In 1974, the film-maker George A Romero was invited by an acquaintance to see a shopping centre he ran in Monroeville. Romero was fascinated by the mall – the way people ambled around the halls, staring blankly into windows, buying things they most likely didn’t need. He was bemused by the strange blissful state that people were reduced to, shuffling along white-tiled, glass-roofed cathedrals to capitalism.
As a result, Romero set his next film, the zombie horror Dawn Of The Dead, inside the Monroeville Mall, seeing the building itself as a kind of architectural zombie, slowly digesting the consumers that shuffled along its various wings as though they were moving through a digestive tract; the consumer as consumed.
This lengthy, po-faced preamble is my way of telling you that I don’t really like shopping centres. I think of Dawn Of The Dead every time I find myself being dragged to a sprawling retail park, and I approach them with the same sense of dread one would the end of the world. These are places without soul, as thanks to the virus that is globalisation, one out-of-town shopping centre is much the same as the last. Chain shops, chain cafes, chain restaurants and chains of us poor fools, wandering around trying to find our way out.
The greatest horror of these places is that once you have kids, they become a regular port of call, because they are so gloriously safe. A city centre is a vibrant, buzzing place, with a sense of adventure and discovery. Independent cafes, independent book shops, independent thought – the city centre has it all. Granted, it also has a vape shop every three steps and loads of the units are boarded up, but still – it is an organic, cultured place, where you can just sit back and delight in the hustle and bustle. It is also home to the constant threat that one of your kids is going to get clipped by a wing mirror or force you to listen to a busker playing The Fields Of Athenry on the pan pipes, as danger is everywhere. Shopping centres are not like this at all – there is no danger here, unless you count being brushed by a passing Little Tikes car as being worthy of a compo claim, which given our world today, seems highly likely.
A trip to your local shopping centre is a way of quietly admitting that you no longer want surprises – you want convenience, and ample parking, and predictability. Sure, there is the occasional moment of mild confusion when a new donut shop opens where the old donut shop used to be, but that’s about it. Everything is the mostly the same, forever.
I find myself becoming like one of Romero’s zombies when I go to our local shopping centre – you get that dead eyed stare from looking at products that you don’t need, and eventually you start staring at other people in the same mildly-interested way. It’s like when you go to the zoo and find yourself staring at a family eating a picnic in much the same way you stared at a lonely rhino rolling in dung.
Aside from the somnambulist state I find myself slipping into every time make a pilgrimage to one of these places, the most depressing thing about them is the message they bring – that excitement is currently out of stock in my life, and may actually have been discontinued completely. Sometimes we go there without really needing anything – this isn’t a shopping trip, it’s a day out. We are drawn to their offerings of shelter from both the rain and the sound of pan pipes, the predictability of chain restaurants and knowing exactly what the kids will and will not eat off the menu, the ability to park our bloated people carrier without causing structural damage to the inside of a multi-storey, and the quiet acceptance that I am the zombie now, standing outside Zara with my mouth hanging open, brain operating on about 3% of its functions, wondering if that donut place is open so I can shove some pink gelatinous goo into my face. As for the Monroeville mall, last year a local filmmaker crowdsourced enough money to erect a bronze bust of George A Romero on the main thoroughfare of the centre, and it sits there, broadly smiling, as the undead shoppers of America amble past.