Horror film is a mirror to societies deepest, darkest fears. It shows us that we are infinitesimal microscopic spores in comparison to the bigger picture out there. Whether its what lurks under our bed, in the wardrobe, in the sky or under the ground, horror film shows us that though we may exude an air of immortality and top-of-the-food-chain bravado, we are really a feeble, vulnerable species that will inevitably be our own undoing. The zombie sub-genre – which to me is an extension and heightened version of the body horror sub-genre – allows audiences to access their fears two-fold: the fear of our bodies decaying, and the fear of the actions of another man without the presence of any form of law & order.
The zombie film didn’t really become its own category until late into the 20th Century with the Godfather of the Zombie, George A. Romero, bringing the dead to life in the black and white masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. Before that, a number of creature features and early B-Pictures had used the re-animated dead as their main antagonist. After all, what is The Mummy if not a zombie with its modesty covered?
Romero’s film was a masterclass in horror film as social subtext. It showed just how flawed humanity was when it came to coping with crisis, and just how easy people turn against one another with a view that the fittest survive. It is most famous for its glaring commentary on racism in America, with the end scene of that film demonstrating the inherent phobia that America had at that time. It is also ironic that not once in the film are the living dead actually referred to as ‘zombies’ but rather ‘ghouls’ – proof that it really is the press that coin the terms that become indelible to the genre.
Just like the slasher genre, a slew of zombie films came forth in the wake of Night of the Living Dead that capitulated the subtext and instead just went for out and out gore to please audiences. These films – like Hell of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead – were not linked to Romero but played on the success of that to cash in. It wasn’t until Romero himself returned to the zombies in Dawn of the Dead ten years later that zombies became reputable and were actually referred to as such.
The genre continued to pave new ground as filmmakers interpreted this sub-genre, waxing on the origins of the walking dead and why they rise, what causes it, how to stop them, etc. Entries came from far and wide and varied between harrowing subtext and dark matter to lighter fare, splatter and slapstick. Braindead, The Evil Dead and Re-Animator were notable entries in this sub-genre that by the late 80’s had receded to the depths of VHS and the video nasties era.
It wasn’t until two English filmmakers with two different ideas on the zombie sub-genre brought it back to life with commercial and critical success. Paul W.S. Anderson released Resident Evil based on the popular video game back in 2002 whilst simultaneously a little large-foreheaded filmmaker by the name of Danny Boyle shocked us with the digitally shot, claustrophobic and kinetic 28 Days Later. The renewed interest in the zombie and the differing origins for the two films satiated audience’s hunger for flesh eating corpses once more, and with this success came the second wave of the zombie film.
But one film above others ensured that the zombie film would truly be re-animated to the point where even the Godfather himself would find inspiration for the continuation of his Dead series. Shaun of the Dead beautifully paid homage to the zombie tropes whilst at the same time providing a balanced recipe of gore, horror, humour and emotion. So successful was it that, in Romero’s next Dead entry Land of the Dead, Pegg and Wright cameo-d as two zombies. The noughties brought with it a slew of zombie films as once again filmmakers sought inspiration from current events as a way of providing subtext with their films as well as an explanation as to how the dead came back to life. Anything from nuclear fallout to government testing, from a synthetic virus to contaminated water, zombie films in the noughties explained their origins and then showed 90 minutes of humanity struggling to cope without a lawless existence. Even postmodernism got an entry with the superb Zombieland in which the lead character sets out the rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse.
Ahh, the zombie apocalypse. With the genre’s resurgence in the noughties, the world has become fascinated by the idea of a zombie apocalypse. The WHO and CDC are working on preventative measures, governments have fallout plans and even local Council’s are now getting Freedom of Information Requests for their plans for the zombie apocalypse. The world is fascinated by the idea but its of no surprise really. The ‘zombie’ is probably the closest antagonist to us next to the slasher killer. With viruses rife, Ebola in the news and antibiotics running dangerously low, there is the very real distinct possibility for a virus to mutate in such a way that our neuron functions continue long after our soul has departed. Whether our lifeless corpses will crave the flesh of the living is another thing, but the zombie is probably the closest reality to us when looking at horror film.
Zombies have even entered in to the realm of TV now, with the ridiculously entertaining The Walking Dead now into its fifth season. What this show demonstrates to us, and what filmmakers have been showing us via the walking corpse since 1968 is that humanity is flawed. The Walking Dead, much like most of the films in this genre today, show us that it’s not really the walkers we need to worry about. They become second nature – it’s less about the zombies themselves and more about how humans are flawed. Zombie films are the Darwin entries in the horror world – it’s survival of the fittest, and it’s often not the predators we need to fear, but ourselves…