Not dead yet: Zombie movies are unalive and well
George Romero thinks the zombie genre is here to stay.
“I don’t think it will ever die,’’ said Romero, director of six zombie-themed films, including his latest, “Survival of the Dead,’’ which opens Friday. He was in Boston earlier this month to promote the film.
Of course, Romero is more than a little biased. Over the past 40-plus years, the director has brought us the landmark “Night of the Living Dead’’ (1968), “Dawn of the Dead’’ (1978), and “Day of the Dead’’ (1985), as well as “Creepshow’’ (1982). But ask the man why re-animated, flesh-starved corpses are stumbling and lumbering back into pop culture, hungry for our brains, and he draws a blank.
“Why zombie movies? In Budapest, 3,000 people dress up as zombies. What is that about? I don’t know,’’ said the gangly, avuncular, 70-year-old filmmaker who wears a gray ponytail and white beard. “I half expect a zombie to show up and hang out with the Count on ‘Sesame Street.’ ’’
Like other horror categories — vampire, werewolf, psycho-killer, demon — the zombie film once lay dormant in its grave. But the genre has made a significant comeback, and the uptick of zombie mania has benefited a host of filmmakers, authors, comic book artists, and video-game developers. Romero, who had to wait 20 years between making “Day’’ and 2005’s “Land of the Dead,’’ has churned out three zombie films in five years. (“Diary of the Dead’’ came out in 2007.)
Among the spate of zombie-themed books, there’s The New York Times bestseller “Zombie Survival Guide’’ and “World War Z,’’ and the recent “U.S. Army Zombie Combat Skills,’’ which teaches the techniques needed to take on armies of the undead. Naturally, the Jane Austen-zombie mash-up novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’’ also helped drive the resurgence, as have impromptu flash-mob zombie walks, and hit video games like Resident Evil (“Zombies are good targets for first-person shooters,’’ Romero noted).
Last year’s “Zombieland’’ was a hit. With “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’’ now in development as an A-list movie starring Natalie Portman, and with “E’gad, Zombies!,’’ a film short about 19th-century zombies premiering at Cannes this year (starring Ian McKellen, with plans to expand to feature length), perhaps the genre has finally come of age and gained mass respectability — albeit a tongue-through-cheek one. There’s even a new Ford Fiesta ad touting how the vehicle’s keyless door opener and push-button starter enable a hasty getaway from a zombie attack.
Romero finds the fascination both “ridiculous’’ and “unbelievable.’’ Too many zombies, even for Romero? Perhaps there’s a tinge of jealousy in his voice. After all, it was Romero who toiled for years in the indie movie trenches, struggled to get his projects financed, and more or less single-handedly reinvented the genre. He also tolerated remakes of his movies, like 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead,’’ which was made without his participation.
Romero deserves respect. After all, he codified the rules of the game. Namely, that to kill zombies, “You have to deactivate the brain: shoot it, stab it, stomp it, whatever you got — in the head,’’ said Romero’s working partner and “Survival of the Dead’’ producer Peter Grunwald. It was also Romero who rescued the undead from their quainter origins in such classics as 1932’s “White Zombie,’’ considered to be the first zombie movie. Bela Lugosi plays a voodoo priest who transforms a young woman into a zombie.
In those days, zombies were more like hypnotized puppets than flesh-eating ghouls. “The zombie was born out of Haitian zombie lore,’’ said Glenn Kay, author of “Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide,’’ in a telephone interview. “There was a huge element in the early movies of all these potions and powders, with a zombie master. It’s not so magical any more.’’
Later, in movies like “Plan 9 From Outer Space’’ (1959), zombies served as “muscle for the aliens,’’ Kay said; in “Invisible Invaders’’ (also released in 1959), they were alien occupiers of bodies of the recently deceased. But they had no personalities. “It was hard for filmmakers to figure out what to do with them.’’
That all changed in 1968 — a year of social upheaval on many fronts — with the black-and-white, bargain-basement “Night of the Living Dead.’’ Here radioactive contamination reanimates corpses, and Romero remade zombies — no longer mind-controlled dummies, but autonomous beings with a motivation to feast on flesh. That upped the genre’s dramatic ante. Since Romero, various filmmakers have offered zombie-like plots. “Re-Animator’’ (1985) is more like Frankenstein than Romero, but still features the walking dead. In “28 Days Later’’ (2002), a virus fills people with murderous rage. Fancy a zombie apocalypse comedy? See 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead.’’
The premise of “Survival of the Dead,’’ like all of Romero’s zombie films, pits a band of survivors against the undead. This time around, Sarge (Alan Van Sprang) and his small platoon (we first meet them in “Diary of the Dead’’) head to an island to escape the zombies, where they stumble into clan warfare between two Irish-American families (and more zombies). One, headed by O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), thinks the only good zombie is a dead zombie. The other, under Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), hopes his zombie beloved might be cured, so he keeps them alive and chained up. Guess which is the better idea?
This wholesale rise of zombies suggests a metaphorical interpretation. Do they represent our fear of death and disease, or work as a way to accept death (minus the flesh-eating parts)? Are the undead actually proxies for illegal immigrants or terrorists? Or are the undead making fun of our mindless, consumerist, sheep-like tendencies?
Perhaps we identify with zombies because they’re the monsters we most resemble. “We can imagine ourselves as them,’’ said Grunwald. “They’re not giant CG [computer-generated] beasts. They’re like us, like our family, or loved ones.’’ They are us.
As Sarge narrates early on in “Survival,’’ “They were easy enough to kill, except when they were your buddies.’’
Romero refuses to analyze. Actually, he insists his films aren’t about zombies. They’re about the chaos zombies create. In “Survival’’ you will find disgustingly cool new ways to kill a zombie, i.e., fill its head with fire-extinguisher foam, or shoot it with a flare gun then cavalierly light your cigarette off its flaming body. But the subtext of biting social commentary that Romero fans have come to expect is buried not far below the surface.
“All six of them have always been about people, how they screw up,’’ he said. “How they can’t pull together to address the problem. Or they address the problem stupidly. Or they attack the symptom rather than the disease.’’
“Lousy times make lousy people,’’ says the teenage protagonist of “Survival.’’ With its “Lord of the Flies’’ scenario, “Survival’’ is really a disaster movie about human nature and another chapter in Romero’s bleak — yet paradoxically goofy — worldview. It’s not for everyone.
“I think they [his movies] really are an acquired taste,’’ Romero said. “If you have the stamina to acquire the taste.’’
Or the stomach. Take Romero’s iPhone “App of the Dead,’’ launching later this month. You’ll be able to add zombie makeup to snapshots of your friends, then shoot them in the head.
“It’s anchovies, baby.’’
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.