If we are to believe the Internet there have been more zombie films made since 9/11 than in the entire history of cinema up to that point.
Great news if you happen to like zombie movies. The only trouble is the vast bulk of them are terrible – poorly scripted, badly acted and with a minimum of film-making talent behind the lens. The other, perhaps more serious problem is an absolute absence of fresh ideas, which quite possibly goes hand-in-hand with the not entirely welcome rise of the Zombie Purist.
Books such as The Zombie Survival Guide attempt to codify the rules concerning zombies and set them in stone. Zombies must not run, we are told. Zombies must be cannibalistic and permanently hungry. Zombies cannot talk beyond the merest semblance of a groan, never mind drive trucks or fire machine guns.
…regarded as the father of the modern zombie movie…
If the Renaissance has taught us anything, it is that as soon as art has reached the giddy heights of perceived perfection, as soon as the rules are standardised and fully understood by everyone, the only way for great art to advance is by a careful and systematic breaking of those very rules. Michelangelo understood this and subsequently became one of the leading exponents of Mannerism, the style that swept away all the stilted rules and standards of the high Renaissance and paved the way for artists to grow and develop new forms and ideas. Zombie cinema desperately needs an influx of new ideas – fresh brains, if you like – if it is to avoid a slow and inevitable decline leading ultimately to the (un)death of the form.
George A. Romero is widely (and rightly) regarded as the father of the modern zombie movie, and most of the rules trumpeted by the dreaded Zombie Purists are derived almost entirely from the first three movies in his celebrated zombie cycle: Night of the Living Dead, Zombies: Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. But the zombie movie has a long and fascinating history behind it, and without a basic understanding of that history it is impossible to appreciate quite how revolutionary that first film in his cycle truly was.
…an essential oddness to this film that is quite captivating…
The zombie myth has its roots in Haitian folklore and in some respects can be seen as an allegory for slavery. The wicked plantation owner’s hold over his workers is so severe that even after death they continue to be bound to him, toiling away in the fields for him eternally without rest, food or sleep. Legends developed about how this might be achieved through the use of drugs or voodoo rituals, and stories were passed around about so-and-so from the next village but one who died and was laid to rest, only to be spotted by his relatives toiling away in the fields a short time later. Such stories, related by Western journalists, caught the public imagination and it wasn’t long before Hollywood started making zombie movies. One of the earliest is White Zombie (1930). While not entirely successful (amongst other things it suffers from uneven pacing) there is an essential oddness to this film that is quite captivating, almost as if it is touching on larger and more universal truths than any of those involved in making it could possibly have comprehended. As such it stands as the first true classic of zombie cinema.
Zombies continued to crop up over the next few years in a mutitude of cheap Poverty Row movies, most of which have quite justly been forgotten, often as throwaway plot foils or comic relief, before the next true classic of zombie cinema rolled around: 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie. This haunting and elegiac movie helped cement one of the themes that underpin early zombie cinema and might go some way to explaining its popularity with Western audiences: an explicit fear of white women becoming enchanted in exotic locales and spirited away by the local zombie overlord. It is only when this is taken into account that you appreciate just how revolutionary Romero’s contribution to the genre really was. At the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1968 he made Night of the Living Dead, a dark and brooding masterpiece of existential terror, in which a black man is not only the hero but the only character remotely capable of saving the white woman from the zombie hordes around them.
…the shark-eating underwater zombie…
Romero was heavily indebted to the spirit and tone of Robert Matheson’s novel I am Legend and it was only fear of a plagiarism suit that caused him to change the monsters in his movie from vampires to zombies. In order to make them more of a threat he spliced in elements of the Arabic ghoul, making the zombies prime motivation the desire to “eat the flesh of the living,” a trope that has continued to define the zombie in popular culture to this day. The sense of nihilistic hopelessness embodied in this remarkable film (seen also, to a degree, in Hammer’s excellent, non-cannibalistic The Plague of the Zombies from 1966) is something that all good zombie film makers since have sought to emulate. Romero himself followed up with two excellent semi-sequels: Zombies: Dawn of the Dead, which exists in multiple edits, all worth watching (including Dario Argento’s edit – the shortest – which was released in Italy under the title Zombi,) and Day of the Dead, which is let down only by ridiculous over-acting on the part of one of the principal characters, along with three further films many years later which could charitably be described as a mixed bag.
The worldwide success of Zombies: Dawn of the Dead spawned a wealth of imitators in the late seventies and early eighties, many of them emerging from Italy. Two of the best were directed by Lucio Fulci: Zombie Flesh-Eaters (1979, also known as Zombi 2) and The Beyond (1980). Zombie Flesh-Eaters returned the genre to exotic tropical locations and amongst other things introduced the shark-eating underwater zombie. The Beyond adds elements inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and exists in a suitably bewildering dream-like otherworld in which nothing really makes sense but instead follows its own internal nightmare logic from which we, the viewer, cannot wake.
1985 brought us Return of the Living Dead, ostensibly a follow-up to Romero’s first, and introduced two new strands to the genre, to the chagrin of the purists: running and talking zombies; as well as giving the world the immortal lines “Send more paramedics!” and “Braaaaiiiinnnnssss!!!!” (to be uttered in husky, zombie like tones.) It is an extremely silly movie but great fun and well worth checking out. See also Demons, 28 Days Later the remake of Dawn of the Dead (I recommend the longer Director’s Cut version) and Charlie Brooker’s masterful zombie satire Dead Set for more purist-bating zombie athleticism.
In Nightmare City the zombies not only run and talk, they can also drive trucks and fire machine guns! Stretching credulity, perhaps, if zombies were real and not figments of our collective imagination. The make-up is pitiful but the film is entertaining enough to make it worth mentioning.
…the general unease associated with the notion of the undead…
Environmental concerns rear their heads in Jean Rollin’s Les Raisins de la mort (aka The Grapes of Death), in which wine poisoned by pesticides is the principal cause of the outbreak. These zombies can talk and are in some cases indistinguishable from normal people, which adds a whole layer of paranoia to the proceedings. Electronic pest control devices are responsible for waking the dead in Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, perhaps most notable for portraying the Lake District as a bleak and inhospitable place, although it is for its anti-authoritarian satire and bitingly pessimistic tone that it is most celebrated.
Perhaps the most revolutionary departure from the current zombie paradigm comes in Robin Campillo’s Les Revenants (aka They Came Back) from 2004, in which the inhabitants of a small French city wake up one morning to the spectacle of thousands of recently dead friends and relatives wandering into town, each one expecting to return to his or her homes and jobs. These zombies can communicate, although they generally have little to say, and appear non-plussed by the upheaval they have caused by their unexpected returns. It abandons all sense of cannibalism being linked to the zombie phenomenon without losing any of the general unease associated with the notion of the undead and in doing so has provided perhaps the clearest way forward for this much maligned genre. The film was successful enough to inspire a spin-off series on French TV in 2012, which, with any luck, might find its lumbering way onto a UK broadcast channel before too long.
The zombie movie isn’t dead, it just smells a bit. Long live the zombie movie!