George Romero's 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead is rightfully credited with inventing the modern zombie genre. Yet it was the sequel to that film--released a full decade later--that effectively branded that genre into the collective consciousness of popular culture, ensuring that it was no fly-by-night niche but a category that was here to stay, much like vampires, werewolves and mummies before it.
Dawn of the Dead led to a veritable explosion of zombie movies, thanks to the ways in which it took the elements introduced in Night to a level virtually unseen in horror up to that point. In the 1970s, horror was all about the explicit, rather than the implied. And Dawn delivered explicit in buckets--audiences witnessed the flesh of victims being bitten; the heads of ghouls blown apart by shotgun fire; bodies being torn to pieces by hordes of the undead. And all in brightly lit full-color.
The picture was also a major evolutionary step forward both stylistically and thematically. Romero was able to create an overwhelming sense of impending dread and realism--this was a vision of the entire world literally falling apart. At the same time, he was able to deal with issues of race, gender and consumerism in bolder, more direct ways. Add a dose of black humor, and you have the ultimate horror epic.
Although released without the all-important MPAA rating, Dawn of the Dead managed to become a cult underground sensation. And its success opened the floodgates for a seemingly limitless flow of horror movies that dealt with the walking dead.
The craze first took hold in Italy, and the result was the infamous "Italian cycle" of zombie films. As had been seen with the earlier cannibal subgenre in Italian horror cinema, Italian filmmakers were not exactly squeamish when it came to delivering the bloody goods. And they took to the new subgenre almost as ravenously as the creatures that would populate their films.
Among the first was Lucio Fulci, whose dubiously titled Zombi 2 (1979) was unofficially marketed as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead (known in Europe as Zombi). Set on a Carribean island, the film harkens back in some respects to the more traditional voodoo-style of much earlier zombie films. Yet it is also decidedly a product of the Romero renaissance, focusing as it does on graphic depictions of rotting corpses and their flesh-eating frenzies. Yet there is something even more sinister at work in Fulci's flick--with no trace of humor in sight, it's a straight-ahead gorefest of unprecedented proportions. Unrelenting in its horror, the film seems to seek mainly to revolt the viewer as much as possible.
Fulci's later zombie trilogy continued his explorations into the utter bleakness of zombie horror. Hailed by some for being stylistically and technically superior to Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and House by the Cemetery (1981) were also less directly influenced by Romero. Here, Fulci struck out on more of an original path, tieing the zombie mythos to that of H.P. Lovecraft, and intertwining the zombie apocalypse with the apocalypse presented in the New Testament Book of Revelations.
Outside Fulci, the Italian zombie subgenre contained a relentless multitude of other entries--some good, some bad, all uncompromisingly brutal. For example, films like Nightmare City, The Nights of Terror, Zombie Creeping Flesh, and Zombie Holocaust were all released in 1980 alone.
The violence depicted in these movies was of a type never before seen in the history of cinema. Many have pointed to Italy's pervasive Roman Catholicism as the source for this zombie obsession. Specifically, in the Italian mindset, the living dead represent the ultimate horror, the most unspeakable blasphemy, because their existence refutes the sanctity of the human soul and is a perversion of the fundamental Christian belief in the resurrection of the body.
But Italy wasn't the only place where cinematic ghouls were flourishing. Some of George Romero's American compatriots were paying attention, as well. This was evidenced by films like John Carpenter's The Fog, released a year after Dawn of the Dead. Building on Romero's notions of social commentary, The Fog reinforced the idea that these movies could contain messages beyond the depiction of gore.
Unfortunately, however, Carpenter's work was an exception to the rule in America, where most zombie flicks could be included in the growing morass of junk that threatened to envelope the entire horror genre as a reaction to the voracious demand of the new home video market. Highlights include admitted cult favorite Night of the Creeps (1986) and Redneck Zombies (1987). If nothing else, the zombie deluge in America succeeded in cementing the subgenre in the annals of popular culture, a fact that can be attested to by Michael Jackson's classic Thriller video of 1983. The undead had arrived.
One of the ways in which zombie films managed to survive the 1980s despite the oversaturation was by adding healthy doses of what helped the entire horror genre survive the decade as well: comedy. Perhaps in no other era was the horror comedy so prevalent, and within this particular niche it earned an especially memorable name: splatstick.
Going in the complete opposite direction as the Italian cycle, splatstick flicks reveled in the absurdity of the zombie premise, serving up heaping helpings of irony and ridiculously over-the-top cartoon gore. Films like Bad Taste (1987), by newcomer Peter Jackson, were able to provoke both laughter and revulsion simultaneously. Despite being more about demonic possession than zombies, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and Evil Dead II often get lumped into this category as well, particularly the sequel. The two most revered splatstick entries would have to be Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead, which came out within weeks of each other in 1985.
Almost an instant classic, Re-Animator was based on the work of Lovecraft, and the satirical manner in which it dealt with the subject matter of bringing life to corpses made it the "anti-Frankenstein". Although its undead were not of the flesh-eating variety, Re-Animator was a more than worthy addition to the genre.
Return of the Living Dead's zombies were not of the flesh-eating variety either--no, they preferred brains. In fact, it was this film which directly led to the inextricable link between zombies and brain-eating that continues to persist in pop culture to this day. Originally envisioned as an unofficial sequel to Night of the Living Dead, O'Bannon chose instead, out of deference to the master, to take the proceedings in a more humorous direction. The result was a film which is regarded as one of the finest horror comedies ever made.
Ironically, ROTLD would go head-to-head with the long-awaited third chapter in Romero's series, 1985's Day of the Dead. Panned at the time by critics and rejected by fans, the film failed at the box office, its serious tone and depressing social message no match for the frivolity and punk rock mentality of O'Bannon's film. Also, budgetary constraints and creative disputes had caused the film to be significantly less than what Romero had originally intended it to be.
Nevertheless, Day of the Dead featured perhaps the most astonishing make-up work yet seen in a zombie picture (courtesy of Romero's right-hand man Tom Savini), and the most shocking violence this side of the Atlantic. It also gave us the sympathetic zombie Bub, one of the all-time great horror characters and another conceptual evolution in the subgenre. Over time, Day of the Dead would be reconsidered by fans and critics alike, and rightfully take its place alongside its two predecessors.
Once again, Romero had managed to reinvent the cinematic category he invented. But after Day of the Dead, several issues would cause the director to walk away from the world of the living dead. The genre would be forced to go on without him--and during a time when horror films in general would be suffering their lowest nadir in decades.
To Be Continued...