12 October 2009
War of the Decades: The Gnarly Undead Throwdown
Welcome to a very special edition of the War of the Decades! This week I'm shifting gears a tic in honour of...the second week of release of Zombieland, examining each decade's contribution to the Zombie Horror Sub-genre. Now, there are thousands of campy zombie movies released every minute of every year so for sanity's sake I attempted to stay with the major releases if there were any. Or at least just the ones I've seen. Let's begin:
1960s: Romero, Turbulence and the Apocalypse
The Sixties contain one major film, but it is essentially the most important of any on this list. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) founded the entire sub-genre, modern zombie archetype and revolutionized horror in general with greater splatter and gore effects as well as placing the genre outside of spooky caves and castles and into suburban lawns. It also had much to say about Civil Rights and Vietnam (whee!). The most important way this changed Horror, not to mention the zombie genre, is the nature of the monsters.
Zombies aren't conscious vampires sentient towards their actions, nor are they powerful space beings. Zombies have no more power than an ordinary human, albeit an ordinary human stripped down to only one basic instinct: FEED. Zombie movies are always interesting to me for this particular reason. It shows us our true capabilities. Zombie Apocalypses are much more possible than Alien Armageddon or a Meteor Strike, if only because all the possible danger zombies could cause are present at this exact moment (maybe besides the persistent survival in the face of non-cranial attacks). They're a really cool enemy in this regard, because whereas one zombie is never much trouble, it's the Inherent Apocalyptic Capability of Humanity that makes Horror like this stay with a viewer much longer than a brief jump scare.
1970s: Imitators, Consumers and the Fucking Goofy
Night of the Living Dead wasn't an immediately stellar commercial hit but ended up grossing $42 million worldwide within a decade of its release (on a $114,000 budget). Naturally, in the succeeding decade there were imitators, most of which missed the original zombie message in favour of excessive gore with no story such as Zombi 2 (1979) or with general levels of extreme stupidty such as Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971). Naturally the decade never found its rightful heir until Romero returned to helm Dawn of the Dead (1978). The zombies mindlessly drawn to the shopping mall are clearly reminiscent of mindless American consumers, whose undead lives had barely changed (you know...except for the flesh-eating). Shaun of the Dead (2004) tends to nail this idea pretty well, too (ie, using zombies in service industries, mindless labour). In many ways, this critique on consumerism seems to have a better place in 1980s decadence, thus Romero's commentary on zeitgeist was ahead of the times.
1980s: Explosion of Insanity
The Eighties began this trend of directors using zombie films as great tools for Horror/Comedy. Unlike Zombi 2, 1980s zombie movies were very much intentionally goofy and oftentimes legitimately scary and gory as well, if sacrificing a substantial message. This includes Return of the Living Dead (1985) and its sequels, famous for a slightly different canon zombie than the Romeran zombie, although by present day this zombie is almost unheard of, yet has seeped into public consciousness. It's like the AFL of zombies. We also get The Evil Dead (1981) and its sequels as well as Re-Animator (1985)...and its sequels. Another great trend of zombie films, they spread and sequelize like the undead themselves.
Finally, Romero's last and weakest entry of the Twentieth Century, Day of the Dead (1985), which had less to do with big sweeping ideas about humanity, and more to do with the nature of zombies, what they can learn, do and act. It also does touche on military excess and pride, the breakdown of small society in face of Armageddon and the general doucheyness of heartless scientists. Neat stuff.
1990s: Video Games, Irrelevance and Decline
Zombies were hard to find in the 1990s. Other than some sequels to the aforementioned films and Peter Jacksons' directorial debut, Braindead (1992) (which is really only notable for killing hundreds of undead with a lawn mower), there isn't too much else in cinema. 1990s Horror tends to be really self-reflexive (see Scream series) or parodic (see later Child's Play series). Braindead itself with its playfully excessive gore can be seen as parodic of of some of the 80s splatter films. Zombies did find a home in video games though, with Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993), Resident Evil (1996) and House of the Dead (1996). In particular, Zombies Ate My Neighbors stands out the most to me as a successive collection of 50 years of horror dating back to the Wolfmen and Gill-men present. Zombies are the foundation of the game, presenting both the earliest adversary and the least deadly, at least until there's dozens of them bearing down on top of your little spiked head. It's a pretty cool beacon of collected horror culture.
2000s: Resurgence, Camp and Cultural Dominance
See here. But really, the biggest development the New Millennium brought to zombiehood has to be the sprinter. As I noted in the above post I dislike the sprinter for reasons other than simple implausibility and slight disregard for Romeran Canon. Yes the slow-moving hobbler is easy to dodge and run from, but it represents inevitability. It's death itself. You can run and escape one slow zombie, two is a bit trickier, hundreds are a pain in the ass. The point of the slow zombie is that no matter how far you run, they WILL catch you eventually. In hobbler Romero films there was ultimately no escaping Armageddon, the slow zombies would lead the humans to think they had an edge up until the burst into the farmhouse and bite their throats out from behind. It's a slow crawl and creep, a steady descent into madness and death. And that's pretty cool to me, much cooler than an extravagantly fierce sprinter zombie.
So until next time, make sure to check the backseat and happy hunting!