“Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” Miss Luckmore, In Fabric
Inspired by memories of his home town during his teen years, writer-director Peter Strickland realised the image of queues outside shops at 5am for the January sales captured the eeriness he hoped to convey in a ghost story. It became the creative spark behind his newest film, In Fabric, which follows a haunted dress that floats ominously at night in search of new victims. The ‘artery red’ garment is purchased at Dentley & Soper’s ‘Trusted Department Store’ by Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a middle-aged bank-worker, who buys it to wear on a date. The scene plays out in Strickland’s typical off-kilter brand of humour as Sheila’s details are taken by the strangely-garbed store supervisor, Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed), who speaks in overly formal abstractions and smiles unnervingly.
The scenes in Dentley & Soper play out as dreamlike montages, entrancing and almost soporific. Other shoppers flit around the store, their movement sped up while time at the sales counter seems to stop for Sheila and Miss Luckmore. In later scenes the customers grow increasingly frenzied, each desperate to bag the best items on sale. The chaos seems to be part of the design, with Luckmore and her witch-like assistants energetically herding customers around the shop. In a TV advert they and their store manager beckon at viewers in a hypnotic dance-like ritual, luring them in.
The obsessive consumerism of the shop’s patrons isn’t the primary focus of the film but it certainly has consequences and - not unlike the customers - the film returns again and again to the store, unable and unwilling to break free from its stupefying atmosphere. With increasing regularity the news features stories of Black Friday ‘carnage’ as shoppers break out into fights over sale items in supermarkets and department stores. Long established as a calendar event in the US, the November celebration of mass consumerism has found its way to UK shores and, as in In Fabric, pandemonium swiftly followed.
The horror genre has a rich history of exploring the social and political themes that preoccupy us, and the dangers of excessive consumerism are no exception. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) transplants the zombie threat to a sprawling shopping mall where Peter and Roger, two S.W.A.T. team members, Francine, a television executive, and Stephen, her boyfriend, barricade themselves. It’s soon apparent that equally as dangerous to the film’s protagonists as the zombie is the humans’ blind greed for... everything.
When they first arrive at the abandoned mall, where promotional tannoy announcements still play, the men whoop excitedly as they break into a department store, immediately filling up a wheelbarrow with electronic goods. Francine is less enthused: “you’re hypnotised by this place, all of you,” she warns them. In montages the humans try on clothes, stock up on guns and get new haircuts; the zombies shuffle around the ice rink and car park and in and out of stores, aimless yet driven by instinct. Later, when raiders who want in on the spoils break into the building on their motorbikes, they cause carnage, grabbing at and destroying items indiscriminately. It quickly devolves into farce, with the raiders slamming cream pies into the faces of zombies and pulling jewellery of their wrists and fingers.
It’s all too clear what message is intended by the visual of zombies pressed against glass doors of shop-fronts, desperate to get inside to where the humans are. “They’re after the place,” Peter muses. “They don’t know why, they just remember; remember that they want to be in here.” The post-apocalyptic conceit of the zombie sub-genre allows characters to loot without legal consequence, under the pretext of a need to survive. But Dawn of the Dead takes aim at that pretext, highlighting our societal lack of restraint and consumerist obsession with having things we don’t even need. Zombies may eat our brains, it seems to say, but consumerism rots them just as well.
With his 1988 cult classic, They Live, John Carpenter took his own shot at the dangers of unrestrained capitalism. Concerned by the Reaganomics of the time, he made what he describes as “partially a political statement, ... partially a tract, on the world that we live in today.” In the film Nada, a down-on-his luck itinerant construction worker, stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that, when worn, allow him to see the world as it really is: infiltrated by aliens in positions of power, who control the masses through subliminal messages in advertising and the media. Both a striking visual and a piece of commentary, the act of seeing through the lens of the glasses casts everything in black and white. A billboard advert for Control Data, a ‘transparent computing environment’, is revealed by the glasses to simply command the public to ‘OBEY’. Once Nada sees the truth, a sale sign’s message is far more blunt about its intentions: ‘CONSUME’.
In Fabric is not quite so unequivocal in its take-down but the message is there nonetheless. Yet the danger of using media as a tool to highlight such issues is our propensity to be distracted by it, patting ourselves on the back for understanding the message, yet ignoring its real world implications. It’s not enough to simply recognise that In Fabric, Dawn of the Dead, They Live, and many other films are drawing attention to our obsession with buying and owning things; if anything, they suggest we also have to act on it. Maybe it’s time to put on the sunglasses - and stop buying new ones.
Sophie Willard is a freelance film critic based in the East of England, where she also volunteers as a writer and young film programmer with her local independent cinema. Find her on Twitter at @cake_emu.