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The State of the Horror Nation: Part One

Rob Girvan returns with a horror-centric instalment of GENRE.

Sometimes Dead is Better: Why We Need to Stop Making Zombie Films

Since this is the month of October, I thought it would be a fun idea to write a series of articles about the state of the horror genre at the moment; where it has gone wrong, what we need to see more of, and where the future lies. In the first of these articles I want to discuss why it is time to put the zombie movie back to bed for a while.

I’m bored of zombies. I am bored of their rotting flesh. I am bored of them running/walking/ crawling. I am bored of seeing entrails being ripped out. I am bored of the customary shotgun blasts to their heads.

The sub-genre of horror is dead. It is all messed up. It has entered into its end years. When there is no more money in production hell, the cheap zombie movies shall walk the earth. It is time to do the right thing, and bury the zombie movie back into the grave for another decade.

The modern zombie movie, as everyone knows, began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. It appeared in that strange time when the traditional Hammer horrors were being shunted aside for the next generation of young, angry filmmakers. Even watching it today with a modern audience it still packs a powerful punch.

Between then, and Romero’s second zombie film, Dawn Of The Dead, there was a slew of zombie movies, but most still looked to the creaky old castles and period settings for their inspiration. With Dawn Of The Dead, Romero finished with what he started in Night, and created the modern zombie template which is still in use today.

The impact of Dawn Of The Dead really created an explosion of zombie movies, which twisted and turned the concept in so many different ways. From comedy (The Return Of The Living Dead, Evil Dead 2), to Lovecraftian horror (Re-animator), and the founding blocks of body horror (The Brood), it was a broad church for horror filmmakers who had something to say. Yes, there was a lot of rubbish made at this time, but the best of the genre was interesting, playful and really tried to put a new spin on the idea of the reanimation of the dead.

The zombie movie went into decline somewhat after Romero finished Day Of The Dead in 1985. A tough movie, with generally unlikeable characters, Day Of The Dead is a movie made by an angry man. And this anger is reflected in the zombies. Whereas in Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead, Romero made them feel comic bookish, in Day they are rotting, lumps of flesh, with twisted angry faces.

And the deaths! Never before or since has a director presented the dismemberment of human beings with the detail and horror presented in this film. One notable death was when zombies slowly rip the head off a solider; his screams become distorted as his vocal cords are destroyed.

People tend to point to the famous death of Captain Rhodes where he is torn in half. But to be honest this one has been ripped off so often, and so poorly, that it has lost some of its magic. However I would go as far as to say the kills and makeup in Day of the Dead have still not been topped to this day.

The 1990s saw the decline of the zombie film (with the notable exceptions of Peter Jackson’s Braindead, and Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore) as the angry young men of the 1970s began their sad downwards trajectory, and self-aware teen slashes took over. What zombie films were made, were poor low budget affairs and not worth talking about. I doubt even the people who made them could recall making them.

And so it was until the unlikely pair of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland reinvented the idea of what a zombie was, in their seminal horror film 28 Days Later, released in 2002. It brought back the sub-genre with a bang. While both director and writer have in the past been somewhat coy about calling 28 Days Later a zombie movie, it clearly is. More to the point it is a pretty on the noise remake of Romero’s dead trilogy, with a dash of his other film made in that period, The Crazies included for good measure.

It should also be remembered (but thankfully not the movie) that at around the same time Paul W.S Anderson’s Resident Evil was also released to large box office takings.

With renewed interest in zombie films, Edgar Wright made one of the best films of the 00s with Shaun of the Dead, and within the same month or two Zack Synder took the 28 Days Later template and stuck it onto a remake of Dawn Of The Dead. A remake, which in spite of itself was really, really good.

Now we were off to the races. There was money in them there graves! Romero got to make a big budget zombie movie in Land Of The Dead, which felt more like a John Carpenter movie, than anything he had done in the past. Still it was fun, and certainly didn’t taint the Trilogy. That was to come later.

By this point it wasn’t just the studio bean counters that saw the money to be made. Endless numbers of low budget studios started churning out film after film after film. With titles which usually either had “…of the Dead” or “zombie” in them. Don’t believe me?

Then go onto Wikipedia and look up zombie films, you will see an explosion of them in the last ten years. And of the hundreds made, there is maybe five or six which are actually worthwhile.

Zombies represent death, the inevitable fate from which you cannot run. But it doesn’t need to be depressing. Romero’s zombies always had the look of a sad clown about them. Dan O’Bannon actually had his talk.

In modern low budget movies, the zombies have some blood around their mouths, the camera jerks a lot and some meat bought at the local supermarket counts as FX. Add some rubbish actors, and a neat DVD cover and voila! you have made a crappy horror movie. 

The genre has been destroyed by the very thing from where it was born. Low budget film making.

Seriously, film makers – you want an example of how to do an interesting zombie film, then please look towards Rec. A superb Spanish horror film (remade as Quarantine in the States) which takes the tropes of the genre and spins them on their head, both it and its sequel represent the few zombie films I have been able to stand in the modern era.

The Resident Evil series continues to make money, although from what I understand the zombies themselves aren’t that important and Zombieland was a fun movie (albeit again, not really about the zombies themselves), but by and large the zombie movie has been beaten to death. The vibrancy and excitement which Boyle brought to the concept has been diluted time and again by film makers who see zombies as cheapo monsters, and not the fearful never ending nightmare fuel of Romero’s world.

And with Diary Of The Dead, and Survival Of The Dead, even George Romero has demonstrated that he has lost sight of what made his trilogy (and it is still a trilogy, I don’t care if he made another three zombie movies) so successful.

So please, please, please can we give zombies a rest? They are as worn out as the clothes they wear. If you have a great idea of how to use them, then great. Go for it. But if you wish to waste time making parody movies, or movies with silly titles, or movies with teenagers in a house, then please, and I say this with all politeness, spend your budget on something more worthwhile. Like gambling.

Next year brings the release of World War Z. A PG-13 zombie “epic” starring Brad Pitt. I can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe, this will be the flashpoint for the genre. We shall see.

Next week I will be asking the burning question – Just Where Are the New Movie Monsters?

Rob can be found on Twitter.