October 1st, 1968 marked one of the most iconic days in horror movie history, especially for any fan of the zombie genre. On this day, the modern zombie was born, with the release of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Prior to this important release, the word zombie was a piece of religious terminology, no more, no less. The religion of Voodoo had a monopoly on the term, which described an individual who was controlled by another in one way or another through the practice of Voodoo. When Romero’s “ghoul” came into the picture, everything changed and there was no looking back. There are many interpretations of the modern zombie, and even Romero himself has strayed from the original monster that he created. Let’s take a look at five of the most important zombie films of the last half century and see how Romero’s original mythology has evolved. So how do zombies differ in the movies?
Note: While completely unintentional, I feel that it is important to point out that the information below, may contain spoilers.
Night of the Living Dead
The modern zombie, the flesh eating, walking dead, had to start somewhere, and this is where it all began. It is important to note that the term zombie is not even used in this film. We do not hear the word zombie until Dawn of the Dead, nearly ten years later. In the world of George A. Romero, the walking dead are slow, lumbering, clumsy, flesh eating corpses, that are reanimated by radioactive contamination from a space probe. Only the recently dead are reanimated, and the only sure fire ways to dispatch of these fiends is with direct trauma to the brain, or by burning. The terrifying thing about Romero’s zombie is the fact that one-on-one, they truly are not all that scary. The true horror comes from the seclusion caused by being barricaded with a small group, when a giant horde of these reanimated corpses descend upon a small farm house.
Return of the Living Dead
While this film follows the same “of the Living Dead” naming convention as Romero’s films, the only relation that this movie has to the Romero storyline is the fact that “Night of the Living Dead” co-author, John Russo, wrote it. Russo had a different vision of how the genre should continue, which differed from Romero’s vision. In Russo’s film, the zombies retain a large part of their former self, including their personality, and their ability to talk. These zombies are still flesh eaters however their ability to taunt their victims lends itself very heavily to what makes this film “scary.” This film ultimately ended up feeling more like a parody than an actual horror movie. The cause of the infection in this film is slightly related to that of “Night of the Living Dead”. A barrel containing the remains of an Army experiment gone wrong are brought to a mortician. When the corpse inside the barrel reanimates, the morticians assistant burns the zombie alive, causing a noxious gas to infect the neighboring townspeople.
28 Days Later
In 2002, Danny Boyle released his take on the genre. His vision brought a large number of new characteristics to the zombie, some of which have been highly criticized by fans of the genre. The first major difference with Boyle’s zombie, is the fact that they can run. It was complained that, because a zombie is a reanimated corpse, it is unlikely that they would have the muscular fortitude required to start, and maintain a running pace. I for one thought that the running zombie was not only much more horrifying, but that Boyle did a wonderful job of explaining how his zombie would have the ability to run, without truly coming out and saying “this is how they run.” What is the explanation you ask? Unlike zombies of the past, it could actually be argued that some, if not all, of the zombies in “28 Days Later” are still alive, therefore their bodies are not actually beginning to decompose. The unfortunate souls in this film are actually infected with a disease referred to as Rage. This is a highly infection disease, that takes hold almost immediately, turning the affected from a loving father into a flesh eating mad man in a matter of ten seconds. Whether you are a fan of the Rage infected zombie or not, few can argue that this is a very scary movie.
The best horror films come not from the big budget studios, but generally from independent film makers, who struggle to simply get their vision on film. This lends itself to a grittier, honest feel to the story, that you don’t generally get when you have investors that feel like they are experts in writing and filming scary movies. Pontypool is a perfect example of such a movie. In this independent film, based on the book “Pontypool Changes Everything”, the infection is spread from one person to the next through the English language! This plot twist holds a special place in my heart, having spent the better part of a decade studying the language and at times feeling like a zombie myself. The great thing about this movie is that it doesn’t matter if you are bitten, scratched, bled upon, or anything else, if you simply hear an infected person speak, you will ultimately become infected yourself. Everyone asks themselves, at one time or another, which sense they would be willing to part with. “Pontypool” quickly makes that decision for you!
With zombie comedies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” being huge successes, it was only a matter of time before we saw the zombie genre mix with another popular genre, in this case a romantic comedy. The romantic comedy, zombie film has been attempted before, 1993’s “My Boyfriend’s Back” is a memorable attempt. “Warm Bodies”, based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name, is a bit more unique, however, in that the narrator of the film is R, a zombie. R cannot speak, however he still narrates the film. Throughout the course of the story, he falls in love with a beautiful woman named Julie, whom he saves and helps hide from the zombies that he lives with at an airport. A cure is a rarity in the zombie genre, but this film brings it to us in a very interesting, and in a sense infectious, sort of way. When R and Julie fall madly in love with each other, his heart begins to beat again. Seeing this, his zombie counterparts hearts also begin to beat again, curing those who have not already succumb to the next stage of zombie, known as the Boney. This is a must-see for any fan of the genre.
The Walking Dead (Honorable Mention)
The Walking Dead has brought the zombie genre into the mainstream in a way that no other film, book, or television series has before. While the comic in which the television series is based on, has been around since 2003, the 2010 AMC series exploded onto the scene on Halloween night. Fans have complained over time that the show/comic lacks enough action to keep them interested, but this complaint generally comes from those who are expecting a gory horror story. “The Walking Dead” will at times deliver gore, however it is more focused on how the survivors of the zombie apocalypse retain their humanity, than the actual flesh eaters themselves. This show takes the zombie out of the zombie genre, to a certain degree, and executes it brilliantly. The other, lesser known, fact about this story is how someone becomes an actual zombie. In many stories, a bite or a scratch is enough to do it. In “The Walking Dead” these things will surely kill you, but they will not cause you to become a zombie, because everyone on the planet, is already infected, and death is the only true cause of becoming a zombie.
There are so many films that could have been compared. If enough interest is generated, perhaps we will se a Dawn of the Differences in Zombies in the near future. Until then, stay prepared, stay vigilant, and don’t forget rule #2 from “Zombieland”; the double-tap!
Feel free to discuss additional zombie films in the comments section.