Cannibalism Commodified: Daybreakers and The Dead Don’t Die in Relation to Debord’s Spectacle

an excerpt

In The Society of The Spectacle, Guy Debord introduces the concept of the spectacle society, a self-sustaining phenomenon where artifice has the power of (re)shaping reality. Growing up in the first half of the 20th Century, Debord would have observed the rapid growth of the cinema and celebrity culture, both major factors in the construction of people’s desires, values and perceptions of the world. This essay is an exploration of his main ideas through a comparison of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die and the Spierig brothers’ Daybreakers. More specifically, it will be focusing on the topics of the societal obsession with appearance, the commodification of desire, the role of passivity and imagination, and the engagement with reality through fantasy. Connecting the theories developed by Debord, Žižek, Baudrillard, Le Guin, and other scholars, the essay’s central argument is that while both movies are disaster films with an outstanding cast, Jarmusch’s use of the blockbuster language and aesthetics serves as a self-reflection, while the obvious elements of critique in Daybreakers are trivialised, commodified, turned against themselves and morphed into marketability used for box office success, further sustaining what Debord coined as the spectacle.  

The theory was first developed in the 1960s Paris where the revolt against the new standards of living, gripped by consumerism, was slowly rising until it reached its peak in May 1968. Aimed for the revolutionization of everyday life, it fought against boredom induced by the practice of fulfilling the needs through the purchase of consumer goods. The plague of “modern progress” was spreading rapidly and was observed by many, fearing the complete loss of individuality in the seemingly numb future. 

Henry Miller in Black Spring nicely captured the emotions of the prevailing atmosphere of the time: 

/“New men without eyes, nose, ears

or mouth, men with ball bearings in their joints and skates on their feet.

Men immune to riots and revolutions. /…/ Men are delirious in

their newfound freedom. A perpetual seance with megaphones and ticker

tape, men with no arms dictating to wax cylinders; factories going night and

day, turning out more sausages, more pretzels, more buttons, more bayo

nets, more coke, more laudanum, more sharp-edged axes, more automatic


In the era of social media and everyday life moving online, Debord’s text is more relevant than ever. Society is not only heavily prioritizing images and appearances over authentic reality and experience but is deeply identifying with them as well. The socially constructed ideal’s biggest strength is, therefore, its tenacity. People’s ultimate purpose derives from the appearance based on possession of certain goods, which consequently evokes, and shapes insatiable desires that can only be fulfilled as long as the act of gaining remains consistent. Its influence, however, reaches beyond the material world – as Victoria L. Godwin writes: “cultural reproduction of desire transforms even intangibles such as love into materialistic possessions.” As a consequence of its sovereignty, people do not know anymore what they desire. Žižek claims that by not having desires of their own, they instead take over the ones artificially constructed by their environment. One has to be taught how to desire and cinema plays a significant role in that. As the art of appearances, it shows how reality reconstitutes itself. It creates a fictional version of it that has a ‘truth’ of its own and can in its density of appearance become more “true” than the actual reality. He continues by saying that our fundamental delusion is in not taking fiction seriously enough, for only in cinema one can truly see the dimension, not ready to confront reality. Great examples of that are disaster films.