In Night of The Living Dead, a mysterious encounter at a cemetery triggers a chain of events that would rock the cinematic world. George Romero’s first (and one of his most fondly remembered) foray into the universe of the walking dead was a shocking and gritty encounter with zombies (then called “ghouls”) that divided families and tore people apart over the course of one terrifying evening.
But movies like this aren’t being made anymore. What happened to the good zombie movie? When did the walking dead shuffle into over-saturation? Why are we being flooded with a horde of zombies, and is there a cure?
Zombies Are Dead
Audiences who watched NOTLD at the time of its release were outraged, and the Wikipedia page contains some choice critic quotes along with great anecdotes of children crying in theaters. And, thanks to the magic of improper filing, it’s now public domain so we can all enjoy it.
Sure, we see some of the magic of the film through the hazy glaze of nostalgia, and we appreciate it retrospectively for being “groundbreaking”, or “ahead of its time”. But some of that love isn’t misplaced; NOTLD, as with its sequel Dawn of the Dead (and to some extent, Land of the Dead), is well remembered for containing some great social commentary in the forms of race politics or the class system.
For instance, in NOTLD we see a competent, capable black man (remember, this was the 60s), keeping his head among an irrational group driven by their own emotions to their doom (spoiler alert, but again… the 60s). His reward for surviving unscathed? To be mistaken come dawn as a “ghoul” himself, and unceremoniously shot down by a posse of white men who hoot and holler over the main credits as they haul his body to the pyre.
Unfortunately, this kind of subversive metaphor is lacking from undead flicks of late. We’re either getting cobbled together remakes like 2013’s Evil Dead with its increase in gore, or a string of direct-to-DVD affairs that prop up the Redbox and Netflix catalogs. We used to complain about derivative fantasy movies ripped straight from the Tolkien template, and before that the prevalence of the space opera. Why don’t we worry about the absolutely monstrous number of zombie movies lurking on the horizon?
We’re Not Afraid Anymore
As a result, zombies have lost their power. They don’t scare and they certainly don’t surprise. The same thing happened to the animal “creature-feature” movies of the Jaws era. Nowadays we get together with our friends and some popcorn to laugh our way through Piranha 3D, and all the blood and boobs that come along with it.
Animal-themed horrors are resigned to the bottom of the Sci Fi channel barrel nowadays, and why not? Man has been walking all over nature for decades, we’ve had dominion over our four-legged friends and sea creatures for so long now that the idea of them being some terrible foe is practically laughable. Sharktopus-level laughable.
In the same way, zombies are just “a monster” now, a problem that needs to be destroyed. Characters sweep around rooms of them, killing them with impunity while getting killed in much the same way. Uh, did anyone remember that they’re supposed to be humans, loved ones, and metaphors for our own inevitable death?
A recent exception to the rule is one of my personal favorites, Zombieland. It contains all the laughs and gore one needs from a “horror-comedy”, but it’s so much more. The plot is dominated by the interpersonal relationships of the characters, and it’s so seamless that for about half an hour (in Bill Murray’s house, of course) it’s easy to forget that it’s even a zombie movie and not about four mismatched personalities each trying to come to their own life-changing revelations.
What should we expect from zombie movies? They either need to be killed or resurrected. Maybe they need to go away for a while, so when they come back we can remember what it’s like to be scared by them. But, if they’re here to stay, we need a change of direction. Rather than upping the ante and finding ways for there to be more zombies, how about we scale it down?
How about a movie about a localized zombie outbreak (or infection akin to it), that is easily controlled and leaves society intact, but gives people the problem of what to do with their newly zombie-fied loved-ones? Kill them? Wait for a cure? What happens if the government mandates their immediate destruction? Does it have the right? Hell, the euthanasia, abortion, right-to-life parallels write themselves. Your move, Hollywood.