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Thursday, 29 November 2012

Zombie's from 68 to 2012

The use of the word zombies or Xombi's started a long time before cinema, and even when it crept into cinema it was not the zombies common audiences would recognise. It all began with Hatian Zombies who were slave masters controlled by their slaves with Vudoo. As interesting as these zombie films are and as enticing the comparison between the two types of zombies are there have been a large number of changes to the classic "Romero" zombies who are considered the first of modern zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968 George A Romero).

"Romero is the Shakespeare of zombie film, and this is his Hamlet" (Peter Dendle The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia 2001) Nobody could put it better and Zombie's started with him in Night Of the Living Dead (1968). Romero was never trying to reinvent the Zombie movie or make a new monster in fact he was mimicking the creatures from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, in that novel the creatures are warped vampires however Romero dulled down the creatures and took away their main weaknesses and was left with a new creature of his own. The word Zombie is never used in the film and Romero never called them zombies himself but that is what the press decided to name them in their widely mixed reviews of the film. Romero's zombie is frighteningly simple, its out their waiting, if it catches you it will try and kill you, you have to shoot it in the head, if you die you will turn into one of them! Finally zombies want you for one thing, food. There are many themes within Night of the Living Dead and despite what many reviewers said at the time, there is definitely a lot of subtext behind what many called B movie trash. It was one of the most graphic films of the 60's and is in my opinion an early precursor to many 70's horror films that focused on blood and the evil within us all. Contrary to horror in and before the 60's that focused on the alien enemy, the outsider, the foreign, Night focuses on the enemy within, not only does it criticise the nuclear family and racism but it is popularly seen as a critique of the Vietnam war. The ending credits specifically are referencing lynch mobs and the burning of bodies, television footage also mimics that of news footage of Vietnam. There is a lot of evidence for all of Romero's subtexts and it is evident in all of his other zombie films that his work is a critique of society that just uses zombies as a plot device to make people listen and watch.

Romero's zombie can still seen today and has gone through many variations including those that call out brains, those that come from the grave and there have been dozens of proposed reasons for their existence, radiation, poison, Vudoo, magic, curses, the devil, disease ect. The most recent and most important change came to screen in 2002 in the form of the Rage infected masses of 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle 2002). The significance of 28 Days Later is partly to do with its time as it is seen as one of the first of the new wave of zombie media, 2002 was a ripe year, with war in high swing and made in the always government protesting England, the inward looking genre was bound to do well again. Danny Boyle known for Trainspotting and Sunshine is a "gritty" director who aims for realism and bleak imaginations of pretty basic stories. 28 Days Later fits into this bleak category for sure but more importantly the "rage" virus somehow made audiences see the infected as a new more believable zombie, whether this is because of how little is explained about the virus or because of a lack of knowledge about science is beyond me but it worked. The other big change is the running, this was introduced in earlier films but never really took off and was never as scary as it is in 28 Days Later these running zombies are literally infected with a virus that... makes them angry, rather than eating you they want to kill and beat you. Still pretty horrifying and there is still a lot about them that don't make sense but this most recent movie iteration of the zombie has been copied many times now although most films just take the running bit, the question is why?

Personally I think the move to running zombies has to do with the audience, its not the 60's anymore and if you show a modern audience the zombies of NOTLD they don't really care, they are desensitised to that kind of horror, there needed to be a new level. Of course Romero's zombies can still be scary, Romero himself proved that in Diary of the Dead,  Land of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead  but it takes a master to add that kind of fear, thrill and tension. The slow horror film is a dying breed instead (and really since the late 70's) we have slashers and action, thriller horror hybrids. There is no time for intelligent critique and slow drama, it has to be fast, have explosions and be on a massive scale. The remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder 2004) is one good example of this kind of zombie film, it is a clear Hollywood blockbuster of a film, it mixes all the kinds of high octane action you expect from Hollywood but loses the B movie charm and character depth of Romero's films. It is still a brilliant film, and still a successful film but it is a different monster, as is the zombie itself.

It is however the opinion of Romero himself that the reason for the change was video games in an interview with Vanity Fair he said
"it’s just the influence of video games. I don’t think there’s anything deeper to it than that. Filmmakers saw what was happening in video games and started thinking, “Well, we’ve got to keep pace and make our zombies fast too.” I still don’t agree with it. If zombies are dead, how can they move fast? My guys don’t run. They never have and they never will. They’re just lumbering oafs that are easy to dispose of unless you make a mistake. Those are the rules, and I’ll stick with what I’ve got."
An interesting and probably correct theory however it disregards the reason that computer games themselves moved from slow moving to quick zombies. The main game series that illustrates this change is Resident Evil, in the first 3 games had slow moving Romero style zombies, admittedly there were other fast creature out to get you like Lickers and Hunters but the zombies stayed the same until Resident Evil 4 which came out in 2005, years after quick zombies swarmed the silver screen. I think this change is for exactly the same reason as it is in cinema, audiences getting wanting action horror rather than survival horror. That being said there are a lot of fast paced zombie games and arcade games that did appear before 2002, House of the Dead for example. 

Zombies have changed very little since 2002 and continue to be subtly morphed by different franchises. My personal belief is that whilst the sheer number of zombies in a film is often a scary thing, they should be considered dangerous even by themselves and should be scary by themselves. The mass killing of zombies isn't something I am a fan of, to me sing zombies as cannon fodder is quite poor film making, it is more interesting to spend time on character development than zombie head popping effects! For this reason I dislike the most recent Resident Evil film  (2012 Paul Anderson), which deals with multiple random monsters, zombies, hundreds of head shots, poor acting, poorly written characters and illustrates the reason games aren't often literally translated into films. 

I await the return of the true zombie and of George A Romero, it all started with him and in my opinion his are still the best, no matter how far the genre comes, no matter how much zombies change Romero will always be the Godfather of the Zombie!

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