The zombie subgenre, or at least the one modern audiences are familiar with, began in 1968, the year George A. Romero released the seminal Night of the Living Dead. Throughout the years, it has evolved while continuing to remain relevant, as seen in the recent zombie boom of the last five years. Still, questions linger over what exactly constitutes a zombie flick, what makes people respond to it and allows it to become popular, and what these films suggest about not just our culture but humanity in general.
First off, it is somewhat debatable to even classify zombie films in the horror genre. They are mainly included based upon their excessive gore and the deteriorating appearance of the actual zombies. Most contain a few scares here and there as well, but when you think on the matter, they seem to make more sense as action-thriller/science-fiction hybrids set in a post-apocalyptic world.
Nevertheless, zombie films have their own conventions, much like horror does. Among them is a basic premise involving a takeover by creatures neither living nor dead. Anyone who gets bitten by one will soon die and join their ranks, and the only way to kill one is to shoot it in the head or sever its head from its torso. Oftentimes the story follows a group of survivors trying to escape and make it out of the contaminated area alive, seeking refuge in a house, mall, army base, etc., that isn’t nearly as safe as they assumed it would be. There is a final confrontation that usually kills off most of the remainders, leaving only a scant few alive to see another day.
Obviously, most people are scared of the zombies themselves. Who wouldn’t be? With some disgusting, bloodthirsty creature coming at you, trying to take your head off, fear is usually the typical response. However, the true reason for what makes these films so effective lies a little deeper.
While a real outbreak of zombies on a massive scale is remote, if even possible at all, the idea something like this could happen isn’t as far-fetched as one might think. With the outbreak of SARS a few years ago, in addition to the constant threat of a possible chemical or biological attack, this type of post-apocalyptic event seems to gnaw at the back of people’s minds as something a bleak future could indeed produce.
Several films, including Romero’s and 28 Days Later, shoot their stories in a very gritty, realistic manner, which heightens the sense that what you are witnessing onscreen is transpiring before your eyes. While a lot of the films, including Romero’s, never specifically discuss how the outbreak came about in the first place, there are others (28 Days Later, Resident Evil) that point towards a virus as the cause. This would be a perfect example of Carroll’s definition of natural horror. The zombie films try to come across as grounded in reality, and there is a lack of a traditional monster or an “art horror” sense to suggest otherwise.
While unquestionably a form of science-fiction, putting yourself in the survivors’ shoes is still a very scary proposition. With society and the government in shambles, everybody is left to fend for themselves. This sort of destruction and monumental collapse is far more frightening than the threat of a zombie-inflicted death. If everything you are familiar with, and everything you know and love has been destroyed, what else is there to live for? Needless to say, when you combine a dire environment of this nature with a teaming population of creatures who want to kill you, it takes the concept of fear to an entirely different level.
As mentioned previously, zombie films have become increasingly popular over the last decade. With the releases of 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, Shaun of the Dead, the Resident Evil franchise and I Am Legend, they appear to be at an all-time high in the public forum. One of the main reasons for this happening now is the high quality of the final products, Resident Evil excluded, which attracts an audience who wouldn’t normally go see a horror film.
Whether it be Danny Boyle’s magnificently compelling 28 Days Later, which at times seems to be more concerned with examining human nature than producing scares, the clever parody of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which is half romantic-comedy and half zombie fest, or Zack Snyder’s refashioning of Dawn of the Dead, easily one of the best horror remakes to date, they offer a little something for everyone. Not to mention all three were rated “Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes, along with Land of the Dead, 28 Weeks Later and Planet Terror. In the vapid landscape of today’s horror scene, critical acclaim has become an extreme rarity, which further elevates the zombie’s appeal over its lesser brethren.
Besides the generally good quality and captivating hook, the zombies themselves cannot be forgotten, which attract legions of fans simply based on their grisly look, vicious behavior and the interesting ways in which they are disposed of. Zombie films aren’t known for a lack of gore and blood, causing the average horror fan that has a proclivity towards that kind of stuff to rush out and see what the filmmakers have cooked up next. This leads to them often playing more like an action-thriller, and can be quite exhilarating. The air of danger and excitement creates a grand spectacle, and is usually enough to satisfy both the horror crowd and fickle attention spans.
The main reason why I personally love zombie films, and a chief reason why they are so lasting and popular today, is their willingness to explore deeper issues regarding humanity and the society in which we live in. More than any other category of horror, they have the ability to probe into complicated themes and offer commentary on modern times.
The best example is 28 Days Later, arguably the greatest zombie movie made. In it, Boyle examines the human condition under extreme conditions, both when it amounts to survival and what some of our innate desires are. In order to survive, the characters must do whatever it takes, including killing and living off of whatever food and shelter can be managed.
Towards the end of the film, the army captain asks Cilian Murphy how many people he has killed along his journey, stating that everyone has killed at least once to make it this far. As it turns out, there is only one character, the little girl, who we never see kill, and it’s clear she is meant to represent innocence and a moral center. The captain later mentions in another scene how before the outbreak of the infected he had witnessed people mercilessly killing other people. Now, during the current state of where they’re at, he is merely seeing a continuing process of the same.
This is a bleak outlook of humanity, but one in which the rest of the film has much to say about. In the opening moments, chimps are infected with the Rage virus and forced to watch mankind inflict cruelties on one another on TV screens. When the chimps are set free, these atrocities are replicated seemingly all over the world. Is this indeed man’s innate nature, to kill and commit whatever deeds necessary for its survival?
In the film’s latter third, the survivors make it to an army outpost, and these traits become magnified. In its own descent, reminiscent of The Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now, these inner desires are brought to life and acted upon. Even the soldiers’ repressed sexual urges come to the surface, and they prepare to have their ways with the girls before they succumb to their deaths.
Cilian Murphy, who up until that point had been hesitant to kill, and still felt remorse over his actions, is transformed into one of these callous soldiers after escaping his impending execution. With blood splotched across his bare back, he becomes a ruthless killing machine, unleashing the infected on the soldiers and freeing the two girls. By doing so, he is now as uncivilized and untamed as everyone else, doing whatever the situation calls for in order to survive.
While this type of evil may be part of our nature, it isn’t everything. The film also shows people need each other to survive. The young girl asserts in one scene that she and her dad need Cilian Murphy and Naomi Harris just as much as they need them. Harris, who believes in fending for yourself and is unafraid to kill anyone who stands in her way, has a change of heart in the end. She realizes life is more than simply staying alive, as you need others to help you along the way and experience life with. Whatever darkness is in our nature, the film hints there is also the capability for good. This can be even more powerful when united with others, as evidenced by the fact the three do make it out alive together and are soon rescued.
George A. Romero’s films offer up a commentary on our culture as well, with his first two forays into the zombie arena being the most successful. In one way or another, his films contemplate that real danger to humanity is not from external factors, but from itself and the way in which we don’t get along. In Night of the Living Dead, the biggest problem isn’t zombies – it’s racism. When the group of survivors is trapped in a house, the confined space keeps them from unifying and thinking clearly. The fact there is two alpha males competing for power is also in play, and by the time they finally start to work together, it is too late. When combined with their innate prejudices, they are unable to fend off the attackers, and succumb to the zombies.
The real twist is one of them manages to survive, the only African American of the group. This is rather unexpected and not the normal pick of who usually makes it out, especially considering the context in which the movie was made. However, all isn’t in the clear just yet. When the rescuers, who are all white, find the house, they mistake him for one of the zombies, and shoot him. The inherent racism, which had been a problem since the beginning, remains.
In Dawn of the Dead, Romero continues to explore a similar topic. A small group of survivors, on the run from zombies, take shelter in a local shopping mall. They secure the premises and create their own little utopia, which slowly becomes their prison. In the end, a group of motorcycle bikers breaks inside, letting in a host of zombies. The bikers and the survivors engage in a brief skirmish only to be quickly overtaken by the creatures, once again proving when people are disunited, there is no way to win.
The film also doubles as a warning about our consumer-driven society, with the setting of the mall taking center stage. The film’s ending shows the zombies have overrun its stores and plazas, much like it was when the group first found it. In a sense, the zombies have become a metaphor for Americans today, milling about mindlessly in a capitalistic society, driven by the need to consume.
Even Shaun of the Dead, probably the lightest zombie film yet to be made, features its fair share of social commentary. The community depicted onscreen appears to have always been zombies, going about their daily lives in a state of malcontent and sheer boredom. Thus when the citizens do start to turn into literal zombies, it takes a while for the protagonists to recognize the difference. The heightened threat then forces them to get off their couch and give up their lazy habits, taking action for the first time in their lives. With these characters, it shows how our society has become lethargic, satisfied with its idle ways and not having to think for itself. As Wright candidly suggests, such an attitude could just as easily bring about our downfall.
As Christians, there is a lot to be taken from these films. First, they demonstrate the darker side of humanity, brought to the forefront by catastrophic events. We know we have inherited many of these traits from Adam’s fall, and this serves as a reminder of that harsh fact. On the other hand, we also possess the ability to change and a capacity for good, and it is that side which will win out in the end. Despite how discouraging circumstances may appear, we have a light to cling to at the end of the tunnel, and with it a lasting hope the characters do not have themselves.
Zombie outbreaks also have a few parallels to the end times and the tribulation described in Revelation. While highly doubtful the two will be similar, the world as we know it will one day be brought down and forever changed. This reminds us that time always could be quite near, and creep upon us as zombies do to their unsuspecting victims. In the end, we shouldn’t get too comfortable with living cozy lives or too set in our stubborn ways, because everything could change in the blink of an eye tomorrow.
The zombie subgenre is a very absorbing one, standing out from what is found in typical horror fare. Featuring disturbing creatures and an even more unsettling premise, it isn’t afraid to tackle important subjects and ask provocative questions. While Hollywood will always churn out scary monsters and bloodbaths – a new mindless one every month, no doubt – it is this multi-layered quality that continually draws moviegoers back to the world of zombies and the unflinching possibilities they pose.