Please note: this post is the third entry in a series on horror and why we love it. To read the previous entries on ghosts and vampires, please click here and here.
Zombie films have a special place in my heart because they combine an old Haitian bogeyman with a dose of humor and gooey special effects. Traditionally, a zombie (or zonbi/zombi) was believed to be the result of magical reanimation of a corpse, usually by a bokor (a mercenary sorcerer who uses both dark and light magic). These zombies were the personal slaves of the sorcerer who created them and had no personal will. This type of zombie has been represented in film several times, the most famous being in White Zombie (1932), which is widely considered the first zombie film. Filled with cultural misunderstandings and sensationalized Haitian folklore, this film nonetheless paved the way for the eventual evolution of the classic zombie movie.
In the 1950s, science fiction dominated the movie screens, yet zombies managed to find their way into those films, as well. The result of alien corpse puppets (in films like Invisible Invaders in 1959 and Plan 9 From Outer Space in 1959) rather than voodoo, these zombies look and behave much like their modern virus-induced counterparts.
Without a doubt, George Romero changed the face of horror films forever with his conception of a flesh-eating, undead monster in Night of the Living Dead in 1968 (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”). Romero didn’t create zombies, but he most certainly redefined zombie lore to the point where it is his version of zombies that we all now accept as the standard: shoot them in the head to kill them, infection spread through bites, waking up hungry for human flesh/brains, seemingly unstoppable hoards relentless pursuing their living dinner….all Romero’s brainchild.
The infusion of humor into zombie films that began with Romero continues today and is definitely one of my favorite things about them. The idea that something can be funny and scary at the same time seems contradictory, but in zombie films it works.
Why They Inspire Fear and Fascination
I feel like I’m repeated myself for the third time here, but I think it’s pretty obvious that zombies have some connection to our human obsession with death. Of course. Most (arguably all?) horror does on some level. But zombie films and stories are so much flexible than that. They act a kind of blank canvas upon which all our most pressing fears can be painted. Impending apocalypse? Check. Nuclear war? Check. Mindless consumerism? Check. Disintegration of family? Check. Children who will rip your throat out? Check. Pandemic? Check. Science/technology gone wrong? Check. Aliens? Check. Human monsters who are worse than the flesh-eating living dead? Check. Loss of any and all hope? Check.
In short, zombies are everything we’re afraid of, both within and outside of ourselves. They represent the loss of friends, family, ourselves. They make us feel entirely helpless to protect those we hold most dear, because much like the proverbial “house”, the zombies always win.
A Few Fine Examples
Disclaimer: This list is by no means exhaustive or even representative, but rather contains some of my favorite entries in the genre. Nothing more.
1. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – I know I mentioned this short novel in my post on vampires, but this story belongs here, too. Read it.
2. World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks – Not to be confused with the recent film by the same name, this novel was pretty groundbreaking in 2006, and is a fun read for zombie fans. Recommended.
3. The Walking Dead comics by Robert Kirkman – I’ve watched the television series, but for me, the comics are far more engaging. They are gut-wrenching, horrifying, and pull no punches. They could NEVER be accurately adapted to television, but the graphic medium does something extraordinary here. Good horror stuff.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968) – Yes, I know it’s old. Yes, I know it’s in black and white. Watch it. You’ll find yourself suddenly understanding SO MANY references in zombie films once you’ve seen the original. Make it happen.
2. Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Romero has named this film as his favorite zombie film that isn’t one of his. High praise indeed. “You’ve got red on you!”
3. Dawn of the Dead (1978) – Another classic Romero zombie film, this one takes place in an indoor shopping mall (which were still fairly new at the time). Really good.
4. Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012) – This movie isn’t just one of my favorite zombie movies…it’s one of my favorites, period. I love everything about this movie, from the rhyming slang to the makeup effects to the jaunty music. Fantastic.
5. Dawn of the Dead (2004) – I admit to being something of a remake snob, but I really like this one. Partially because I saw it in theatres and remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable with sitting in a crowded room filled with potential zombies, and partially because Zack Snyder did some really fantastic visual work here. The zombies actually steadily decay and decompose over the course of the movie. The cast is also awesome. And MALLS ARE SO SCARY, OMG!!!! Oh, and it’s often funny. And also sad. And then scary lots. Good.
6. Army of Darkness (1992) – “Yo! She-bitch! Let’s go!”
7. Dance of the Dead (2008) – It’s zombie prom time! I honestly watched this one expecting it to be another throwaway, mindless, low-budget zombie flick…and on some levels I was right. But then I also really liked it. Jumped some, laughed a lot. Don’t take it too seriously, but do watch it. Fun.
8. Black Sheep (2006) – I love this movie. It’s a ridiculous concept and goes to some horrifying inappropriate places, but it’s also kind of delightful and scary and hilarious. I cry laughing every time I watch it.
9. Undead (2003) – “Time is short. So you gotta ask yourself: Are you a fighter, Fish Queen, or are you zombie food?” It’s alien zombies in Australia. ‘Nuff said.