Friday, October 15, 2010

Zombies were people too: The progression of the zombie film

The zombie genre, much like the undead creatures at the center of these films, just won't die. Popularity of this horror sub-genre has up and downs, but never goes away entirely. Starting with the 2002 adaptation of the the video game “Resident Evil,” the fervor for zombies has had a resurrection of startling resilience.

Zombies weren't always decaying corpses with a hunger for brains. The roots of the zombie can be tied to Haitian voodoo and the belief that through sorcery a dead body can be revived to do the bidding of their resurrector. This incarnation of the zombie was utilized in horror films of the 1930s into the 1950s, but never really took hold the same way the modern variation has.

The modern film version of the zombie first made its appearance in 1968 in George Romero's “Night of the Living Dead.” Romero established many of the motifs of the film zombie including their hunger for human flesh, the pandemic themes, the transfer of the “disease” through biting and that they can only be stopped by destroying the brain.

Although Romero's "Night" was the first to present the zombie in this fashion on film, he was highly influenced by the EC Comics “Tales from the Crypt,” “Vault of Horror" and "Weird Science” as well as Richard Matheson's “I Am Legend.” The creatures in “I Am Legend” are more vampire than zombies but the book, which inspired the films “Last Man on Earth” and “Omega Man,” featured the viral theme that Romero would borrow.

In the 1920s, horror author H. P. Lovecraft explored many of the undead ideas that would infuse Romero's “Night of the Living Dead.” Lovecraft's “Re-Animator” would later be adapted into a gloriously gruesome and tongue-in-cheek film in 1985.

Romero would continue to explore the zombie genre in 1978's “Dawn of the Dead” — believe-it-or-not a shrewd satire on materialism and consumerism — and in 1985's “Day of the Dead.” In addition to “Re-Animator” and “Day of the Dead,” 1985 also saw the release of “Return of the Living Dead,” a self-aware parody of “Night of the Living Dead,” which itself inspired two sequels.

Following this mid-1980s boom, the mainstream popularity of the zombie genre waned, but the 1990s rewarded loyal fans. In 1993, “Return of the Living Dead III” was a surprisingly affective tragic love story that removed all of the comic elements of its predecessors.

In 1992 Peter Jackson, nearly a decade away from his work on “Lord of the Rings,” made "Dead Alive," one of the goriest, but most uproarious entries into the zombie genre with a son desperately trying to hide that is mother has become a member of the undead. The film features, among other things, a zombie birth, a butt-kicking priest and a sweet love story.

With the new millennium came increased interest in the zombie. There have been both major theatrical releases as well as a never-ending stream of low budget direct-to-DVD films and amateur fan films. The genre has expanded to include everything from zombie strippers in the subtly titled “Zombie Strippers” to zombie Nazis in “Dead Snow.”

The best of the of the 21st century zombie films is 2002's bleak, but beautifully shot English film “28 Days Later,” which featured a blend of scares, humor and more humanity than usual in the genre. The increased interest also brought Romero back to the genre starting with 2005's “Land of the Dead” which finished his original story arch. In 2008's “Diary of the Dead,” Romero sent his series to the early days of zombie outbreak for a commentary on the Internet era's constant need to communicate.

On the comedy end, 2005's “Shaun of Dead” combined the sensibilities of a British romantic comedy with an homage to the zombie genre that was largely played for laughs, but had moments of emotional weight. Last year's “Zombieland” showcased a similar balance of laughs and heart.

The popularity of the zombie is most tangibly evident through “zombie walks,” organized public gathering of people dressed as zombies that occur globally. The world record for the largest zombie gathering was set at The Big Chill Festival in Ledbury, Herefordshire, UK on Aug. 6, 2009 with 4,026 participants.

In other words, the zombie has become a massive pop culture entity that people hunger for as much as the zombie yearns for brains. But if the zombie apocalypse ever does come just remember: Aim for the head.

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