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Monday, April 7, 2008

They're Coming to Get You: 40 Years of the Modern Zombie Movie, Part 1

No one could have anticipated that October 1, 1968 would be the day that would change horror movies forever. But it was on that day that George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was released--an unheralded B-movie that would attain cinematic immortality and usher in the modern horror era in the process.

But there was something else that movie accomplished, much to the delight of modern horror movie fans. Night of the Living Dead literally invented the subgenre of the zombie film as we know it today. And for the past 40 years, we've been witnessing the results.

Prior to NOTLD, not only were zombie movies few and far between, but they were of a completely different variety. Usually dwelling on the zombie's folkloric origins in the West Indies, movies like White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) dealt with ghouls that were relatively docile walking corpses enslaved by the will of a much more sinister living villain, and capable of not much more than wandering around mindlessly. They were are also far less popular than other movie monsters like vampires, werewolves and mummies.

But in 1968, maverick Pittsburgh director Romero changed all the rules. More specifically, he created the rules. And with varying degrees of loyalty, they're the rules that have been followed by filmmakers ever since. For instance, it was Romero's film which first established that:

  • Zombies are driven by a hunger for human flesh.
  • Zombies can only be killed by destroying their brains.
  • Anyone bitten by a zombie will become one.
  • Zombies are very slow-moving, but are unrelenting, and especially dangerous in large groups.
  • Zombies retain little or nothing of their former humanity.
  • The ranks of zombies are made up of everyday people, including friends and family.

First and foremost, it was the whole cannibalistic angle that took the subgenre to a whole new level of grueling terror. It struck a chord at something deep within the psyche, this concept of the dead literally consuming the living. And with the Hays production code fallen by the wayside, it was perfect timing--for the zombie ouvre would necessitate some of the most graphic violence ever put to film.

Even in NOTLD, the violent scenes were so strong for the time that audiences were genuinely shocked, even revolted. What would only come to be realized later after the furor died down was that Romero was also using the imagery to make a social point. Much has been made of Night of the Living Dead as an allegory for the Vietnam War and the Cold War in general, but it's also important to remember that it was Romero as well who set this standard of using the zombie as an allegory.

The importance of Night of the Living Dead to the modern zombie movie cannot be overestimated, much like the importance of The Lord of the Rings to the modern fantasy novel. In the wake of Romero's landmark, an entire movement was about to begin.

It wouldn't happen all at once, and in the beginning the new "rules" weren't always adhered to. The first major post-NOTLD zombie movies were a pair of comedy/satires made in 1972 by Alan Ormsby and Benjamin Clark: Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and Deathdream. One thing both films may have taken from Romero was a penchant for social commentary--the former took a shot at the hippie counterculture, while the latter was a rare Vietnam War movie actually made during the war itself.

Some movies, like David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975), would riff on the Romero device of unstoppable hordes, without actually dealing in zombies per se. But the influence was still there. Others, like Tales from the Crypt (1973)--featuring none other than Peter Cushing as a vengeful zombie--nostalgically hearkened back to pre-NOTLD ghoulish sensibilities.

The movie that would prove to be the first true descendant of Romero's work would be 1974's The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. The work of expatriate Spanish director Jorge Grau, the movie picked up on the flesh-eating concept, resulting in material even gorier than NOTLD which would prefigure the virtual smorgasbord of zombie violence soon to follow. Grau also picked up on the apocalyptic element--which would become the bread and butter of the subgenre--and traded in social commentary for an ecological message.

While not owing much to Romero, Amando de Ossorio's memorable Blind Dead series also bears little connection to earlier voodoo-style zombie films as well. Rather, they represent something wholly unique and original. Another Spanish auteur (working in his native country), Ossorio came up with the idea to make his zombies the deathless, cursed Knights Templar--a real-life troupe of mercenaries that ran afoul of the Vatican during the Crusades.

The series includes the original Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), The Return of the Blind Dead (1973), Horror of the Zombies (1973) and Night of the Seagulls (1975). For many, what makes these movies stand out is the striking look of the undead themselves--skeletal wraith-like beings in tattered robes, whose movements are accompanied by haunting choral music. The films focused on the destruction of youth and sexuality, dealing in carnal imagery in a way the far more chaste Romero never did.

Romero had laid the groundwork in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, but some would argue that it was the sequel he made ten years later that would cement the zombie subgenre's cult status. If audiences thought they were seeing a lot of zombie movies before Dawn of the Dead, then there's no way they were ready for the cinematic ghoul-fest that was about to be unleashed.

To Be Continued...


Mr. Karswell said...

What about Hammer's Plague of the Zombies which came out in 1966?

Anonymous said...

The Skeletal Undead looked so wicked. I wonder if they inspired the undead soldiers in the Mummy movies.

Unknown said...

What a great write-up.
I just recently saw and reviewed White Zombie, and I Walked With A Zombie I saw a while back.

B-Sol said...

Karswell: I made the decision to use Night of the Living Dead's release in 1968 as a starting point, which is why I excluded Plague of the Zombies.

Reel Ninja: I think the soldiers in The Mummy were probably more inspired by Ray Harryhausen (ie. Jason & The Argonauts, 7th Voyage of Sinbad).

Ryne: Thanks!

Mr. Karswell said...

>which is why I excluded Plague of the Zombies.

Well you're not the only one who excludes it. Plague has unjustly become the red headed stepchild of the modern zombie film, I really have no idea why though as it's a fantastically eerie film and the zombies are terrifying. I actually think it's one of the best 60's Hammer films. Maybe someday it will get the recognition it deserves.

gord said...

I loved your history of horror posts from a while back, and I'm really looking forward to these new 'history of..' posts. I'm a huge horror freak, and even though I've seen most of the ones talked about so far, I just love reading about, and learning about films.

B-Sol said...

Thanks, gord, I'm very much the same way. Keep checking back for the second part, I should be putting it together within the next couple of weeks.

pot head pixie said...

Regarding Karswell's comment, I would say Hammer's Plague of the Zombies is also more in the style of the old zombie movies with its voodoo style raising of the dead. Indeed, the zombies are slaves put to work in the tin mine in the film. Great film though :-)

Anonymous said...

Speaking of skeletal zombies, though spook-show-cool looking, I could never get past the illogic of them moving without muscles.

There's also a definite demarcation line between pre and post romero zombies: voodoo zombies carried the fear of becoming one, or death by one; NOTLD zombies carry the fear of being eaten alive, then becoming one, and just ambling along without really dying. It's the eaten alive facet that scares me more than anything else.

B-Sol said...

Yep, the whole flesh-eating aspect was Romero's genius master-stroke.

As for the Blind Dead zombies, I guess their moving without muscles is just one of those things you have to accept. If you really analyze it, it's just as impossible to imagine zombies with muscles moving around, since without oxygen, the muscles have no energy with which to move anyway.

Zombie Biology 101, class dismissed...

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