In “The Terrazzo Jungle,” Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker article observing the 50-year anniversary of the mall, Gruen’s disappointment is laid bare. “[Late in life,] he revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in ‘severe emotional shock,’” writes Gladwell. “Malls, he said, had been disfigured by ‘the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking’ around them. Developers were interested only in profit. ‘I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,’ he said in a speech in London, in 1978.”
Gruen’s vocal opposition to what malls had become offers a fairly damning commentary on their place in American society today. And it’s worth noting, at least for the sake of synchronicity, that the Viennese architect publicly disowned his creation the same year that Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released. Perhaps that’s because Gruen not only realized that his shopping mall concept had failed to spur the thriving suburban core he envisioned, but that its sustainability for the long term may not have been feasible.
In the 35 years since the release of Romero’s seminal film, the shopping mall has, in many ways, become a faded monument to the aspirations of post-World War II Americans. Today the suburban dream, which once featured the mall as a utopian-like centerpiece, has become a nightmare for so many. In the wake of the Great Recession, mortgage foreclosures and unemployment still plague the lower and middle classes. And the problems that led so many to flee to the safety of the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s — crime, drugs, and plummeting property values — have long existed in the planned communities just outside the city limits. In fact, the American shopping mall as we see it in Dawn of the Dead, and as so many Americans remember it, no longer exists. Perhaps that’s why nostalgia for the halcyon days of the shopping mall has become so strong in recent years.
Built in 1969 and situated on 170 acres of land that spanned 1.4 million square feet, Monroeville Mall embodied the quintessential shopping experience of the day. As the first indoor shopping mall in Pennsylvania, it featured hundreds of stores in a climate-controlled environment designed, like so many shopping malls across the country, to act as both civic gathering place and consumer paradise. Living gardens, water fountains, and idyllic pedestrian bridges overlooking ponds filled with koi and goldfish were situated between shops like G.C. Murphy Co., Kenny Kardon, and The Candy Tree; a theatrical stage encircled by sunken seating framed the entrance to the Joseph Horne Co. department store at one end, while a clock tower with animatronic puppets that emerged each hour (representing the different ethnicities of Pittsburgh) stood in a large common area outside of Gimbels department store at the other end; restaurants and lounges like the Brown Derby and Di Pomodoro dotted the upper and lower levels; and an indoor ice skating rink, dubbed the Ice Palace, urged visitors to further immerse themselves in the experience.
Walk into Monroeville Mall today, however, and there are few if any signs of the consumer oasis that Romero captured on film. Primarily that’s because shifting economic climates have forced mall management corporations to maximize their selling space. In response, features like the mall’s living gardens have been removed, replaced with kiosks where minimum wagers hawk Proactiv Solution and fluorescent iPhone covers. The former site of the clock tower, dismantled sometime in the 1990s, sits empty, a shuttered store front in the background. And the Ice Palace, which once held the distinction of being the first ice skating rink in an enclosed mall on the East Coast, was removed in 1983 and replaced with a food court. Like so many of the nation’s established malls, remodeling efforts and a willingness to embrace change has enabled destinations such as Monroeville Mall to remain financially solvent. Those same changes, however, have also slowly removed all traces of the mall’s once-distinct identity.
“Most malls now are homogenous,” says Jason Damas, co-founder of Labelscar.com and Schendel’s partner in the site. “They’re just not as interesting as they used to be. The kind of emotional attachment that I and [so] many others have for malls is tied to the way they were decades ago.“
Despite the decline of the American shopping mall over the last two decades — chronicled in every publication from The Economist and The Atlantic, to Time and Forbes — a certain type of immortality still surrounds these institutions. It’s primarily emotional, of course, evidenced by the hundreds of blogs, websites, Flickr pools, and Facebook groups that memorialize the shuttered malls and shopping centers that were once significant in our lives. In truth, it’s a sentiment best expressed in Romero’s world, where the rigors of reality are purposely blurred.
When the four main characters in Dawn of the Dead stumble upon Monroeville Mall as a potential safe haven, it’s the first time we see Romero use his blue-faced zombies to depict the muscle memory of the American consumer. As the undead roam the hallways and common areas of the mall, mimicking their own past behaviors, they lumber to the Muzak that once scored their weekend shopping trips. And that’s when Peter, the SWAT officer played by Ken Foree, utters a line that may best encapsulate the reasoning behind our undying loyalty to the American shopping mall: “They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”