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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Kicking Ass for the Lord: 40 Years of the Modern Zombie Movie, Part 3

Ironically, as the 1980s drew near an end and the popularity of horror movies began to wane from what it had been, the zombie subgenre briefly returned to its pre-modern voodoo roots with Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987). The film was inspired by Haiti's vicious Duvalier dictatorship and the real-life investigator who travelled there to look into the long-standing rumors of zombification practices. Although it abandoned the modern, Romero-esque take on the walking dead, the atmospheric chiller became one of Craven's most critically acclaimed efforts.

Nevertheless, The Serpent and the Rainbow proved to be a brief aberration. The first heyday of zombie movies may have been over, but Romero's influence of the genre was here to stay. As proof of that, in 1990 Columbia Pictures got behind a remake of the seminal classic Night of the Living Dead, penned by George Romero and directed by makeup effects wiz Tom Savini. In part an attempt to cash in on the success of the original to an extent that Romero was unjustly prevented from doing the first time around, the new version was a mixed bag.

Romero was lauded for transforming his female lead Barbara from a traumatized wreck into a strong-willed heroine. The remake featured several interesting new interpretations, but many fans felt it was hamstrung by the large studio involvement and the need to fit within R-rating parameters, something none of the previous films had been required to do.

With the dearth of quality horror films in the 1990s came a dearth of memorable zombie flicks as well. Horror was moving more into the mainstream, resulting in safer, less graphically violent pictures--meaing there was less and less of a place for cinematic flesh-eating.

But there were exceptions, and chief among them came from the other side of the world--New Zealand, to be exact. Maverick filmmaker Peter Jackson, who had previously opened eyes with Bad Taste (1987), created in 1992 what is to this day still considered by many to be the most violent motion picture ever made: Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive).

One of the reasons Jackson was able to get away with it was the fact that his movie was a comedy, and thus the violence was so completely and cartoonishly over-the-top that it couldn't possibly be taken seriously--reanimated (and flatulent) digestive tracts, zombie copulation, an entire room of ghouls dispatched with a twirling lawnmower, etc. Braindead became an international cult sensation thanks to home video distribution, and gave the sub-genre a much-needed shot in the arm.

Other major entries of the period that distinctly stood out was 1993's Dellamorte Dellamore (a.k.a. Cemetery Man), an Italian effort that harkened back to the "spaghetti zombie" days of a decade earlier; and Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993), which turned out to be a surprisingly effective installment in an otherwise tired series thanks to a bold move away from comedy in favor of a more serious tone.

But aside from some refreshing exceptions, modern zombie films experienced perhaps the lowest point in their popularity during the 1990s. Ultra low-budget and shot-on-video productions dominated the niche as it went decidedly underground. Yet by the end of the decade and turn of the new century, just as down-and-dirty horror was experiencing a resurgence, so would the cinema of the living dead in particular. The second great zombie movie explosion was at hand.

To Be Continued...

Part 1: They're Coming to Get You
Part 2: No More Room in Hell


Unknown said...

Good depiction of the 90s. Can't wait for the next installment.

Anonymous said...

Ray Ray here: Excellent, as always. You give a refreshing and in depth prespective. One thing that struck me in reading this piece, was the controversial film Angel Heart. I don't think this is a zombie flick, per se, [rather, more of a devil flick], but one I associated with The Serpent and the Rainbow, probably due to their shared Carribean/Mississippi Delta origins.

B-Sol said...

Ryne: Thanks again. Unfortunately, the '90s wasn't the best time for horror, so there wasn't as much to talk about.

Ray Ray: Angel Heart is certainly worthy of mention. Thanks for pointing that one out.

John W. Morehead said...

I just found this series. Good stuff.

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