The notion of the zombie existed long before George Romero’s seminal 1968 horror flick, The Night of the Living Dead, spooked a generation of film-goers.
Zombies actually have their grisly origin as a component of the magical religion, Vodun (more commonly called ‘Voodoo’). They were corpses that had been reanimated by a witch doctor called a bokor, who uses the bodies to do his bidding.
Often these zombies, as the stories go, were mistaken for being living human beings. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, western scientists went on expeditions to Haiti to get to the bottom of the zombie legends, and while no hard conclusions were reached, some of the scientists speculated that zombies were, in fact, real, and that they were victims of a bokor who used the poison found in pufferfish to essentially cause them brain damage, making them susceptible to the bidding of their masters. They weren’t dead, but they were basically automatons with no will of their own.
Fun stuff, huh?
Zombies took quite a different turn when adapted by Romero in the first of his undead features. In his black-and-white classic, the dead return to life and begin killing the living and eating their flesh. (For those keeping score, the cannibalism aspect was not a part of the Vodun zombie lore. That was all Romero.) A small group of people take refuge in a farmhouse and do their best to fend off the oncoming horde, only for each person to die a horrible death.
What was (and still is) clever about Romero’s work is that he was not simply telling a story to make you afraid of the dark. He would carefully weave biting social commentary into all of his zombie movies, subverting our expectations to the point where humanity can seem more evil than the zombies.
After Romero produced Day of the Dead in 1985, he took a 20-year hiatus from zombies, and the genre faded into the background.
But then in 2002, Danny Boyle (now of Slumdog Millionaire fame) directed a chilling little horror movie called 28 Days Later. Praised as a reinvention of zombie fiction, the film’s version of ghouls were actually normal people (who were, blasphemously, alive) who had been infected with what is essentially a concentrated form of simple, human rage.
Perhaps most terrifying is that while the Romero zombies lurched along at a snail’s pace, Boyle’s zombies booked at their victims like a freight train, intent on obliterating their prey, stopping at nothing. If you haven’t seen this film before, do it. You’ll thank me.
Zack Snyder, who would go on to direct genre pics 300 and Watchmen, took notice of just how freaky-deaky these new running zombies were, and incorporated them into his 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
After that, the floodgates were opened. George Romero, the man himself, even returned to the genre with 2005’s Land of the Dead, and is still churning them out. Hollywood even went big-budget-zombie with the 2007 Will Smith movie I Am Legend.
And it wasn’t just Hollywood that was playing the zombie game. Media of all kind were cashing in. Image Comics produced a still-running title called The Walking Dead, in which humans attempt to survive in a world that has been devastated by a zombie apocalypse. As if Marvel Comics’ continuity wasn’t indecipherable enough, they began a “metaseries” called Marvel Zombies, which features many well-known heroes, like Spider-man and the Fantastic Four, as the brains-consuming undead.
Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks, wrote two books which describe in tongue-in-cheek fashion the oncoming zombie apocalypse, The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z.
Even sweet little J.K. Rowling included zombies in her sixth Harry Potter novel, referred to within the story as Inferi.
In short, zombies have arrived.
And in addition to the ones pounding at the door, there are still more zombies waiting in the outskirts for the opportunity to feast on some flesh. All signs point to the fact that the zombie craze is still going strong.
Romero’s newest addition to his ourve, rumored to be called Island of the Dead but listed on IMDB simply as ... of the Dead, is allegedly due out later this year.
Meanwhile, both The Walking Dead and Marvel Zombies are going strong. A new flick called Zombieland, starring Woody Harrelson, is coming soon. Based on this image alone, I’ll be there on opening night:
Comic series Deadworld will be getting the feature film treatment in the near future. And to my eternal delight, a new book is out that revisits Jane Austins riveting masterpiece, entitled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is a retelling of the original novel…with zombies.
(If there is any justice in this world, Keira Knightly will reprise her role as Elizabeth Bennet in the film version, and in her delicate, refined, British way, kick some zombie ass.)
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, young indy filmmakers continue to cut their early chops on super low-budget zombie flicks. And while it makes me cringe now, I was certainly not above the call of zombies when I made a little comedic film in college that served as an intro to a concert for my a capella group, The Earth Tones. And never being too proud to embarass myself for my fellow fantasy fans, here’s a short clip from the film below.
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