Nightmare Cinema #3 – The Evolution of Zombie Cinema

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To begin a new concept or The Cinephiliacs, the themed week, we will be launching it with our first one, “The Cinephiliacs Zombie Week”. Zombie film reviews and articles about the living dead from the various contributors we have here will be up over the next seven days. So, to jump start the week, here is my article about the evolution of our beloved bag of bones.

It is quite startling how much they have changed in the last seventy years, isn’t it?

When the undead first made an appearance on the silver screen in 1932 with the release of 
“White Zombie” the World was quite unsure of how to react to the creature that trembled and walked in a trance like state. It terrified audiences across the world with its original and, though it may seem passé now, frightening way of presenting a monster that hadn’t been seen before. It was a controlled individual, manipulated, not a torn apart and mangled creature with bloody fragments of flesh hanging from its dried out lips.

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The World was further introduced to the zombie many years later in a very different way when a director named George A Romero brought the movie realm his own take on the walking dead. A being that bit like a vampire, but found brains and chunks of flesh more appetizing than just plain old blood, was born. 

The creature known simply as “the zombie” became a recognised name in the land of movie monsters and horror creatures. No longer were children merely dressing as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster or a mummy on Halloween night, but now there were kids reaching their arms out in front of them and asking kindly for brains to eat. 

Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s first zombie picture, changed the face of horror cinema and scared people silly back in 1968. The zombies of previous films weren’t as shocking, ugly or demented as the zombies that tore into human skin in what is now called a classic in movie history. Night of The Living Dead told the story of a group of individuals finding protection from the hordes of the undead in a desolate house. They attempted to work together to fight the threat and survive the army of the undead clawing to get into the house and make them into a scrumptious dinner. It is this film that many credit as the trigger that sent the zombie phenomenon off into orbit.

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All was quiet on the zombie front for years following Night of the Living Dead. George Romero broke the silence with a very loud noise in 1978 with the release of Dawn of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead was a milestone in the horror genre and fans ate it up. Its vivid colourful display of blood and guts mixed with a unique soundtrack, and the rotting zombies that caused such fright in Romero’s debut movie, made it a success and possibly the greatest zombie film of all time in the eyes of many fans and critics. 

The creatures had changed from their debut in the 1930’s. They no longer just hobbled around doing their masters bidding. They ate people, they moaned and screeched for the taste of human flesh. The zombie had evolved. 

By the time the 1980’s came around the World had been bombarded with scary movies. Slasher flicks like Halloween and Friday the 13th, paranormal movies like The Exorcist and The Shining and a whole host of other terrifying cinematic creations had hit the shelves and screens of nations everywhere. Zombies, the once feared creature that haunted audiences everywhere had become cheese-ball and silly, almost like the cute character that did little other than cause a couple of smirks.

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Return of the Living Dead (1985) took the formula that George Romero brought to the table of slow moving predators looking to feed on innocent civilians and twisted it into a farcical gore fest. A comedy horror if you will. Fans were divided as some saw the film as a blatant rip-off and mockery of their beloved genre. Other fans enjoyed it’s over the top gore and silliness. Regardless of the reaction, it changed the face of how people looked at the zombie character and it would be a long time before people took the living dead quite so seriously again. 

The zombie dropped off the radar during the 1980’s and there were very few movies featuring any walking, groaning dead people. Vampires, monsters, serial killers and ghosts were still as popular as ever but the zombie was used only when a comedy film wanted to salute what in many opinions was the easiest monster to mock. Sure, Romero’s follow-up to Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, was a hit with fans of the serious zombie concept and though it didn’t do too well at the box office, it remains a classic in the brain-munching corner of horror cinema, some even prefer it to “Dawn…” and it’s hard to dispute its quality as a horror film.

Sequels to the Return of the Living Dead hit the screens to cult fanfare and other zombie releases flew under the public eye. It just didn’t seem popular to be a zombie in the 80’s and early 90’s. There were things people wanted to see, things people liked to test themselves against to see if it scared them. No-one was scared of zombies anymore, possibly the downfall of the genre in that era. 

In the 1990’s the zombie was tossed around in comedy movies and horror films that were designed for gore purposes rather than terror. Night of the Living Dead was remade to a mixed reaction in 1990 and Return of the Living Dead came out with its third entry in the franchise and possibly most serious too in 1993. The zombie appeared to still be walking and groaning, just in the background. There was little of anything to applaud in the nineties. The zombie was an almost forgotten monster. 

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2002 saw the release of 28 Days Later, a film about infected throngs feeding on the masses. It was raw, gritty and scary and just what the zombie needed. Then the film was promoted as “NOT a zombie movie, an infection movie” and the zombie hung his head, feeling rejected by the fact that even film-makers wanted to avoid any connection to its non-scary connotations.

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In 2004 a film took the zombie, put it into a comedy film with comedy actors and a comedy script and re-invigorated the zombie movie for the 00’s. Shaun of the Dead saluted George Romero’s zombie releases and brought a respectful tone to the zombie comedy. The zombie was walking faster again. Standing taller. Moaning louder.

One year later, the master of the zombie flick returned with Land of the Dead. The fourth part of the “Dead” series by George Romero. The zombie had truly evolved. They still moved more or less the same and dug into flesh like a pizza buffet but it appeared the zombies were beginning to think. The social points that Romero made in Land of the Dead stood out, pointing to the humans as the true monsters. Land of the Dead had a mixed reaction from fans but it finally showed that the zombie, though dead and rotting, was also alive and kicking. 

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The 00’s has seen hundreds of films featuring our favourite undead insurgents. We’ve seen zombie clowns, zombies in bikinis, zombie bikers. We’ve seen zombies as pets and we’ve seen the terror put back into the zombie genre again. In 2010 a comic book series called “The Walking Dead” was adapted into a television series and took the zombie back into the mainstream. It is now four seasons in and going strong, the fifth season will be premiering this autumn. Critically acclaimed, the zombie has returned from the dead and become a pop culture icon once more. Movies, television shows, books and video games are overflowing with the rotten flesh and putrid blood of the zombie.

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It is likely, in fact it is inevitable, that the zombie will evolve and change as the years pass but it is also likely that the slow march and scowling, rotten faces of the zombies made famous by George Romero will lead the charge. This last couple of years already sees blockbuster films surrounding the walking flesh-bags we’ve grown to love with. World War Z did big business and a sequel has been announced. Warm Bodies, based on a book, did well also and portrayed the zombie in a different way yet again. Life after Beth, starring Aubrey Plaza will be released later in 2014 and looks set to be an enjoyable zombie comedy. There has been an endless list of low-budget fare too, such as Zombie Horde, and foreign delights of zombie flicks, such as Dead Snow, and its just-released sequel.

While I have missed out mentioning certain classic films that I perhaps could have brought up during this little article, I will say that I am aware that there are zombie movies that stood tall to fans during even the times I mentioned when the monster wasn’t so menacing. Lucio Fulci did some great work in the genre and we saw some great independent films featuring our flesh tearing comrades. But overall I wanted to take a quick look at the evolution and the continuing popularity of a creature that has been around for quite some time yet through the imagination and creativity of writers and filmmakers they still, if promoted and moulded properly, can be terrifying as fuck.

Zombie flicks to eat up – The Romero Zombie Series, Plague Of The Zombies, Return Of The Living Dead, White Zombie, Pontypool, Shaun of the Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Fido, [REC] 1 & 2, Wasting Away, Zombieland, Zombie Lake, Dead Snow, The Horde, The Walking Dead (TV Show), Cemetery Man, Planet Terror, I Walked With A Zombie, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, Dead Alive.

Zombie flicks to spit out – Return Of The Living Dead: Necropolis, Day Of The Dead Remake, Route 666, Severed: Forest Of The Dead, Gangs Of The Dead, Flight Of The Living Dead, House Of The Dead, Zombie Nation.

Stay tuned for upcoming reviews and such on a variety of zombie flicks, from low budget fare, to modern high budget titles, to classic genre films, munch away at what we have to offer.

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One thought on “Nightmare Cinema #3 – The Evolution of Zombie Cinema

  1. Night of the Living Dead was the first one I saw as a kid and is my favorite zombie film. Shaun of the Dead is probably my second favorite. Good recap of films.

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