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Friday, June 20, 2008

Don't Say the Zed-Word: 40 Years of the Modern Zombie Movie, Part 4

It's been pointed out by many, including George Romero himself, that the contemporary renaissance in zombie movies was brought about not by anyone in the film industry, but rather by the video game industry. By the mid 1990s, the genre was all but nonexistent among horror pictures. But then, in 1996, Shinji Mikami of the Japanese company Capcom designed a game (originally for the PlayStation console) called Resident Evil. The zombie was about to be awakened from its grave.

Taking its cue from classics such as Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci's Zombie, Resident Evil was a game intended to frighten players, something that hadn't really been tried yet. Known as Biohazard in its native Japan, the game was a massive hit, familiarizing an entirely new generation with the basic archetypes of the modern zombie movie. It was followed by other games, including House of the Dead and Silent Hill.

The influence would first be felt in Asia itself. Zombie movies hit their stride there like never before, leading to films like Bio-Zombie (1998), Junk (1999), Versus (2000) and Stacy (2001). Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the phenomenon spread to the United States, the birthplace of the modern zombie.

By 2001, with the game series a resounding success, Capcom had authorized a movie adaptation. Originally, Romero himself was tapped to script the project, then famously fired after his screenplay was deemed too heavy on gore and lacking the game's non-zombie monsters. Clearly, the filmmakers were looking for a more sanitized, mainstream-friendly take, and that's exactly what they got with Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil (2002). Starring Milla Jovovich, the picture plays more like a video game than a movie, and contains little to endear it to hardcore zombie lovers.

But what the flick did accomplish was to further reestablish the zombie subgenre, and pave the way for a veritable explosion of followers. That same year, acclaimed British director Danny Boyle would give us 28 Days Later, taking the phenom begun by Resident Evil to the next level.

We can debate whether or not Boyle's film is a true zombie movie till the cows come home. But while the movie's disease-crazed killers may not literally be ghouls, 28 Days Later is constructed with so much of the modern zombie template in mind, that in the end this debate becomes a tired exercise in semantics. The fact is that 28 Days Later is a zombie movie at heart, and by becoming the most critically praised film of its kind, it kicked open the floodgates once and for all.

Instantly, zombie flicks were being greenlit left and right, to a degree not seen in 20 years. But while back then, zombie movies were confined to the cult periphery of the horror scene, overshadowed by slashers and Satanism movies, this time around, the zombie was firmly fixed in the public eye, at the forefront of the horror rebirth.

Naturally, as with any other movement, they weren't all classics. Some, like the Australian effort Undead (2003), were decidedly mediocre affairs, while others, like the infamous Uwe Boll's game adaptation House of the Dead (2003), were downright awful.

Almost as unexpectedly as the fact that the genre was revived by video games, would be the fact that the best movie to come out of the decade's revival would not be a straight-up horror movie, but rather a horror comedy. More specifically, one of the funniest and most memorable horror comedies ever made.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) was the brainchild of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who had already proven their comic sensibilities on the small screen in their native U.K. Self-proclaimed worshippers at the altar of Romero, Wright and Pegg brought a genuine love for the entire zombie ouvre, and it shows.

Shaun of the Dead is a loving tribute to the classic zombie flicks of a generation earlier, most notably of course, Dawn of the Dead. It works equally as both a horror film and a romantic comedy, making the tropes of zombie cinema instantly hip in a way that no earnestly serious zombie movie ever has. Directed by Wright and starring Pegg in the title role, it is that rare spoof that actually manages to outdo what it's spoofing.

With all this attention being lavished on the living dead, it made sense that sooner or later specific attention would begin to paid to the work of Romero, and to the man himself. First came news of a remake of the director's 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, an announcement met with considerable disapproval by died-in-the-wool horror fanatics.

But what the filmmakers were counting on were not that marginal demographic, but rather the general 18-34 year-old movie-going public at large. And miraculously, Zack Snyder's 2004 film proved to be one rare example of a situation in which the studio was wise not to heed the hardcore fan base. In spite of the low expectations and downright ill will of most Romero boosters, the new Dawn of the Dead proved to be a well-made, fresh and generally effective take on a genre classic.

While predictably lacking in the original's social commentary and filmed to conform to the standards of an R rating, Snyder's Dawn of the Dead is a very good horror film, and no level of admiration for the original can nullify that. Perhaps more importantly, the film's success would prove more of a boon for Romero himself than he first expected.

After years of aborted plans and false starts, the sudden marketability of zombie cinema finally helped George Romero to secure the backing he needed to film the fabled fourth installment in his living dead series. None other than legendary monster factory Universal stepped in and gave the director his largest budget to date for the production of Land of the Dead (2005).

Much slicker and more "Hollywood" than any of its predecessors, and featuring name actors such as John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, Land of the Dead was a significant departure. For the first time, Romero was dealing with a major studio. Compromises were made, including the decision to reign in the gore and keep the film within "R" standards. The picture was not the box office success the studio had hoped for, and it divided the fan base. Some enjoyed it, others felt the director had lost his touch. Most agreed it was a notch below his earlier efforts.

Yet Romero's tale of evolving zombies and humanity's desperate attempts to survive within a dystopian stronghold has already benefited from reappraisal in the three years since its release. It was to be expected that such a film could never live up to the expectations placed upon it, and it's likely that in years to come, much like its predecessor Day of the Dead (1985), future fans will look more kindly upon it.

Ironically, the modern zombie subgenre had grown to be much bigger than the man who invented it. Although his earlier films had defined the subgenre, Land of the Dead proved to be just a part of it, and so it continued to march on. Danny Boyle gave us 28 Weeks Later (2007), a sequel which in some ways surpassed the excellent original. Another franchise, Return of the Living Dead, was resurrected, albeit with nearly unwatchable fourth and fifth installments so weak they were introduced as Sci-Fi Channel movies.

Certainly, there were signs that the movement was running out of steam. The public's hunger for such fare may have been becoming satiated--plus, there is admittedly only so much one can do with any movie formula before a total reinvention is required. The sense of repetition was inevitable.

For that reason, the most memorable zombie films of the past couple of years have been the ones that tried something new. The sharply satirical Canadian horror comedy Fido (2006) gives us an alternate 1950s in which the living dead are subjugated by the living in a "Leave it to Beaver" suburban nightmare. Romero's fifth zombie chapter Diary of the Dead (2007), although met with further mixed reviews and derided by even more fans than Land was, was a solid attempt by the director to inject new life into his creation by going back to the beginning of his zombie outbreak and telling the story via a first-person, documentary style perspective.

Many have pointed out that Romero was outdone in this department by the stunning Spanish film [Rec] (2007), perhaps the most downright terrifying motion picture to come out of the entire zombie renaissance. More than anything, the movie is proof that, in the right hands, the genre still has life in it.

In the year 2008, forty years after George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the future still looks good for the modern zombie movie. Romero himself is in talks to continue the story he began in Diary of the Dead; Danny Boyle is returning to his own series for 28 Months Later; [Rec] is getting a sequel of its own; and the American remake of the original, entitled Quarantine, is set to hit theaters this fall. Perhaps most promising of all is the script adaptation of Max Brooks' excellent novel World War Z, the epic tale of a global zombie uprising that is currently in pre-production with Brad Pitt as producer and star.

Even if the explosion of zombie cinema falls off within the next few years--which seems likely--it will only serve to give it a much-needed rest. Think of it as a period of dormancy--one of several throughout the subgenre's four-decade history. The zombie isn't going anywhere. Thanks to the efforts of Romero and his multitude of disciples, it has grown to become one of the classic horror movie monsters, alongside vampires, werewolves, masked maniacs and the rest. Much like the zombies themselves, zombie movies move forward, unstoppable. You may get away from them for awhile, but they'll be back.

And eventually, they'll get you.


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean when you say that Anderson's RE plays more like a video game than a movie, but what I love about the games (haven't played 4 yet) is that they play more like movies than video games, what with the prerendered backgrounds and the camera angles. Actually, given the awkward controls and sludgy response time, they play like nightmares. It's a brilliant aesthetic, even if it was unintentional, and I'm still ticked off at the gaming world's opinion-leaders for not embracing the RE control scheme.

BTW, you credited Danny Boyle with 28 Weeks Later, even though you make clear later in the piece that he didn't do that one.

B-Sol said...

Danny Boyle was the exec. producer on 28 Weeks Later, not the director. Sorry, should've clarified that. And by the way, if your name is actually Gil Mann, I think that's awesome.

gord said...

Great end to the piece.

Some of the films I've enjoyed, some I have not. Haven't seen REC yet, but since it comes so highly recommended guess I'll have to give it a go.

And yes, DotD '04 was the most surprisingly great movie I've ever seen. Minus a couple annoying characters, and a really terrible epilogue during the credits.

And admittedly, RE1 upon its American release, was my first introduction to the zombie genre at the age of 10. Such a late start!

Anonymous said...


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