My first zombie movie was “Night of the Living Dead,” viewed at a midnight screening at the old Harvard Square Cinema, attended by a small coterie of late-night freaks and stoners. With its relentless dread and entrail-chomping ghouls, it was a film beyond the pale of normal, daytime moviegoers.
Flash forward three decades and zombie series “The Walking Dead” is one of America’s most popular TV shows, with a record-breaking 12.4 million viewers tuning into the Season 3 finale, while “World War Z” is a Hollywood summer blockbuster. Zombies are everywhere you look: The iOS app store has best-selling game “Plants vs. Zombies,” the bookstores have moved plenty of Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” the news gives us reports of actual face-eating attacks, and the streets occasionally fill with “zombie walks,” flash-mob style parades where participants shuffle about in full undead makeup. (Walkers were even spotted in Yoyogi Park back in May.)
The zombie’s moment in the pop-cultural landscape is clearly now, but it’s been a long time coming. The modern notion of the zombie, the corpse come back to life, originates out of Haiti, where voodoo sorcerers would use a complex brew of poisons — including fugu venom — to put a person into a comatose state resembling death, then dig the victim up after burial and bring them back to life in a sort of half-conscious, traumatized state. This may sound like mere folk superstition, but there is an actual article in the Haitian penal code outlawing digging up corpses and bringing them back to life. (Japan has bucked this legal trend for fear of thinning out the ranks of the Diet.) The practice of zombification was well documented by ethnobotanist Wade Davis in his astounding book “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which was made into an entertaining if highly Hollywoodized movie by Wes Craven in 1988.
Haitian voodoo served as the basis for cinema’s earliest zombies, in such films as 1932′s “White Zombie” (with Bela Lugosi) and 1943′s “I Walked With a Zombie,” which seemed to be more about colonialist fears of white women at the mercies of foreign “witch doctors” than the undead. Indeed, the zombie loped along for several decades without really taking off until George A. Romero came along.
Romero was a gutsy young filmmaker based in Pittsburgh when he shot “Night of the Living Dead” for around $114,000 in 1968. What it lacked in budget, it made up for in attitude and shock tactics. This movie and its far more ambitious sequel, “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), pretty much set the tropes for the modern zombie apocalypse — ironic, since they never once use the “Z” word. A mass plague of corpses coming back to life that seek to feast on the flesh of the living, a near-total breakdown of modern civilization, the zombie “shuffle,” small groups of survivors who are often as dangerous to each other as the zombies are, loved ones who are bitten and “turn” — none of this existed before “Night.”
Yet while Romero’s films had a strong cult following, after 1985′s “Day of the Dead” he would abandon zombies for 20 years — they were just too niche. Others took up the torch with mixed results, most notably “Alien” screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who almost single-handedly killed off the genre with his cheesy Romero rip-off “The Return of the Living Dead,” also released in 1985.
This flick has aged well, though, now falling into the so-bad-it’s-good category and an absolute must-see with friends and beer. “Return” was also the first and only movie to have zombies moaning “braaaaiiiinns” and scarfing up gray matter. In Japan, the film was mysteriously retitled “Battalion,” which entered common parlance with the coining of the term obatarian, mixing obasan with the film’s title to describe the sort of stout, ill-mannered middle-aged lady who would gladly trample you if it meant getting a seat on the Yamanote Line.
Nothing really pulled the zombie out of the horror movie ghetto, though, until two things happened. One was a 1996 game by Japanese company Capcom, where lead designer Shinji Mikami borrowed heavily from Romero’s movies in fashioning the survival-horror series “Resident Evil” (known in Japan as “Biohazard”), a huge hit that helped make the Playstation a success in the ’90s; it would go on to spawn numerous sequels and a film franchise that has single-handedly sustained Milla Jovovich’s career as an actress.
The other was Edgar Wright’s hilarious 2004 zom-rom-com “Shaun of the Dead,” which knowingly parodied the Romero films while treating the apocalypse as just another bloody inconvenience. Although it was more of a cult hit outside the U.K., its influence was substantial, freeing up the notoriously grim zombie genre to gene-splice with comedy and other styles. Films such as “Fido” (zombies as pets), “Zombieland” (zombie-splatter as slapstick), “Paranorman” (zombie kids’ animation) and “Warm Bodies” (zomboy meets girl) would not exist without “Shaun.”
If the zombie movie has proven resilient, in a practical way it’s because, like film noir or buddy-cop flicks, it’s a fairly fixed blueprint into which you can throw a lot of variables. (Or in the case of “World War Z,” remove them, and revert to standard Hollywood three-act screenwriting and loads of CGI.) It’s also certainly something that resonates deep within the American psyche; real-life events such as the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or the post-Hurricane Katrina chaos in New Orleans make the possibility of atavistic anarchy, where one can survive only through a combination of wits and second-amendment rights, all too real.
While more academic critics will tell you how the zombie movie is really a metaphor for racism/consumerism/environmental degradation/insert-your-pet-issue-here, Romero himself has said in a Vanity Fair interview that ” ‘Night of the Living Dead’ got over-analyzed way out of proportion. … To me, the zombies have always just been zombies. My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not the zombies.”
“Night of the Living Dead” is out of copyright and may be viewed freely online at YouTube and the Internet Archive.