Sense of Wonder: Zombies on the Brain

A big pile o' zombies in WORLD WAR Z
A big pile o' zombies in WORLD WAR Z

In which the approaching release of WORLD WAR Z prompts me to ruminate on the history of cinematic “zombies” and point interested readers to some worthwhile articles in the Cinefantastique archives.

With WORLD WAR Z about to open nationwide, we all seem to have zombies on the brain this week. A handful of outlets (Johnny-come-lately’s, every one) have presented their lists of Top Ten Zombie Films, five years after I presented the definitive list here (well, maybe not definitive but at least I know what a zombie is). The irony of this mainstream media attention – indeed the irony of a star such as Brad Pitt appearing in a big-budget zombie summer blockbuster – is that for decades zombies were the poor man of the horror movie pantheon, consigned eternally (or so it seemed) to low-budget B-films and indie flicks.
The reason for this is obvious enough: zombies came cheap. They were basically just people shuffling around as if in a trance; traditional voodoo zombies do not even decay, so relatively little makeup was required. Sure, the same thing could almost be said about vampires, but those cinematic creatures of the night usually required fancy costumes and lavish ancestral castles; zombies just didn’t require the same production values.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The other problem is that zombies were seldom scary, except in the abstract sense: their mere existence called into question notions of the clear demarcation between life and death; their mindless state foreshadowed by decades the debate over keeping a body artifically animated after brain death had occurred. These elements, along with intimations of the strange supernatural powers that resurrected the dead, could yield unnerving, atmospheric films (WHITE ZOMBIE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), but there was little visceral threat in the shambling zombies.
All that changed when George A. Romero and company unleashed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) on an unsuspecting public. For the first time, the walking dead consumed the living. And they were no longer under the control of some houngan (voodoo priest); they came back from the dead because…. er, radiation, or something.
Please note my shift in vocabulary when discussing Romero’s seminal film: “those things,” as they were termed in the dialogue, were sometimes called “ghouls” but never “zombies.” Outside of the fact that they continued to perambulate after death, they had little in common with their traditional antecedents. (Voodoo zombies, for example, cannot eat meat – or salt for that matter – because they would regain their self-awareness and return to the peace of the grave.)
The new cannibalistic tendencies were coupled with another significant change – one more assumed than stated – which goes to the question of just what defines a “zombie.” If zombies are the “walking dead,” in what sense is something that can walk “dead”? The assumption underlying the traditional zombie is that the body is alive but the soul is gone. By ditching any reference to the supernatural and resorting to a science fiction explanation about reactivating the brain, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD blurs the line between the living and the dead (a point Romero emphasized in 1985’s DAY OF DEAD, in which we are told that the zombies are just humans functioning less perfectly). The implication is that, if a zombie is a soulless walking body, then all of us are zombies; some of us are just a little higher-functioning than others.
Regardless of the terminology, the rules laid down in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (e.g., kill the brain) became a modern movie mythology. Almost everything that came after was influenced one way or another, either directly or indirectly.
Dawn of the Dead poster 1978Exactly when the confusion between traditional zombies and Romero’s flesh-eaters took place, is hard to say. The earliest reference (that I can find) to “zombies” in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is in Alan G. Frank’s 1974 book Horror Movies. Romero himself picked up on the idea in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), which abandons the radiation theory of NIGHT and references the the word “zombie” in dialogue voiced by Peter (Ken Foree), whose grandfather was a voodoo practitioner, leading to the famous sentence: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth.” Perhaps tellingly, DAWN OF THE DEAD was retitled ZOMBI for release in Italy.
In its own way, DAWN OF THE DEAD was every bit as radical a reinvention of the zombie genre as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been a decade earlier. Whereas NIGHT had introduced the concept of cannibalism, DAWN gave us the first Zombie Apocalypse (an idea transfigured from Richad Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, in which vampires bring about the demise of human society). NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had been zombies a visceral threat to individual victims; DAWN OF THE DEAD made them an existential threat to life as we know it.
The conflation of cannibal corpses and zombies took another shambling step forward with ZOMBIE (a.k.a., ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS, 1979), in which director Lucio Fulci transposed the graphic gore and gut-crunching mayhem of the Romero film into a West Indies setting, blaming the resurrection of the dead on an off-screen houngan. ZOMBIE was known as ZOMBI 2 in Italy – a misleading suggestion that the film was a sequel to Romero’s. Curiously, the ending of ZOMBIE actually works better as a prequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD, suggesting the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse in America, which would segue rather smoothly into the opening scene of the Romero movie.

Since then, the word “zombie” has become fairly interchangeable with “walking dead,” “living dead,” and any other variation thereof. In fact, the definition has expanded to include the brain-eating zombies of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) and also people who are not dead at all but merely infected by some virus that turns them into homicidal maniacs. Since these “zombies” are a good deal healthier (i.e., alive) than their predecessors, they are also much faster, making them difficult to outrun. The mounting fear of slowly approaching but inevitable death has been replaced by the more immediate fear of being caught, but in the end it makes little difference. Slow or fast, the zombies will get you eventually – or at least claim enough victims to destroy society at large. Think of 28 DAY LATER and 28 WEEKS LATER, not to mention the horror-comedy ZOMBIELAND.
The success of some of these films, along with AMC’s excellent series THE WALKING DEAD, has helped mainstream the zombie concept. Romero himself kept the apocalypse going with the relatively big-budget LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), which was given a high-profile release by Universal Studios. The RESIDENT EVIL films quickly left the confines of the Umbrella Corporation and Racoon City behind, to focus on worldwide destruction, earning big box office rewards in the process. Other films, such as FIDO (2008) and WARM BODIES (2013) have even suggested that zombies are not all bad; a glimmer of humanity may remain inside, waiting to be nurtured back to life.
Whatever their differences, what these films and television shows have in common is the threat of global annihilation. Our world is going down the tubes, although we may be able to keep up appearances within a tightly confined and well-guarded city – an exaggerated, satirical take-off on today’s gated communities.
WORLD WAR Z, based on Max Brooks’ fictional oral history of a zombie war, follows directly in this line – offering the by-now familiar apocalyptic scenario on a larger scale than ever before. The fear invoked is not so much the fear of being eaten alive but of staring into an empty black abyss, from which nothing stares back – not God, not the Devil, just an empty void. When we lost our souls, we lost the key distinction between us and zombies. Now it all boils down to a simple question of survival, and the odds are not in our favor. How can they be, for a species apparently so hellbent on self-destruction?
As the ailing, one-legged priest in DAWN OF THE DEAD says, “When the dead walk, we must stop the killing, or lose the war.”

Return of the Living Dead 4
A literal illustration of "zombies on the brain" from Return of the Living Dead 4

By the way, I thought this photo from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 4 would suit my headline rather well, but I didn’t have anything to say about the film, so I tucked the image down here.




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