Don’t let this post on consumerism in horror movies fool you into thinking I’ve been productive and industrious today.
On this, Black Friday 2017, I have spent an irresponsible amount of money not on friends and family, but on myself. I have no regrets. I didn’t even have to leave the couch to take part in the great American tradition of buying things I don’t need, the day after eating a ton of food I didn’t need.
But I loved it. I do it every year–I munch on Thanksgiving leftovers and hoard coupon codes, grabbing up books and music and clothes and makeup.
That got me to thinking about horror and the horror movies that tackle consumerism. Everyone knows about films like Dawn of the Dead and They Live, but the meteoric rise of material goods and availability post World War II has embedded itself into the very fabric of American pop culture. And whenever we bake something into our national consciousness, it comes out in our horror movies, sooner or later.
Again, some of those movies that confront our materialism are thoughtful horror movies that elevate the discussion. Others don’t pretend to be anything more than a fab 1980s slasher flick that just so happens to occur in a mall. Either way, consumerism in all its shapes and forms, from zombies to haunted malls to obsessive serial killers reflects this very American way of life.
Here are 9 movies (of varying quality) about consumerism, shopping, and the desire to acquire material goods.
Dawn of The Dead (1978)
George A. Romero lived to put political messages and societal critiques in his zombie movies. His attack on consumerism is far from subtle in Dawn of the Dead, where a mundane suburban shopping mall becomes the centerpiece. The survivors of the zombie apocalypse flee to the mall for the resources and a brief, somewhat ridiculous materialistic refuge from the end of the world. The zombies flock there because the impulse to shop is so deeply embedded in their brains that it survives death. (Not going to lie, if I was a zombie, I’d still be trying to hit up Nordstrom and Ulta à la the zombies in Dawn of the Dead.) Even in the face of horror, we can’t seem to quit our drive to acquire.
Like many of the filmmakers on this list, David Cronenberg has always included pointed, if not overt, explorations of political and social themes in his work. Videodrome takes aim at television, the stuff we choose to watch, and the way technology cripples us. Cronenberg views it as a dangerous enabler not just of humanity’s materialism but also our bloodlust. Videodrome is a frightening treatise on the ways the powerful use the pervasive presence of technology to control the masses, as well as a prophetic message of how technology at once stokes our impulsive desires and desensitizes us to reality.
The Stuff (1985)
The Stuff may seem like a mere cheesy, low-budget send-up of the American obsession with dieting and health foods (which it is), but it’s much more than that. The Stuff gets at American consumerism at large, implicating everyone from never-satisfied consumers to corporations who greedily and ignorantly push harmful products to the models who help sling the stuff. It’s all too easy to hand over rational thought to the colorful, loud ads yelling at you through the TV. It’s all too easy to eat junk marketed as The Next Best Thing. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean you should do it.
Chopping Mall (1986)
All you really need to know about Chopping Mall is that it’s a righteously 80s slasher about how a mall hired a bunch of state-of-the-art robot security guards to replace human guards, a group of teenagers decided to have an overnight party in the mall’s furniture store, lightning strikes the robots’ computer control, and the robots go berserk on the teens. That alone should be enough to make you want to see this.
I could read a lot into the movie that isn’t there, like how this is about how the promise of rampant consumerism is dangerous to the youths, or that the ruthless pursuit of wealth produces monsters, but I won’t. There really isn’t any genius anti-consumerism subtext in cult classic Chopping Mall, but there is a lot of campy fun. And yes, an over-the-top and general warning about the pervasiveness of technology. But mostly, see this for the 80s-horror fun.
They Live (1988)
In John Carpenter’s classic sci-fi horror They Live, a race of aliens has secretly infiltrated and taken over Los Angeles, with plans to fully colonize Earth. The key to their success is a special frequency signal that is broadcast over Los Angeles, which not only hides the aliens’ true appearance but camouflages all the authoritarian, subliminal messages the aliens use to control the human population. See for yourself.
In true John Carpenter form, They Live satirizes and attacks everything from President Reagan’s politics to classism to yuppie culture to the overwhelming consumerism of 1980s America.
Phantom of The Mall: Eric’s Revenge (1989)
This movie is awful, but in a campy, “’80s cheese at its finest” kind of way. Any potential for a maybe-compelling story is introduced quickly—Eric and his parents refuse to sell their home, which happens to be on a lot where an evil corporation wants to build a mall, so the corporation hires someone to burn down their house and kill everyone inside. But this backstory is discarded as quickly as it is introduced, and the movie devolves into ridiculous kills, cringe-worthy dialogue, bad car stunts, escalators, hilaribad “moody” shadows, and bizarre attempts at “scares.” It even has a catchy, kind of offensive theme song!
Side question: Why did Morgan Fairchild agree to do this movie?
I love how that girl just stands there and watches!
Needful Things (1993)
This isn’t the best movie ever, but I have always been struck by how the story examines our relationship with material goods. Why is it important to have certain knick-knacks that have no function—a figurine, a baseball card, a first edition of a book? Based on the 1991 Stephen King novel of the same name, Needful Things shows how the people of Castle Rock put a lot of meaning and purpose into things they didn’t need and couldn’t use, which ensnared them in the wicked schemes of villain Gaunt.
As a viewer, it’s easy to judge the characters for being so obsessed by trinkets. But then again, we all do this. A lot of us obsess over certain items, like jewelry or toys that have no other value besides what we’ve assigned them. And a lot of us chase after the latest cars or phones or shoes when we don’t actually need them. Maybe we’re materialistic; maybe we’re hurting and the object allows us to displace a little bit of pain. Truth is, human beings love to love things, and Needful Things (clumsily) points out that such misplaced devotion opens us up to sinister forces.
American Psycho (2000)
While a very different movie than They Live, American Psycho takes similar aim at the yuppie culture of the 1980s, among them capitalist greed, heartless politics, and, of course, empty consumerism that nonetheless became a central focus of the decade. Admittedly, the novel captures a lot of more of Patrick Bateman’s overwhelming and debilitating obsession with having the best money can buy. But the film does a great job, depicting how an insecure, homicidal, maniacal yuppie struggles to give his life purpose with face creams, sheets he can only get in Santa Fe, Valentino Couture suits, Oliver’s Peoples glasses, slightly better haircuts, business cards with subtle off-white coloring and a tasteful thickness and even a watermark, Huey Lewis and the News albums, and very fine Chardonnays you’re not drinking. It’s exhausting and disturbing and pathetic.
Dawn of The Dead (2004)
Back when Zack Snyder wasn’t entirely reliant on shitty CGI and too much slow-mo, he helmed the remake of the Dawn of the Dead. To his credit, it’s actually a really good remake, benefitting from the larger budget, the advancements in special effects, fast zombies, and a solid cast. Snyder also injected nuance and fresh insight into the film to reference the original’s message but not copy it. There’s a lot more of the characters exploring the mall, which is a very well-stocked and fun trap for the survivors. And there are waaay more characters in the remake than in the original, which sacrifices character development but allows more kinds of people to occupy the narrative as archetypes of American culture. More so than the original, the remake explores the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots and how the powerful seek to preserve their control of wealth and resources.
I hope y’all have had a good Black Friday and will have a good Cyber Monday! Be safe out there!