After a 10-Year Run, Have Zombies Lost The Ability to Scare Us?
This is not written as a missive against the #1 movie in theaters this week, “Warm Bodies.” I am not a film critic and will leave that job to my betters. I actually enjoyed “Warm Bodies,” but to me it’s a bellwether of a trend in horror, an undead canary in the coal mine if you will.
You see, to me zombie movies are about the end of the world. They’re uncomfortable and sweaty and bloody. They’re often disgusting – even the funny ones should make the average teenage girl puke and your parents worry about you for wanting to see them. And I feel that this is slipping away from zombies faster than you can say “Twilight.”
Before Blockbuster Video…
I’m a little ashamed that I’ve completely forgotten the name of the store.
When I was about 14 years old, there was a video store a short bike ride from my house that had a stunning array of horror titles and an even more stunning apathy when it came to renting them to 14-year-olds. To walk down that aisle, I always felt like I was doing something a little wrong – like I was making society at large a little sad that I was extremely curious about what movies could be represented by the creepy rotting faces and prosthetic horrors on that shelf. That year on Halloween I rented George Romero‘s “Night of the Living Dead” and watched it by myself. Twice. I mean, I’d seen movies – and I’d seen horror movies. But I’d never seen anything that felt as weird, dangerous, and transgressive as that movie.
As a teen, zombies appealed to me by speaking to my inner Holden Caulfield. They were outsiders, they brought down society, and in so doing they brought all the flaws of living people to the surface. They told me that under the thin veneer of polite society, many of us are merely caged savages looking for an excuse to take control of the world. They told me that some people are selfish enough to connive and cheat in order to win.
…And this was YEARS before “Survivor.”
And then there were the makeup effects and gore. I always loved watching these films and trying to dissect the magic trick that had resulted in the mayhem. I’d already started reading Fangoria magazine, and as I read about the classics of this other kind of film and this video store had several. They had “Zombie” by Lucio Fulci, and the entire Romero Zombie trilogy (“Night” plus “Dawn” and “Day” of The Dead). They had Dan O’Bannon‘s “Return of the Living Dead” (the first movie I ever saw with running zombies) and a bunch of other stuff that I’m not going to talk about now because I want to talk about zombies. And where they’ve gone right and where they seem to be going today.
Culminating, as I said, in a perfectly entertaining movie I saw last night called “Warm Bodies,” which to me indicates that this incarnation of the zombie has finally jumped the shark (at least in terms of being either frightening or transgressive) – a shark literally supplied by Lucio Fulci in 1979.
The Return of The Living Dead Movies
I recall around 2000, a writer friend had written a script involving zombies. His manager told him he’d have to change it – zombies were out of fashion at the time, and he found another suitable mutation from the human form to chase the protagonists around.
Romero hadn’t made a zombie film since 1985’s “Day of the Dead.” There were monsters that resembled zombies in the abstract, like the Deadites in the “Evil Dead”/”Army of Darkness” movies. And I’m sure there were lots of foreign or indie horrors that I personally missed which featured the walking-around horde – but it wasn’t until 2002 and Danny Boyle‘s fantastic “28 Days Later” that I’d seen them come back.
And yes, I know Boyle makes it clear that they aren’t zombies in the pure sense. But they’re zombies at heart.
That same year, we saw the first of 12,000,000 “Resident Evil” movies, the first of which directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and featured a then-fresh take on the Romero-style zombies. A year later we saw the Spierig Brothers’ Australian UFO-driven zombie shoot-em-up “Undead.” Then, one year later we saw Zack Snyder‘s remake of the classic “Dawn of the Dead,” which I found myself arguing with purists about how Snyder (and screenwriter James Gunn) had taken an allegory-rich zombie story and found a fresh allegory that could scare us in the post-9/11 world. The same year was the first high-profile zombie parody in this particular wave, Edgar Wright‘s masterful “Shaun of the Dead.” It should be noted that Wright created a film that worked both as a comedy and a zombie film by never making the zombies any less than a real threat. More on that later.
What followed was a mushroom cloud of zombie films. Whatever you taste is, there’s a zombie movie to fill that niche. Besides the aforementioned barrage of “Resident Evil” movies, we had “28 Weeks Later” (I know, still not technically zombies), a relatively-forgettable remake of “Day of the Dead,” 2006’s “Pathogen” – an ADORABLE zombie movie written and directed by 12-year-old Emily Hagins, microbudget zombies in Steven C. Miller‘s “Automaton Transfusion,” existential French angst-ey zombies in Robin Campillo’s “They Came Back,” and teen zombies like in Greg Bishop‘s “Dance of the Dead.” Even zombie-genre-creator George Romero got back into the fun with “Land of the Dead,” “Diary of the Dead,” and “Survival of the Dead.” And in 2010 we even got a great zombie TV show, “The Walking Dead” (based on the also-awesome comic book).
And many, many, many more.
The new breed of zombies was extra-dangerous. The weapons-grade version of Romero’s walkers and very creepy. With the addition of modern filmmaking technology, the special effects were no longer constrained to what could be executed live on the set so we had some CGI enhancements. And since zombie-loving filmmakers had stewed over the plot holes in the 1970’s zombie movies, the stories often seemed tighter, characters more lucid. Self-aware if you will.
And although in 2009 I thoroughly enjoyed Ruben Fleischer‘s “Zombieland,” and Tommy Wirkola‘s “Dead Snow,” I could feel the self-awareness had a price – the danger began to trickle out and with it, the sense of transgression around these movies. We were running out of zombie stories, but audiences still wanted them, so filmmakers would make zombie movies as a comment on other zombie movies. And that’s how zombies attained postmodern hipster status. And they were becoming downright cuddly.
And that’s what “Warm Bodies” is – a self-aware zombie who makes fun of himself and all the zombie tropes because by now we’re all wondering lots of things about the inner lives of zombies. And because if you dissect any mythology in the right way, it can be shown to be ridiculous.
It’s obvious and expected that zombies get a sendup in a la the “Scary Movie” franchise. And “The Walking Dead” has chewed through just about every zombie scenario there is to eat. But here is something I never expected: I was in a theater for a zombie film, and a sizeable chunk of the audience was the very teenage girls who would lose their lunch 10 minutes into “Bay of Blood.” And by the end, the girls are audibly swooning over the deadly-sincere antics of the Shakespearian star-crossed lovers. Is there anything actually wrong with that? Absolutely not. But for me, it’s akin to that feeling of when the really cool alternative band you loved broke mainstream and suddenly so did their music. And now we’ve lost both what made that band special and what being a fan of that band really meant.
So zombies: I don’t know if we can turn this around or if we even should. Perhaps this genre has become too easy, or those of us who grew up on it have stopped dreaming of newer ways to make subversively entertaining movies. Maybe zombies are the new superheroes – previously relegated to a small cohort of nerdy fans but destined to be the biggest, most explosive entertainment we’ll see in years to come.
Or maybe the genre needs to exhaust itself so that 20 years from now a new breed of filmmaker, living in a different sociological climate with different filmmaking tools in her arsenal will rediscover this stage-blood-soaked thought experiment of what happens when society literally eats itself. I guess we’ll know the direction this summer.