In the past three weeks, I have attempted to give an admittedly detailed answer to the question of why zombies have so long endured as a horror concept. The answer is steeped in our mythologies surrounding death, traceable to the ancient cultures of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Judeo-Christians (Part I).
Cinematically, this is reflected in the earliest films of which White Zombie (1932) is considered the first full-length zombie movie. Although the zombies here are transformed via voodoo, they are basically enslaved human husks devoid of agency. There are several other great early zombie movies, but of particular acclaim are the George Romero movies: Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Dawn of the Dead (1978) (Part II and Part III, respectively).
The 60s and the 70s were decades in which the zombie mythos was transformed into a metaphor reflective of the societal norms of the day. In the 60s, Night of the Living Dead was communicating a commentary on the nuclear family trapped in the basement of the farmhouse where the daughter, mother, and father all meet their end in varying ways.
In the 70s, Romero used the zombie metaphor to communicate a different commentary on the norms of that decade. The survivors of the apocalyptic event there find security, not in a farmhouse, but in a mall. Under Romero’s capable hands, individual consumerism becomes the target for criticism. We all just want to acquire and have and use and discard. . . . and repeat.
There were again other zombie movies that attempted to fit the mold, taking their turns exploring the zombie metaphor: only they were not as successful, nor did they do them right. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) was one that was done right. This film was released in the United Kingdom and other places as Zombie Flesh Eaters. Fulci called it Zombi 2 because he fancied his movie as an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead.
Even the tagline is an attempt to engender the same feelings of dread one would get with “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Somehow though “When the earth spits out the dead, they will return to tear the flesh of the living,” does not sound as poetic. There are some good things about Zombi 2 that should be noted.
Although Zombi 2 is not as groundbreaking, it certainly ups the gore factor. There is an eyeball gouge that is amazing. I remember going ouch, because I felt the pain in my eye. I think my brother and I both put our hands to our faces, holding one eye each as if our faces had been punctured.
Another key scene shows a fight between a zombie vs. a shark underwater that is not CGI, Ladies and Gentlemen. There is an actual shark wrangler fighting with his shark and one of them gets hurt, for real. This movie has been cut and re-edited several times because of its excessive graphic scenes. Some of those scenes may look cheesy nowadays, but back then and even still to this day, they made people literally lose their lunch in the theaters.
There were a lot of movies that used the Dawn of the Dead template, but they found it impossible to recreate the magic. Everything invariably turned toward cliché, farce, or spoof. Yet, the only movie in the early 80s that could adequately deliver was Return of the Living Dead (1985). This movie was blatantly punk rock, satire, and exploitative. Linnea Quigley as Trash (her actual name) is naked in a cemetery for almost the entire movie.
Enter George Romero with Day of the Dead (1985), placing the zombie metaphor squarely in an underground bunker, where scientists must coexist with military personnel. The scientists are trying to find a cure for the apocalyptic event that has the living, human population outnumbered 400,000 to 1. The military detachment is there to protect the scientists, but they are becoming increasingly anxious about remaining underground.
When Dr. Sarah Bowman, her lover Private Miguel Salazar, helicopter pilot John, and Bill McDermott the radio operator fly to Fort Myers, Florida to seek survivors, they return empty-handed. All they could find were hordes of the undead. While they have been away, the commanding officer of the base has died leaving Captain Rhodes in charge.
Captain Rhodes is a loud, bombastic, reactionary leader (kind of like an orange, man-child, world leader that we are all familiar with.) He has a meeting with all of the base personnel to communicate that he is now in charge and that he expects quick results, because very soon the military contingent will be abandoning the base.
Clearly, this is not received well. While a group (Dr. Bowman, John, and Bill) make plans to fly away on the helicopter in the hopes of finding a deserted island, the main scientist, Dr. Logan, talks to Rhodes in the hopes of cultivating a stronger bond. Dr. Logan brags about Bub, a non-aggressive, zombie test subject who has demonstrated a recall of his past life. He puts on headphones, salutes, knows how to hold a gun. Rhodes remains unimpressed.
Here, Romero has extended the zombie metaphor to show that there is a danger to believing that we are always the “good” guys. Our enemies love their children too. Sometimes good people do bad things. We have to be watchful of our acts, because sometimes we are modeling behavior we don’t want emulated. Also, the bunker metaphor is the newest societal commentary about the very real fears of nuclear war.
This movie ups the gore factor as we have witnessed throughout these movies. Rhodes’ come-uppance is one of the best, and most gut-wrenching kills in all horror history. It is THAT good.
There is a lapse of close to 15 years where most of the zombie movies were a re-hash of old tropes, silly clichés, and grade B hacks. Until 2002, it looked like the zombie film was dead. (Pun intended. I have no shame.) In Part V (and final part), I will write about how the zombie film came to enter a whole new millennium.
Thanks for letting me bend your ear for a little while. See ya, later. Take it easy. Peace!