04 October 2009
Trends: Films of the Living Dead; 2002 - Present
For the rest of American Human History, despite all my writings here, blogging about decades or trends or whathaveyou, the 2000s shall always be fondly remembered for only two things: Zombies and Pirates. As we haven't had a pirate movie in a few years now, I'm going to talk about zombies today.
This is one of the widest trends I've ever talked about and for good reason - these fucking bastards just don't stay dead. They have wholly invaded the Holy Trifecta of popular culture: Movies, Literature and Video Games. Of course, throughout all of human history there have been hundreds of extremely shitty low-budget Zombie movies released every minute. The 2000s are no different, but there has been a rapid surge in the mainstream appeal of the undead. Thus, I'm sure that the following is far from incomplete, but I'm going to try to address most of the larger pop culture Zombie features here. Let's begin:
2002-2004: Night Falls
The earliest movie I could track that started all this nonsense, somewhat ironically, is not actually a zombie movie at all, yet still one of the best horror films of the decade. Of course, I'm talking about 28 Days Later (2002). This movie had such a unique take on the genre, from is quasi-documentary style appearl to its unholy introduction of the not-so-undead but equally mindless sprinter zombie. They deftly sort of avoided the fact that this makes little sense for animated corpses through the notion of a "Rage Virus," similar to Zombieland (2009). Whatever, as Zombieland has clearly proven, the collective cultural memory will now always associate the Sprinters as Zombies, perhaps even moreso as typical zombies than the slow, lumbering stank of death and inevitability. In the few years after this, the genre, like its undead counterpart grew slowly, with the successful Resident Evil (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and of course the incomperable Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Movies were not the only pop culture outlet to feature the rebirth of the deceased. Max Brooks' groundbreaking art novel The Zombie Survival Guide appeared on bookshelves in 2003, which helped turn some of the hipster kitschy psyche on to the undead. As the Zombie Fad is primarily a youth movement, Video Games have had a larger and larger influence on the cultural mindset. Whereas movie technology has improved the past decade, video game technology has vastly surpassed precedent, which of course immediately led to more in-depth and invigorating zombie experiences.
I'll argue that the first instance of zombies in video games this decade came from the Flood in Halo: Combat Evolved (2001). The Flood are parasitic, mindless swarming lifeforms; the immense popularity of Halo and its successors surely helped to inundate the zombie zeitgeist into the youthful mind. Zombies also had a small role in World of Warcraft (2004) and of course, the popular Resident Evil Zero (2002).
2005 - 2006: Dawn Rises
From these mumbling moaning wails we had a lot of places to go. Shaun of the Dead was both an homage to earlier George A. Romero styles and the somehow inherent humour associated with the zombie genre, while movies like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead introduced the terrifying capability of real fast, real scary, uber-intense zombies. What followed is an explosion of all kinds of varieties.
The master himself, writer/director George A. Romero added his own entry into the modern catalogue with Land of the Dead (2005). It's fitting here to note how much the Romero zombie really has influenced the current style, from the lethal brain damage to the inevitability of the apocalypse, even the subtle ability of zombie movies to comment on current political and social issues. That latter one might be present in 28 Days Later and not much else from this crop.
Which leads me to the point that along with a shift in undead mobility, there is a definite shift in undead style and theme. Nothing about these zombies are slow or stupid, these cultural items are fast, big and loud, fitting for the contemporary American zeitgeist.
Anyway, moving on as the Dawn of Zombie Culture fit its head on straight, we add the jokey film Slither (2006), brilliant video game Resident Evil 4 (2005) and landmark game for the genre, Dead Rising (2006). From a literary standpoint, we have Max Brooks' half-sequel, World War Z (2006), which is slated for a film adaptation in 2010. Finally, there's the great twist on the past forty years of comic book culture with Marvel Zombies, premiering in 2006, ongoing to this day.
2007 - 2009: Day...uh, Happens
Alright, stay with me here. In the past two years we've had a full-on zombie epidemic. The virus has seeped into almost every corner of our culture, taking it over like so many unprepared small towns in Zombieland.
We'll start with two sequels to earlier zombie films, 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007). In tradition of more jokey films (more in line with Slither than Shaun of the Dead, though), we also get the Planet Terror half of Grindhouse (2007). Also continuing the sprinting not-quite zombie tradition is I am Legend (2007). This flexibility is important to note, as influential as the Romeran Zombie is, the exact definition is still vague (See Zombi 2 [1979, for shark fights!] and Return of the Living Dead  for more slight variations of the Romero Canon). I'll add the South Park episode "Night of the Living Homeless" (S11;E7) and our 2007 surplus of zombie culture seems pretty huge. Well fuck, it's just an undead wriggling pinkie compared to 2008 and 2009.
We'll start with another innovative Romero entry, Diary of the Dead (2008). From here we'll check out a dual case of Nazi Zombies in Dead Snow (2008) and the video game Call of Duty: World at War (2008). Forgettable entry into the genre, Quarantine (2008), then video games Left 4 Dead (2008) and Dead Space (2008). Hey, dead is the new black.
Okay, so if we're using the parallel of a real zombie invasion, 2009 is total devastation, world destroyed, millions of bloody, gory creatures pawing at the remnants of humanity for survival. For video games you got Resident Evil 5 (2009), which clearly should appear to you know as a big successful franchise with influence on the genre at all stages of infection. In addition to this there's also Prototype (2009), which features a massive playable NYC infection zone that really immerses the user into an Undead Hell. Except, of course, the zombies aren't quite undead. Neat.
For films, the unequivocal Zombieland is 2009's entry into the vein of other films such as Slither and Planet Terror, albeit lighter and frankly, much more well done than either. The Undead Inferi from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) are also a brief yet unsettling entry. I heard there might have been a book or something that preceded this film, but from what I've read of my own posts, the film was clearly better.
Lastly here we have our noble literature. From comics, there is a heavy zombie and undead element to the DC Green Lantern storyline, In Blackest Night, currently in production. Finally, finally finally, and I probably could have just mentioned this at the start and saved ourselves some time; there exists a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austin (2009). As you may surmise, this is literally the Austen text with a vivid zombie storyline inserted. I'm sure it will seep its way into High School AP English classes sooner than later. Just as the infected will eat our brains without ransom, so too has the zombie culture munched its way down to our proudest literary achievements.
Okay, maybe Pride and Prejudice isn't our proudest literary achievement. But this idea is still pretty revolutionary.
So, while we have come a long way since delightful numbers like Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) zombies will always be a very quirky, hokey element of our culture, now more rampant than ever. It is essentially microcosmic of notable other elements of our culture, from the need for immediate satisfaction and retribution (as demonstrated by the Sprinting Dead), innate fears over terrorism, science and Armageddon (see Resident Evil series and I am Legend) as well as subtly apparent insincere Post-Modern elements(See how Planet Terror and Slither treat life and death as a grand joke). I'm still a fan of the genre though, and I look forward to the expanding legitimacy or increasing shittiness of our shared culture.
Nut up or shut up.