Forget vampires. Anya Klaassen chronicles the evolution of another classic horror-movie staple: zombies
BY THE TIME WE RING IN THE NEW YEAR, 2009 will have seen the addition of more than 50 new zombie movies to the already bursting catalogue of corpse-filled classics. Running the gamut from Night of the Living Dead Goes 3D to Gay of the Dead to Urban Scumbags vs Countryside Zombies Reanimated, it’s readily apparent that despite the current mania for all things fanged, Hollywood has always maintained a love affair with the undead.
But the zombies we know and love today are vastly different from the zombies of our parents’ generation. After all, just because something is dead doesn’t mean it can’t evolve.
Zombies first entered popular consciousness through the Afro-Caribbean spiritual belief system of Vodou (more popularly known as Voodoo). It was said that sorcerers could revive the dead to a kind of half-living state in which they could be easily controlled. This was supposedly done through the use of special powders introduced into the blood stream.
Hollywood picked this up in 1932 with the film White Zombie. The movie, starring horror king Béla “Dracula” Lugosi as the aptly named Murder Legendre, featured a sinister plantation owner in Haiti who kills and resurrects a beautiful young woman, forcing her to do his bidding in her helpless state.
It was the first film to show resurrected corpses who walk in a trance, in the classic stiff gait with outstretched arms. The hapless heroine was saved from her shuffling fate, though, by the demise of the villain, which released her from her curse.
Zombie movies spread throughout the next few decades, with films like King of the Zombies, Revolt of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies being released annually. Some, like Zombies on Broadway and The Ghost Breakers, gave it the comedy treatment, while others, like I Walked with a Zombie or The Last Man on Earth, kept to the horror format. (Then there's the titanic train wreck that was Plan 9 from Outer Space, but to this day no one is sure whether it’s more comedic or tragic.)
Despite their modest popularity, however, zombie films remained largely a cult phenomenon until the 1968 blockbuster Night of the Living Dead, from “Grandfather of Zombie”, George A Romero.
You could say Night of the Living Dead was the Magna Carta of zombie films. It had a new take on reanimated corpses, producing them en masse and giving them a taste for human flesh. Romero also reimagined their origin, blaming the whole thing on radiation from a space probe rather than the occult, setting the standard for subsequent films to point the finger at experimental technologies.
Night of the Living Dead also pioneered other aspects of zombie films popular today, such as the zombie apocalypse scenario and the craving for human flesh.
Zombies once again receded into the background over subsequent decades, though, being relegated to B-list horror like Re-Animator and Evil Dead, or campy spoofs like My Boyfriend’s Back from 1993 or 1991’s Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Terror.
But they came screaming back into the limelight with 2002’s smash hit 28 Days Later. The low-budget thriller completely rebooted the genre, envisioning a new breed of zombies created by a monkey-borne virus.
These zombies weren’t the shuffling, moaning cadavers of the past: they were screaming, rage-filled, and terrifyingly fast. 28 Days Later isn’t strictly considered a zombie film by purists, as the monsters aren’t actually dead, merely infected – however, it fits quite well into the zombie apocalypse genre.
The same year saw the release of Resident Evil, an action horror film based on the video game of the same name. Its zombies were created in a top-secret genetic research facility owned by the Umbrella Corporation.
Throughout the film and its three (soon to be four) sequels, the zombies escaped the facility and managed to kill most of the world’s population.
The zombie genre was completely turned on its head in 2004, when Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead used the undead as the backdrop of a romantic comedy.
Poking fun at the conventions of past films, the movie’s tongue-in-cheek approach to horror paved the way for a slew of zombie comedies, including the coming Zombieland (opening locally on November 20), which combines the zombie apocalypse with the quirky indie sensibilities of Little Miss Sunshine, as an idiosyncratic group of survivors journey across America to make a new home in an abandoned theme park.
Zombieland has already grossed more than $60 million (R441m), making it the most successful zombie movie to date and proving the public’s appetite for cannibalistic corpses is growing.
So what’s to come in the world of the undead? The latest trend is horror-filled mash-ups that insert zombies into classic love stories. The no-budget Romeo & Juliet vs The Living Dead, while suffering from bad special effects, stock footage and cheesy make-up, has become something of a cult hit, proving the formula has potential. And in 2011, the world will see Elizabeth and Mr Darcy fight for their lives as the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes its way to the big screen.