The world captured by film starts to age the moment the shutter closes, but the image captured on film makes that world stick around in memory longer than it might otherwise. Back in the ’90s, I had a conversation about George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead that’s stuck with me. A friend pointed out that part of what made the film appealing, and creepy, was the way the mall where much of the film takes place looks like malls looked when we were kids. I was fresh out of a grad-school English program at the time, and please forgive me, my first thought was that his observation was extratextual, and had nothing to do with what made the film great. Now, I’m not so sure.
I’ve watched Dawn Of The Dead many times since timidly renting it back in high school. I could spend a lot of time explaining what makes it great in the terms I usually employ as a film critic, but now I’m also pretty sure that its time-machine elements play into what makes me appreciate it. Romero shot Dawn at the Monroeville Mall outside Pittsburgh, but apart from a gun store, which the film added, and a skating rink, an unusual but not unique feature, it could be Generic 1970s Mall. My friend on the other end of the conversation grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin. I’m from the north side of Dayton, Ohio, and while that isn’t the hugest leap in geography or culture, I’m guessing that anyone who grew up in Sacramento, California or Portland, Maine could similarly recognize the mall from Dawn as resembling their own, particularly those who grew up when malls started to take a central role in consumer culture in the 1970s and ’80s. If you want to know how people lived back then—where they went and what they desired—just dig up a film set in a mall, and have a look.
Dawn Of The Dead opens after the outbreak of a zombie plague that, over the course of the film, expands to apocalyptic proportions. Its early scenes unfold in settings far removed from luxury, including an inner-city Philadelphia tenement house where the living haven’t done an effective a job of disposing of the dead. It’s a fitting starting point for a film that uses zombies as a stand-in for the divide between the haves and the have-nots in a land of plenty, and the contrast becomes starker still at the mall, where four survivors set about barricading the doorways, flushing out the undead, and setting up housekeeping. Dawn Of The Dead is a horrifying movie, but hand-in-hand with the horror is a fantasy of having it all, so long as your conception of having it all can be contained beneath the roof of a J.C. Penney.
For viewers of a certain age and inclination, it adds the fantasy of time travel to the mix. What would it be like to go back to the mall of yesteryear and make of it a playground? To thumb through the magazine racks of its Waldenbooks, or try on outfits at its Foxmoor Casuals? The mall of Dawn Of The Dead is as unmistakably of its time as the talk-box solos on Frampton Comes Alive! The wood paneling behind the sign fronts suggest a culture that isn’t quite ready to leave behind the Main Street shops that malls largely replaced, but the game rooms twinkle with images of videogames and the promise of a digital tomorrow that, in the world of the film at least, will never arrive. The setting alone suggests consumerism taken to its extreme, a self-contained world of products and gratified pleasures. In the end, it falls apart, but only after those who live there have tired of it. One of the most effective sequences in the film has little to do with zombies: The human characters, having secured the mall and everything in it for themselves, grow bored. Maybe you can have it all. But what then?
“What are they doing? Why do they come here?” one Dawn survivor asks another when they first arrive and find the mall overrun with the living dead. “Some kind of instinct,” her companion replies. “Memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” He could as easily have been speaking of the characters from Fast Times At Ridgemont High, for whom the mall is central to existence. It’s a place to shop, sure, but it’s also a place where life happens, the default hang-out spot between school, parties, and disastrous sexual adventures. It’s given pride of place in the opening shot, which drops the title over the exterior of the Ridgemont Mall (actually a mall called Santa Monica Place on the outside, and the Sherman Oaks Galleria on the inside) and it remains central through the credits, which show a mall buzzing with teen activity, only some of which involves the purchase of consumer goods. For the teens of the film, it’s important to their lives and they go there almost out of instinct.
Cameron Crowe adapted the film from his own book, a non-fiction account of a year spent undercover at San Diego’s Clairemont High School. Though the film checks all the required boxes of an ’80s teen comedy—broad gags, automotive hijinks, imparted lessons—it has a sociological agenda as well, depicting in a matter-of-fact way the more casual attitudes toward sex and drugs that so many previous films treated with shock and terror. Crowe and director Amy Heckerling set out to show how kids lived, and much of that living took place at the mall, in the shadow of fast-food restaurants and The Gap.
Except for a few scenes set after closing and an end-credits sequence that turns the lights out on the place, the mall in Fast Times is always bustling. It’s a playground of teens on the make or just hanging out, and a place that could seem like a world unto itself. It’s a different sort of place than the ’70s mall seen in Dawn Of The Dead. Though it retains some of the wood-paneling touches, it’s a brighter environment that doesn’t try to create an illusion of being a transplanted town square. It offers a different sort of experience, one with movie theaters, record stores with Blondie displays, and pizza places. Stuff for the young, in other words, which isn’t much in evidence in Dawn. The mall grew up by growing younger, and for Brad, the gawky high-schooler played by Judge Reinhold, his position at a mall hamburger restaurant feels like the Everest he was born to climb. When he loses his job and its attendant social standing, he feels the humiliation of exile (and of being caught masturbating while wearing a pirate costume). If you lost your place in the mall, in the early-’80s world of Fast Times, at least, what were you?
When Heckerling returned to the mall with the 1995 film Clueless, it wasn’t quite the same. The mall gets name-checked more than once, and at one point, protagonist Alicia Silverstone reveals a simple plan apparently applicable in any crisis: “Go to the mall, have a calorie-fest, and see the new Christian Slater.” (It was the ’90s, when the last part of that sentence made sense.) But when we actually see the mall, it’s as a place where crises happen. Brittany Murphy, who plays Silverstone’s Pygmalion-like makeover project, flirts with some strange boys and gets folded over a railing in a joking gesture that could have gone terribly wrong. Later, Murphy exaggerates and exploits her danger, making the incident into a turning point for her relationship with Silverstone.
By that time, the mall was a place where danger might await. But beyond that, it looks different, all clear, bright surfaces with none of the lived-in feel of the malls seen in the ’70s and ’80s. Set among the privilege of Beverly Hills, it’s a more upscale mall than that of Dawn or Fast Times, but the differences go beyond that. The kids hang out there, but it’s just one place they hang out. As in the real world, malls had started to lose their centrality in American shopping culture as big-box stores sprung up around them. That doesn’t mean they were unhealthy, yet, but the symptoms of a more general decline had started to appear. (Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, which appeared the same year as Clueless, was an ’80s throwback in more ways than one.)
Now, malls are in trouble. Nearly a fifth are failing, and the shells of those that have already failed have become fodder for sites like deadmalls.com, which collect unnerving images of vacant malls and the stories of those who shopped there. They’re victims of a down economy and the ease of online shopping, but their decline may be best in the long run. They turned the edges of towns into parking lots, and contributed to our dependence on cars. And even mall enthusiasts would have a hard time making a case for them aesthetically. They serve a function, but beauty isn’t one of them.
Yet when I travel back home to Ohio and drive past the parking lot that used to be the mall I frequented as a kid and teenager, I feel the ache of nostalgia. I remember what it used to be like to wander from store to store in a place that’s since been reduced to rubble. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a movie scene set in an indoor mall, except in The Lovely Bones, which takes place in the 1970s. There, the mall looks a little overdressed, a little too conspicuously filled with period items. It’s tough, after all, to recreate a place that collected all our material desires under one roof, though some films still reflect those old desires back to us across the years.