Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!
by, 04-14-2012 at 12:43 AM (1885 Views)
It may be hard to believe today, but just a few decades ago, zombies were the low dead men on the horror pantheon totem pole. In the mid-1970s, as I delved into horror history via monster magazines and picture books, I was really only aware of two types of zombies: the Haitian voodoo zombies of I Walked with a Zombie, White Zombie, one of the few truly frightening episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and Marvel Comics’ black and white magazine, Tales of the Zombie (another traditional voodoo zombie); and then there were the flesh eating ghouls of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
When you break it down, everything was pre-Night and post-Night.
Over the years, Romero has admitted to basing a good deal of Night on Richard Matheson's amazing vampire novel I Am Legend, which has come to be regarded as the seminal zombie novel. If you watch The Omega Man, which I dearly love, or the Will Smith I Am Legend, it might be hard to see the influence; but check out Vincent Price as The Last Man on Earth and you'll get it. I've always thought the film was equally inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, with a bickering group of survivors holing up in a farm house while battling a supernatural force they don't understand, and its ultra-bleak ending.
A few years after its release, Night of the Living Dead was often dismissed as a gory, low budget shocker by “serious” minded horror film critics who have since faded into obscurity; all of the social subtext was discovered later. A couple of other great zombie flicks from this period include Deathdream and Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things.
Something in the air changed when Romero went into production on Dawn of the Dead: suddenly, “respectable” journalists were proud to write about their “zombie for a day” experiences as extras. I’m not sure which individual at Laurel Entertainment came up with this marketing scheme, but I’m convinced that it led to the mainstream acceptability of Romero as an indie filmmaking icon.
The impact of Dawn cannot be overestimated. Siskel and Ebert, who were on a mission to discredit horror films in general and slasher films in particular, championed the film, as did several other renowned critics who have since become worm food. Although Night[I] paved the way, Dawn cemented the zombie as a supernatural cannibal, and tapped into the reason the damned dead things are so popular today: they is us.
Shock Waves introduced us not only to fast zombies, but to aquatic Nazi zombies (revived in Dead Snow minus the aquatic aspects).
In 1985, horror fans were treated to two new zombie classics: Romero’s Day of the Dead and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, which introduced heavy metal, punk rock, and over the top humor to the genre. O’Bannon’s version, which won the box office battle because Romero’s version was released unrated (limiting newspaper advertisements), used the title of a novel written by John Russo, who co-wrote the original Night script with Romero.
Russo is the unsung hero of Night: many of the concepts which we now take for granted were created by him, including the film’s nihilistic ending. Like Curt Siodmask, who created many of the “rules” of lycanthropy for Universal’s The Wolf Man, Russo’s imagination has had an indelible effect on modern horror cinema. Although Day has earned respect over the years, it wasn't very well received at the time:
Return and Day inspired an explosion of direct-to-video zombie films, but Resident Evil really created the next frontier: the first-person shoot ‘em up video game. And the game launched a new film franchise; everything is circular.
Of course, the Italians contributed more than their share to the genre: Zombie, The Gates of Hell, The Beyond, City of the Walking Dead…the list goes on and on, but my favorite is Della Morte Dell’Amore, aka Cemetery Man, starring Rupert Everett.
The 90s saw the best of both worlds of the undead - Georde Romero's flesh eaters and the more classical voodoo zombies - in Tom Savini's underrated remake of Night, and Wes Craven's sharp fictionalization of the nonfiction book The Serpent and the Rainbow. The decade also saw the first great zombie comedy, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive.
Two more movies made zombie entertainment socially acceptable: 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead. I know, I know – 28 Days Later is about “infected” humans, not zombies. Give me a break! The tropes are all there. I’m not at all a fan of 28 Days Later; it’s story and themes were lifted wholesale from the first film version of Day of the Triffids. But Shaun of the Dead? Perfection. It may sound like heresy, but the film has replaced Dawn as my favorite zombie flick, and I recently showed it to my young daughter, who loved it. Shaun paved the way for other zom-coms, like Fido and the current Juan of the Dead.
With the undead revival in full swing, genre enthusiasts heaved a sigh of relief when the man who helped create it all, George Romero, finally got his shot to tell a big zombie flick. Land of the Deadis a weak film, devoid of chills; it’s characters are never in jeopardy, the “Dead Reckoning” vehicle was ridiculous, and the ballyhooed social commentary was really pretty silly considering where Day left off. I saw it in the theater three times, desperate to come away with something, anything at all, to appreciate, and walked away empty handed each time. Dennis Hopper picking his nose was beneath Romero. Okay, Big Daddy was cool, but this was essentially the series' equivalent of Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
Meanwhile, in his Dawn of the Dead remake, an R-rated success, Zach Snyder remembered what Romero forgot: that a zombie film needs to be scary. Even Shaun was scarier than Land. Apparently frustrated by studio interference, Romero decided to return to his indie roots for… what was that one called? Diary of the Dead. Some fans hated this “found footage” film, but I found it reasonably fun: the scenes with the black militants and the rogue national guards felt like authentic Romero to me, and a couple of scenes had true suspense. Maybe it’s because I watched it with lowered expectations, but I thought it was okay.
Which brings me to Survival of the Dead, Romero’s ode to John Ford westerns – a film lover’s film. I thought it was great, a true follow up to Dawn and Day, with comic book sensibilities, colorful characters and dialog, and cool gags. Once again, fans were divided, but if this proves to be Romero’s last zombie film – and I hope it is, he has too much else to offer the world as a filmmaker – it was a grace note. What a haunting, poetic ending!
Max Brooks scored a major hit with his “spoken history” novel World War Z, which won over horror readers and non-horror readers alike. The book is in production as “a major motion picture” with Brad Pitt in the lead role. I have to wonder if all of this mainstream zombie entertainment will at all emasculate the zombie, but I doubt it: the zombie is here to stay, and he is the definitive monster.
The bombardment of movie screens with zombies is nothing compared to what’s happened on TV: Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Walking Dead comic book has got to rank as the most successful zombie entertainment produced. It’s a ratings blockbuster, a real breakthrough for AMC, and a genuine water cooler show…so naturally, AMC slashed the budget, which led to Darabont’s departure at the beginning of the second season. The big companies want to profit off horror, but they'll never respect it. I’m not terribly impressed by the series per se: the acting is nice and the make-up is gorgeous, but the storytelling itself has not impressed me. Blah, blah, blah, talk, talk, talk. What does impress me is the way the creators have brought serialized horror and graphic violence to weekly TV.
The Walking Dead wasn’t the first comic book to tread the territory mined by Romero and Russo, either: that honor falls to Deadworld. I loved that comic, and back in 1986, when Frank Henenlotter wanted a victim of Aylmer to be reading a horror comic on the john in Brain Damage, I helped arrange for issue #1 of that comic to be featured in the film.
There must be a thousand zombie novels in print now (okay, 700 of them are probably only available as self published e-books…). My favorites, beginning with Dead City, were written by Joe McKinney. Check ‘em out.
Although the first film I ever worked on (as a production manager) was I Was a Teenage Zombie, I’ve never had any inkling to make a film in the subgenre. Night, Dawn and Shaun are sublime, the cream of the crop, and if you can’t make the best, why bother? But I have explored the undead in my fiction: in Desperate Souls, the second book in my occult detective series “The Jake Helman Files,” I pitted my hero against an army of gun-toting, voodoo-style zombies spawned by a street drug called Black Magic. The book is loaded with zombie-kills, but no gut-munching; I really wanted to amp up the traditional zombies. The fourth book in the series, Tortured Spirits, will be published in October, and in it I send Jake to the fictional island where “zombies” were created, and drop him into a full scale war of the undead.
A couple of years ago, my friend RJ Sevin, who is vice president of the small press Creeping Hemlock Press http://www.creepinghemlock.com/ (his wife Julia is president), told me of his intention to launch a new line of zombie titles, and he asked me to make a contribution. I wrote an outline inspired by Easy Rider and Lonesome Dove; I wanted to tell an episodic story about two bikers traveling cross-country during the zombie apocalypse, and the shorter novella format enabled me to tell that story easier. The book is available now from Amazon as a trade paperback and on Kindle (or Nook from Barnes and Noble, if you prefer); it’s called Carnage Road, and I hope you’ll check it out.
I'm proud to announce that SNOW SHARK: ANCIENT SNOW BEAST, the film I produced for writer-director Sam Qualiana, just had its premiere, and it's been acquired for worldwide distribution by Alternative Cinama, sponsor of this very site.