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The State of the Zombie Film

The following is based on answers supplied to an enquirying academic correspondent working on a postgraduate research paper on the two versions of Dawn of the Dead -- George Romero's 1978 original and Zack Snyder's 2004 remake.

The Rising

Recently, there has been an enormous increase in the number of horror films being made, many of them gaining mainstream release (and mainstream success). Why? Horror goes through cycles and I guess we were due for another one. The question, though, is a lot more complex than that and no doubt has to do with social and cultural factors. There's undoubtedly an argument to be made that horror does significantly well in times of uncertainty and turmoil, as an emotional release and a way of exploring current gestalt fears. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent spectre of Terrorism worldwide would have something to do with it, at least in a generalised sense. After a period of avoidance (seen in discussions about the withdrawal of films that utilise imagery of city destruction), there seems to have been a sweeping resurgence in the genre. But while this forms a background to the renewed popularity of horror films (cinema being the dominant artform of the time -- there has not yet been a similar resurgence in interest for literary horror fiction), there are other factors. One, I believe, is the influence of commercially and artistically successful product from other cultures. In particular, Japanese horror has been discovered and has had a huge impact, driven by the energy and uniqueness of films such as Ringu, Ju-On: the Grudge, Dark Water, Audition, the brilliant Kaïro [Pulse] and many others of lesser profile. Western horror cinema had become clichéd, self-mocking and repetitive, almost totally devoid of new ideas. Suddenly J-Horror appeared and galvanised both the public and, through commercial osmosis, the film industry: an injection of "new blood" as it were.

More specifically, however, zombie films are about mortality. Their sub-text (and often overt surface text) is the inexorable nature of death and resurgence of the past; fear of the consequences of past actions; our inability to overcome the fact of our own mortality, despite amazing scientific and medical advances; sometimes they actively mock death and/or the desire for immortality. In times of uncertainty and social anxiety, they can therefore provide a way of looking at such fears in a metaphorical way, of exploring them without appearing to do so. The cathartic nature of art and entertainment, therefore, comes to the fore. Perhaps now we are in great need of such emotional release.

Nevertheless I’m not sure that any of these factors fully explain the explosion of interest in zombie films that has occurred. By my reckoning (and I'm liable to have missed some), a count of specifically zombie-themed films made in 2004, 2005 or currently listed as "in production" comes to 87. That is an amazing number of films to be appearing in a marginal genre over a short period. Many of these are ultra-low budget, amateur efforts, no doubt, but that doesn't change the fact. I may be wrong, but I don't think so many zombie films have ever appeared in any two-year period before this, not even in the heyday of the late 1970s-early 1980s. I suspect that the serendipitous production of a few big-budget zombie films, which therefore received large-scale global release, has renewed the enthusiasm (and opened avenues for funding) for the many independent filmmakers out there; zombies have always had an attraction for upcoming exploitation filmmakers.

Another factor is the relative ease of production that new technologies have brought. The Australian Spierig Bros, who made the zombie flick Undead, created a low-budget zombie film that has done well internationally and looks way more expensive than it was. It's full of CGI -- CGI that they created themselves on their home computer. Once upon a time the facility to cheaply achieve such results at all, let alone well, simply did not exist.

Changing Themes and Storylines

The pure escapist thrill of the action genre has greatly influenced the zombie sub-genre, most clearly seen effectively handled in the Resident Evil films and less effectively in minor efforts such as House of the Dead. In a large part this is driven by gaming culture, but also by the box-office success of blockbusters such as The Matrix and, again, the relatively cheap means that now exist to replicate some of that film’s spectacular SFX. Once such action films were impossible for low-budget producers to handle (and the most influential horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Night of the living Dead, the original Dawn of the Dead, Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Carpenter's Halloween -- were all relatively low-budget independent films, except for The Exorcist). Now, new SFX techniques are available to anyone with a computer and some decent software, and this has allowed the scope and ambition of such films to be widened considerably. A consequence has been the abandonment in many horror films of the gritty realism that the above-named films exhibited. Also (and this may be a personal reaction), CGI simply does not work so well on a visceral level. As spectacular as CGI monsters and CGI carnage can be, it rarely manages to carry the same sort of impact as the gore and monstrousness created via physical means, by make-up FX and animatronics. As a result, many modern horror films are more emotionally distant and "unrealistic". Hence, as scope rather than intimacy works best for CGI, horror has in many cases become less visceral and more spectacular.

An interesting approach to this question of how horror cinema has changed might relate to thematic differences between zombie films of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and now. Each decade rang changes, particularly in terms of levels of social awareness, degrees of cynicism and nihilistic pessimism, pure exploitative self-indulgence, genre self-mockery, and the like. What is characteristic of the 2000s? I’m not sure; it seems fairly diverse. There are issues of corporate guilt and governmental paranoia (as in Resident Evil), but these seem largely exploitative rather than ideological. Romero’s recent Land of the Dead, though, still carries the sort of metaphorical ambiance that characterises the director's other entries in his genre-defining Night of the Living Dead series. Romero’s first new zombie film for 20 years is a worthy addition to cinematic zombie lore and was so anticipated that it managed to gain mainstream release. It is interesting to see the master return to his greatest creation with such competent panache, commanding an authority that few others can manage. This film is the real thing when it comes to zombies, but Romero expands and develops his earlier themes by depicting a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity is trying vainly to re-define civilisation while the multitudinous dead show the first signs of developing an alternative culture. Here the social commentary -- arguably a post-9-11 critique of the West’s siege mentality -- is as potent as ever.

Perhaps we can best characterise the zombie film of the 2000s by comparing Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead with the recent big budget remake.

George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead is one of the great horror films and certainly one of the most influential. Romero's groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, which changed not only zombie films, but horror films in general (and even attitudes to what was possible in films more widely), reflected late 1960s feelings of social nihilism. Dawn upped the ante somewhat in terms of scope and the visceral nature of the "gore" horror film, bringing what people like Gordon Hershell Lewis had done to a wider audience and eventually into the mainstream. Dawn's intensity and metaphorical power is still largely unchallenged.

Zack Snyder's remake

For me, however, the Dawn remake worked better as a horror/action film than as a straight horror film. It was well-crafted (and interestingly pessimistic for a movie that received mainstream release, refusing to withdraw from its bleak ending). In essence, it is a decent film, but not particularly innovative or original.

I found the remake’s characters a bit more bland and typical than Romero's -- and felt that the metaphorical intensity of the original was largely absent. Romero's Dawn had introduced tough action sequences into the genre, but the new one very much displays the action-film influences that I referred to earlier. Still a lot of scares, but a larger emphasis on "thrills", too. Most particularly, however, I found the remake's zombies to be more effective as "homicidally insane people" than as "the living dead", feeling that it drew its inspiration as much from 28 Days Later (or Romero’s own The Crazies) as from the original Dawn of the Dead. These new zombies were far too lively to come over as dead, viscerally speaking. As a result the fear generated comes more from a fear of violence than from the more numinous and disturbing terror of unnaturally active corpses. Hence, the film did not, for me, make any subtextual or spiritual comment on the nature of mortality (and non-spiritual immortality). It was about violence, not death. A subtle difference, but a significant one, I believe.

The new film also largely removed the grim humour of Romero’s film -- and displayed none of the original’s satire on consumerism.

To be honest, I think these changes are driven by the sort of technical and box-office/commercial changes I discussed above -- that and, no doubt, the differences that exist between the aims of Romero and Snyder as filmmakers and as individuals. Maybe it's unfair and a generalisation, but to me the new film seemed aimed not at examining or expressing any particular attitude or viewpoint, but at being a "blockbuster-style" box-office success. Most pointedly, it wanted to be thrilling. In this age when most of the blockbuster films are thrillers, that is what it became.

There are some interesting Japanese zombie films that have fused the tropes from other genres into the zombie subgenre -- especially Kitamura's Versus (samurai/yakuza/zombies) and the excellent Junk, which is as much a crime thriller as a zombie film. Both these were more "inventive" than the Dawn remake, as effective as it was.

Is the Zombie subgenre changing?

Overall, the subgenre seems to have changed only from the point-of-view expressed above, as regards the developing technical aspects of filmmaking -- and in becoming more action-oriented. The big change in zombie films (from the eerie undead of White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie and the zombie as corporeal ghost as in Karloff’s The Ghoul or Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies -- or even the later Blind Dead films of Spaniard Amando de Ossorio -- to the cannibalistic monsters of Romero’s films and subsequent Italianate horrors, such as Fulci’s Zombi) still hasn't been overturned. This certainly applies to mainstream releases. However, I must say that among the many recent films I have managed to see, there exists a wide variety of approaches; the zombies aren't all cannibalistic, even when they reference Romero.

A startling and original example of this is the French film Les Revenants [They Came Back] in which the dead return in vast numbers -- not cannibalistic or even monstrous, but instead physically clean and serene, like living memories. Robin Campillo's film offers a non-cannibalistic reading of Romero’s zombies, exploring how even loved ones cannot be effectively integrated back into life: grief must give way to acceptance. An ambitious and coldly moving film, it mainly suffers from an ending that becomes a little confused as arthouse sensibilities and horror tropes fail to resolve themselves into a believable unity.

Even when dealing with the cannibalistic dead, however, non-thriller variations are in evidence. David Gebroe's 2004 Zombie Honeymoon is a totally successful romantic comedy version of the Romero living dead, with a delicious mix of grim humour, gore and pathos that creates a genuine sense of tragedy. Effectively bringing together traditional Romeroesque tropes with those of a romantic comedy-drama is not an achievement to be taken lightly. Then there's Shaun of the Dead -- a huge box-office success. This film takes an exuberant comedic approach to the Romero zombie, full of good humour, intelligence and affection. Its worldwide popularity, despite offering an unapologetically British critique of society and thoroughly referencing past zombie films, shows just how far Romero's zombies have entered into popular culture, recognisable even among those non-genre audiences who may never have heard of Romero and would never consider watching a generic zombie film.

But Shaun is a bit of an anomaly. Most of the plethora of the recent non-mainstream zombie films will never be seen by polite society. Most of them -- both good and abysmal --  spring from horror cinema's most fertile area of success: independent production. A zombie film such as Richard Griffin's Feeding the Masses, with its mingling of low-budget enthusiasm, social satire and Romeroesque gore, deserves to be better known, though it probably will only be seen by true zombie-film aficionados. It is with the continued production of films such as these that the zombie genre thrives.

As said above, the mainstream zombie films have put a greater emphasis on the zombie flick as action film than ever before, a mingling of genres that is probably as much a part of the need to explore new approaches as it is to satisfy box-office expectation. Really it is only independents who are able to free themselves from the direct demands of the mass market -- there's simply too much money involved in studio productions for their filmmakers not to follow the "safest" possible line, which these days means reflecting the most popular genres. This was certainly true in the past -- and it is even more true now.

August/September 2005

copyright©Robert Hood 2005

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