In the first article, we looked at some historical examples of zombies from mythology and folklore. From a few historical texts, we concluded that the undead are familiar subject matter across cultural boundaries. The characteristics of the undead may be similar, but some are unique to the specific cultures from which they originate. Each example cited had specific traits of zombies, along with particular explanations for their existence. In this article, we will look at the evolution of the zombie in film, how it changed, and what real world events shaped those changes.
The first undead creature to appear on film was Frankenstein. In 1910 Edison Studios, owned by the famed inventor Thomas Edison, released a black and white silent film featuring Mary Shelley’s reanimated monstrosity. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu followed in 1922, itself a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What many would call the first true zombie film, White Zombie (which inspired the band of the same name), was released in 1932. It was based on a book I mentioned in the previous article, The Magic Island by William Seabrook. The film is set in Haiti, and voodoo plays a major role in the film’s plot. Directed by Victor Halperin, the film stars Bela Lugosi as a Haitian voodoo sorcerer named Murder Legendre. In the film, Legendre owns a sugar cane mill run entirely by his zombie slaves. The screenwriters for this film borrowed from the Haitian zombie myth, depicting them as mindless automatons in the hands of a sorcerer. 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie continued the use of voodoo themes on the zombie genre. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) is goofy enough to easily make it a candidate for the “best worst horror movie of all time.” The film was significant for two particular plot elements. The “Plan 9” in the title refers to a scheme by aliens to reanimate the bodies of the dead. So, the zombies were caused by extraterrestrials. Hey, it was the 50’s. Camp was just part of the package back then. The film incorporates real-world elements that were significant to film-goers at that time. Distrust of the government (or even blatant opposition) pervaded American thought. Plan 9 features government conspiracies and cover-ups about extraterrestrial life. That might not be terribly amazing to a modern cinemaphile, but in those days such a concept was edgy and perhaps a little extreme. It was one of the first examples of cinema questioning the establishment. It set a precedent for future horror films. However, that precedent wouldn’t be fully realized until 1968.
Night Of The Living Dead premiered on October 1, 1968, less than four months after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in April of that year in my hometown. RFK’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated just five years prior. It was in this sociopolitical context that George A. Romero’s landmark film made its debut. High profile assassinations, covert wars, intelligence and counterintelligence, conspiracy upon conspiracy. Watching news footage from that era of history makes it seem like violence was everywhere. It was a period of struggle as America realized that different people had conflicting ideas on what the “American dream” really was. Despite the racial controversy (or likely because of it), Romero cast Duane Jones, an African-American, in the role of the protagonist Ben. The rest of the cast is made up of white actors. Ironically, Ben makes it to the end of the film. That is until he is gunned down by sheriff’s deputies after being mistaken for a zombie. Romero’s film made zombies unique among other horror antagonists. Because the zombies weren’t really the problem. The zombies in Romero’s films (called “ghouls” in this particular entry) are primitive, base creatures with only the most rudimentary of intelligence. They walk and they eat. That’s all. Sure they eat the living. I’m not saying that’s a desirable way to spend your day. But zombies don’t eat you because they hate you. They eat you because they are zombies…it’s what they do. Nothing they do is motivated by a gain. They do not act from malice or greed. Humans do. In Night, the zombies just make a way for the real horror. Ben’s execution at the end of the film demonstrates how easy it can be to denigrate a human life.
The zombies have devastated the entire social system. There is no government. There are no courts, no judicial process. There is no morality, no one to determine right and wrong. Human life is not sacred. Execution is expedient and bullets are cheap. In a world without rules, in which the living are a minority, what’s wrong with that?
Romero’s future entries in his Dead series continue this pattern. Romero uses zombies like a microscope to draw attention to the fragility of civilization. In Dawn of the Dead, released 10 years after its predecessor, the survivors seek refuge in a shopping mall. The entire world is going to hell and they regale themselves with free material goods. Most of the film’s events occur in this setting; the characters engaging in escapist consumerism. Like any zombie film, the security of the structure does not last forever. A biker gang, perhaps motivated by the same consumerist greed as our protagonists, break into the mall to loot it. Swarms of the undead follow them, aimlessly meandering through the mall in search of sustenance. Day of the Dead (1985) featured Dr. Logan, a scientist who conducted autopsies of zombies. The film highlights the frailty and lack of preparation by the government and military. In 2005, Land of the Dead carried this particular theme even further. Romero’s films tend reference specific events relevant to the time period in which they occur. Land was one of the late Dennis Hopper’s final roles. In the film, Hopper plays Paul Kaufman, a dictator who has taken shelter in a tower called Fiddler’s Green (which is itself a reference to the afterlife from sailing folklore). Kaufman commands a team of mercenaries who drive Dead Reckoning, a tank impenetrable to the undead. The Dead Reckoning crew patrol the streets of what used to be Pittsburgh. They clear the streets of zombies, often distracting the undead with fireworks. Is it just another gory zombie film? Or is it a direct, and yet subtle, satirical critique of the Iraq war?
After the millenium, the popularity of zombies and apocalypse lore exploded. Those who are old enough to remember will recall the Y2K panic leading up to 2000. We were told that all computer systems could not handle the change and would immediately shift their calendars back to 1900. Banks would lose all our money. Electrical systems powering our homes, businesses, and cities would fail. Blood would rain down from the sky, dogs and cats would sleep together, and we might even find out what was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Students of eschatology supposedly decoded St. John’s revelation, predicting the coming of Armageddon and various antiChrists. End Of Days, one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last decent films, dealt with this subject. The millenium switch, along with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks contributed most directly to the popularity of apocalyptic themes in movies, television, books, and video games. The idea that terrorists would attack us on our own soil drove many Americans to a new ideal of armed preparedness. Numerous media cater to this demographic. These themes do not always include zombies, but they further underscore my point about our interest in the apocalypse. The third entry in this series will deal with that more directly.
In 2002, Resident Evil transcended out of video games and launched the first film in a high-grossing series. That year also gave a new generation of horror fans a worthy successor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. English film director Danny Boyle, whose previous credits included the quirky Brit comedy Trainspotting (1996) and the drug-induced Edenic allegory The Beach (2000) released 28 Days Later.
Boyle’s zombies were notably different than Romero’s rotting and decomposing cadavers. They were raving, ravenous red-eyed beasts that possessed superhuman speed and strength. One was dangerous, but in groups they were nearly indestructible. 28 Days Later also offered an explanation of the zombie outbreak (call “the Infected” in the film), something else Romero’s film’s never did. In Boyle’s storyline, the infected are not necessarily reanimated corpses of the dead. Rather, they are hosts for a virus. The carrier seeks out fresh hosts to infect.
The latter part of the decade included even more zombie films. In 2004, a remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead acquainted younger horror fans with the famed director’s work (albeit with some interesting plot modifications). Zombies met up with British humor in Shaun of the Dead that same year. As previously mentioned, Romero’s Land of the Dead hit cinemas in 2005. Romero would go on to direct two more entries in this series; Diary of the Dead in 2008 and Survival of the Dead in 2010. 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Boyle’s earlier film, saw light in 2007. Much to the chagrin of fans and critics alike, Boyle did not direct the new film. Zombieland set the record for highest-grossing zombie film in the US in 2009. Until, of course, it was beaten by World War Z in 2013.
Earlier I mentioned that zombies were unique among horror villains because they aren’t the true source of conflict. Of course they are a genuine threat. Who wants to be eaten alive by a slovenly horde of cannibals in various stages of rigor mortis? I certainly don’t. But therein lies the uniqueness of the zombie. That’s what makes a zombie stand out from a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy, or other assorted horror monsters. You can kill a vampire, you can vanquish a werewolf, you can unwrap a mummy.
But zombies are like cockroaches. There is never just one. And no matter how many you kill, they just keep coming. And coming. And coming. Their presence means that something is very, very wrong. They signify the end of society and its support systems. Their coming means governmental collapse. A complete upheaval of order as we understand it. They are harbingers of the end of the world. No other horror monster can make such a boast. You can have an apocalypse without zombies, but you can’t have it the other way around.
While there’s plenty of campy horror out there that’s made to just be taken at face value, horror should do more than that. Zombies are one way that horror can do something more profound than camp. Zombies are just a device to show us who the real villains are – us. The presence of the zombies shows humans just how shallow our civility can be. If we are presented with an ethical dilemma, the only determining factor is our own survival. We will lie, cheat, steal, kill, murder and even rape if it means that we survive. Morality be damned. Virtue is not rewarded in such a Darwinian system of life. It is exploited. Virtue is weak when there is no system in place to reward it. No government means no law. No law means there is no one to tell me I am wrong for killing you. If killing you and stealing your food, fuel, shelter, weapons, etc. is good for me and my own…then why not? Who’s going to tell me otherwise? Might makes right in these scenarios does it not?
The Walking Dead presents its protagonists with these kinds of ethical dilemmas in virtually every episode. The walkers will eat you, yes. But the Governor and his ilk have a tank. And bombs. And more firepower and manpower than you. And they want what you have. If they won’t listen to reason, what choice does that leave you? What would you do if presented with such a conflict?
(If you missed out, you can read part 1 of this series by clicking right here.)
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