Afterdays Media focuses on archaeological views of our contemporary culture. Artifacts, art, or cultural phenomena that picture us in the past tense.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Dead Pop 101: The Dixie Square Mall

The walking corpses that infested the Monroeville Mall in the legendary 1979 film Dawn of the Dead eventually had a more plausible, non-fictional parallel. The malls themselves became the zombies. By the late 1980s, we learned that Shopping Pop could die, rot, and become a mildewed tourist attraction for certain kinds of explorers. Dead Pop, Rotted Pop, Resurrected Pop.

The same year that Dawn of the Dead was released in theaters across the country, the Dixie Square Mall in the Chicago suburb of Harvey was closed due to a rising crime rate and falling property values. The shopping center stood empty and sealed for several years. It was used in an infamous car chase scene in the movie The Blues Brothers. The mall remained abandoned, and quickly began to decompose. 

By the 1990s, what remained of the shopping center had become an end-of-the-world destination for urban explorers. The ruins of Dixie Square are perhaps the most oft-photographed example of suburban decay to be found on the internet.  After three decades of abandonment, this symbol of dead-pop is now being torn down. And the demolition feels oddly historic.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why "Dawn of the Dead" Matters

Dawn of the Dead and the mall full of zombies has become a platitude now, but the 1979 film made a significant impact on our cultural consciousness. That spring, as we entered the last years of a long Cold War, sixteen hundred fake dead bodies began to mutate the way we saw our world.

The plotline of the movie is pretty familiar now; it has been recast into sequels, remakes, short stories, festivals, T-shirts, and video games for over 30 years. Audiences recognized something astonishingly relevant about colorful corpses decomposing in a brightly lit shopping mall. Dead bodies staggering about, covered in flash burns and exotic decay. Parades of fantastic corpses, wearing familiar fashions, slowly drifting past Radio Shack. Walking sculptures of decay discoloring Musicland.

Beyond attracting large audiences, it spawned a new international film genre (“zombie movies”), a new form of folk art (homemade “special effects makeup”), and a common vision of our modern plastic world abandoned and bloodied. “Zombie Movies” are really movies about the end of our world now, and we are slowly forgetting the old stereotypes of Haitian Voodoo in favor of George Romero’s resurrected American consumers.

The origins and impact of Dawn of the Dead have become the subject of film studies, conventions, anniversaries, and recollections. There are plenty of zombies around now, but the manner in which the mall corpses lurched into the 1980s has not been repeated.

Stay tuned for more on the subject, including a new book later this year…

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Post-Apocalyptic Symbolism 101: Statue of Liberty

We have been destroying this symbol of early modern America in our popular culture for well over a century now….

Late 1800s



Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Chicago Fire and its Relics

In the fall of 1871, a massive fire spread through the city of Chicago. Within three days , over three square miles of the city were burnt, over 200 people were dead, and nearly a third of the city’s population was homeless.

Remarkably, while the city was smoldering  - only a few days after the fire was extinguished - railroads were forced to schedule additional trips toward the city. From across the Midwest, thousands of tourists descended on the smoking ruins. Along the debris-choked streets, visitors were greeted by “relic vendors” (usually children) who mined the burnt-out homes, stores, and hotels for melted or charred curiosities.

Children selling relics of the Chicago Fire in the streets.

Here’s how a visiting newspaper reporter described post-fire scenery:

The town is beginning to fill with aesthetic sight-seers… If one could divest himself of the all feelings of sympathy and pain he could gain from these smoking squares the finest intellectual enjoyment. Monotonous as the gray stretch of desolation appears at first, the longer you look and linger the more this uniformity of character and color breaks up and reveals to you an infinite study of lines and forms. Of course these ruins lack the consecration which has come with the course of ages to the splintered monoliths of Thebes and the gnawed plinths of Paestum. But there is not an equal if not greater human interest in surveying these brand new shards of a great city, and reflecting that the builders do not hide from the sympathies in the mists of immemorial time, but today live and breathe....”

What burned at Chicago was not the heart of an ancient city with multiple pasts. The fire of 1871 burned down a very modern place. Most of what destroyed was probably less than a generation old. Today, the equivalent would be the destruction of a familiar suburb built in the early 1980s. The photos, drawings, and descriptions of the Chicago ruins didn’t illustrate ancient wonders, they depicted a corner of the modern landscape destroyed.

Not Pompeii, Chicago. 1871.

The relics purchased by tourists weren’t antiques. They were decomposed or mutated versions of their own familiar world – a warped teacup or a mass of melted spoons. Visitors to the remains of the Chicago Fire saw the furnishings of their own lives cast in the past tense. Much like the popularity of contemporary post apocalyptic fantasies (take for example the History Channel’s popular “Life After People” series), residents of 1870s America were also intrigued – and entertained - by the idea of the end of their own world. 

Teacup, circa late 1860s, warped by the fire in 1871.