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Zombie Evolution. A Cinematic Walk with The Living Dead.
It all started in one night in Haiti, or rather on a Universal soundstage dressed for the occasion. In White Zombie, voodoo master Bela Lugosi and his oppressed zombie workforce introduced 1932 audiences to the living dead. While the film didn’t overwhelm critics, it did attract an audience and spawn a sequel. This was the first zombie movie. Moody and stage-bound, these gothic pre-code hi-jinks bear no resemblance to anything modern zombie fans have come to expect. The unfortunate creatures resemble lobotomized mental patients and are used primarily for manual labor. They don’t devour human flesh and apparently can be dismissed as living beings who simply drank the wrong potion.
Predominately an old dark house comedy, King of the Zombies (1941) offers a similar interpretation of the living dead. Slow, trance-addled and menacing, these zombies have serious dietary issues. They do not eat meat and they are allergic to salt. In this story, the voodoo is manipulated by an evil Austrian doctor whose presence can easily be interpreted as recognition of the gathering European storm. Once again, it is suggested that zombies are re-animated corpses, but may also be conveniently created from living cast members when the story demands. King of the Zombies is also notorious for a 1940s brand of racially insensitive humor many find offensive, or at least inappropriate, when judged by today’s standards.
Set in the West Indies and borrowing heavily from Charlotte Bronte, I Walked With a Zombie (1943) also presents zombie mythology rooted in Haitian and African superstition. These creatures are unsettling primarily because of aloof detachment, rather than overt aggression. Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, this may be the most beautiful and evocative tale of the undead ever filmed. The titular sugarcane field scene is classic—as haunting and powerful as any sequence filmed during Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) is notable only because it represents early stages of evolution between the traditional zombie mythos and the radical deconstruction lurking just around the bend. The Mora Tau zombies are cursed and forced to roam the earth (and sea bed) in search of a lost treasure. Voodoo is involved, but there is no voodoo master pulling the strings. Two years earlier, the atomic remote-control zombies of Creature With the Atom Brain arguably created a virtual template for the shambling automatons of George A. Romero’s accidental zombie game-changer, Night of the Living Dead (1968). The same could also be said for the vampires in the 1964 Italian release L'ultimo uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth). Based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the undead creatures in this film are more zombie-like than vampiric—especially when one considers the established vampire movie guidelines handed down from Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and still stringently observed in the 1960s. (What? No dinner jacket?)
Night of the Living Dead. The most evocative five word combination in horror history. The genesis of the modern zombie film. Only … those weren’t zombies. Not really. Director George A. Romero never used that terminology--not in that first film. The marauding creatures were referred to as “ghouls, and “these things,” and even “a virtual army of unidentified assassins.”
The zed-word would come up in the 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, but only one time and only as a comparative reference to Trinidadian folklore. But, it doesn’t matter. Those two films—especially the second—set something in motion that would gestate beneath the surface for decades before bursting forth from the collective pop-culture consciousness like arterial spray.
The idea was simple. Inexplicably, the dead are returning to life and devouring the flesh of the living, who then return to life and devour the flesh of the living. They are slow moving and dimwitted … yet prone to sudden attacks of unthinkable violence. Escape is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. All is lost, at all times, and somehow, it’s all our fault. Oh, yes … there is a fair amount of subtext in the Romero films. The first includes documentary style news footage that uncomfortably parallels images of police aggression in the streets of Selma, Alabama, and ends with the protagonist being randomly shot in the head and tossed on a bonfire. The second is an unapologetic condemnation of human greed and consumerism. These ideals, coupled with graphic scenes of unprecedented violence, confused some critics ... many of whom later recanted their vitriolic ink attacks on the film, its director and its fans.
While Americans were still figuring this stuff out, Italians grabbed the ball and ran. Among the good, the bad and the unwatchable, Lucio Fulci gave us Zombie in 1979. This film features a logistically stupefying “zombie vs. shark” scene in which, apparently, no sharks were injured. More importantly, the various titles of this film (Zombie/Zombi/Zombie 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters) pretty much solidified the identity of this genre. These are zombie movies.
Since then, that basic formula has been parodied, deconstructed, rediscovered and canonized. Return of the Living Dead (1985), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009) all manage to pay sincere tribute while sincerely lampooning. 28 Days Later (2002) gave us faster zombies and newer rules of engagement. The in-name-only remake of Day of the Dead (2008) features downright nimble zombies who defy gravity and most topography. George Romero returned to the genre with enthusiasm, but muddled messaging. With The Walking Dead (2010), Frank Darabont brought the old-school zombie to basic cable, while adding levels of humanity and compassion rarely seen in the genre.
The format begat videogames, which in turn spawned more movies—allowing the genre to literally devour itself. No longer sufficiently frightened by ancient superstition and the incessant beating of midnight drums, we now create zombies from real-life horror. Infections, viruses, chemical warfare and psychoses. Zombies, once the stuff of drive-in double features, now infect the New York Times Bestseller List and garner impressive ratings in primetime.
As long as they are a threat that looks and acts like us, they will continue to fascinate and terrify. Perhaps we fear zombies because we fear each other. Perhaps we fear zombies because we fear ourselves. Or, maybe we are simply attracted to nightmares of foreseeable duration.
You figure it out. I’ll make the popcorn.