birth is the death of the human that had once inhabited the body. The zombie is effectively immortal combining young and old in an eternally ambulatory corpse. While the zombie has lost its ability to think for itself, it is still motivated to eat and create more zombies by an instinctual drive. Instinct is a form of wisdom passed down through the genes, and therefore wisdom and stupidity are united in the zombie as well.

The final scene of Dawn of the Dead shows Peter and Francine flying off in the helicopter into the noon day sky, into the pristine pastoral paradise of forest and blue sky accented with big puffs of white clouds. Francine’s departure in the late stages pregnancy leaves the film with a sense of hope for rebirth and renewal of the Earth. And Peter and Francine serve as an Adam and Eve analogue, and their escape into the untouched wilderness resembles a return to Eden.  But this act of renewal and rebirth would mean very little without the death and destruction caused by the zombies. The degradation of normal society to its basest animal instincts is what allows the escape of Peter and Francine to have any significance. Bakhtin believes that the cycle of change and renewal, death and rebirth that is represented in carnival is what allows people to continue to function within the strict structure of society (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The web article states, “The carnival for Bakhtin is a festival of time which exterminates all and renews all” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.)

As a festival of time Dawn of the Dead is displayed to the general public within the confines of a 128 minute movie. The public’s consumption of this movie also follows within the confines of Bakhtin’s theory of carnivalesque. The movie audiences share in the enjoyment of this bloody carnival. The feelings of being a coconspirator in the cultural transgressions and sacrilegious debate allow the viewers of Dawn of the Dead and movies like it to have the feeling of change and renewal that allow them to go on with the rest of their boring daily lives and stay in lockstep with the constricting rules of society.

Work Cited

Romero, G. Dawn of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1979. Film.

“The Cultural Studies Reader.” Mikhail Bakhtin: “Carnival and Carnivalesque” – Summary and Review. Web. 26 June 2014. <http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.com/2011/07/mikhail-bakhtin-carnival-and.html&gt;.

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