By Dr. Steve Anderson
Zombie narratives have overwhelmed us, just as zombies themselves have humans on the run in the apocalyptic future. While there seems to be a peaking of interest (circa 2015), that is no sooner said than zombies come back at us tenfold. As I speak, The Walking Dead is the most popular program on television. The medium once ruled by Friends and Melrose Place now enthrones the undead–and the Walking Dead spinoff will surely add to zombie dominance.
For the filmmaker, the zombie genre is an attractive one because an engaging narrative can be produced on the cheap. While no less than Brad Pitt has starred in a zombie film, and Danny Boyle has directed one, we usually don’t see the involvement of established (and expensive) talent. The run of films tends to feature unknown performers, and our interest is in their sheer terror of being eaten alive. It seems that a minimum of directorial skill can put out a narrative that will raise our anxiety level.
Putting market issues to the side for the moment, the most essential question to me is their origin. I mean, who are they? What are they? Well, simply stated, they are the dead, now animated and stalking the earth for the living, whom they devour (and the image of the dead devouring the living is, shall we say, a cinematic money shot). But they are essentially a break through in horror filming in the assumption of what stands behind them. They are, in most narratives, products of either deadly cosmic rays (humankind’s science run amuck), demonic possession, some sort of virus, or some other medical/biological mishap.
Is this important? Well, yes. Zombies are, in almost all cases (and I’ll mention one of the exceptions), of natural origins. That is, no god made them, no supernatural curse loosened them on us. They are the result of humankind tampering or some malevolent virus (or other infection). In some few cases, they may be related to alien intrusion. Still, the main source remains the natural universe.
This is, of course, an important distinction. If the creature (in whatever genre) is from a supernatural source, the responsibility for it is the supernatural world–over which humans have either limited control, or none at all. Humans cannot originate a supernatural world, and if they happen to invoke it some manner, they pretty much have to stand back and watch. In the end, the god, or gods (or even God) must come and settle matters for us. This is the case in the mummy narratives, where the evil mummy can’t be done in by humans. Only Osiris can manage that. But compare this with the original creature created by Victor Frankenstein–the creature will continue until he is destroyed by either himself for some human agency. God, in whatever form, expresses no particular interest.
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1973) presents creatures very much like zombies who are animated by a religious ritual. Undoubtedly, there are others supernatural examples out there (the Rec films, for instance), but they are not the mainline of the zombie genre.
The zombies seem to emerge from the recently dead, although a fair amount of confusion might be in order. The humans devoured by the zombies seem to die and stay dead (you have been eaten). But to become a zombie, a mere bite from one, over time (and the infection time varies from narrative to narrative), will do the job. They do not seem to die on their own, though they do seem to weaken, especially if they don’t feed. The Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later, which, unsurprisingly ranks high on the Ghost Diaries Top Zombie Movies Of All Time list presents a story in which the characters are trying to determine the life (well, duration) of a zombie, but other matters go south before there is anything that looks conclusive.
To bring a zombie down almost always requires the head shot (presumable the brain), as an intact zombie head, devoid of all other body parts, will continue to chomp away. But smash the head and that’s the end of it. On the other hand, the 2009 Zombieland, a take-off on the genre, shows them being brought down with gut-shots.)
George Romero is typically (and perhaps fairly) credited with the first zombie film, his The Night of the Living Dead (1968), a movie whose sheer terror has hardly been surpassed, if at all. He went on to make a number of zombie and zombie related movie, most of them effective, but none of them noticeably more effective than his first. One of his last cracks at it, Land of the Dead (2005), featuring Dennis Hopper, undoubtedly cost much (much) more than the original, but doesn’t strike us as being any “scarier,” though it’s certainly a fun film.
In fact, it would be easy to argue that zombie films, directed by Romero or anybody else, never got any better, especially if by better we mean scarier. This is a curious feature of the genre, one that should invite further attention.
Those trained in literature will be aware of genre theory, which holds, among other things, that no narrative is ever totally new. What might look new is just a combination of existing elements rearranged and presented. So a film made in 1943, I Walked with a Zombie, has perhaps one element of the incipient genre (a big dead guy walking around). But it takes a host of other films to give us more of the definitive features: the dead as malevolent, the dead as cannibals on the living, and so on. Then George Romero puts the whole thing together.
There’s a lot to say about all of it, and I invite your comments below…