Despite coming some 30 years after the first Hollywood Zombie movie was presented to the viewing public (White Zombie, Victor Halperin 1932) it is George A Romero who is recognised as having placed the image of the slow, shuffling Zombie into the common consciousness of the horror movie fan. Widely regarded as both a cinema and genre classic Night of the Living Dead (Romero,1968) portrayed the living dead as relentless, mindless machines with only one aim in mind… the consumption of Human flesh.
Shown as feeling neither pain or emotion and incapable of any thought other than the most basic urge to consume, it is the conversion of the recently human into something utterly inhuman yet still recognisable that many found most horrifying. These creatures can be outrun, but the pursued will eventually tire whilst the pursuer continues without need for respite. One can barricade oneself inside a building, but when the pursuer feels no pain what kind of barrier are bricks and mortar or glass? As Romero shows the sacred refuge of the home (and later in Dawn of the Dead, the temple of high consumer worship that is the shopping mall) offers scant protection against the Zombie.
Portraying the undead in this manner allows the film maker ample opportunity to build tension into the plot… picture the hunted fleeing to a house, peering through a crack in the curtains whilst slowly but surely the zombies first approach their shelter and then pound fists on doors and windows. It is this, used in conjunction with the sheer number of the undead that Romero uses to great effect to build truly chilling suspense into Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985).
This image of the zombie endured and endeared for 24 years until someone widely regarded as one of the greatest modern directors stuck their tongue firmly in cheek and gave us the cinematic classic that is Braindead (Jackson, 1992). Whilst Peter Jackson’s vision of Zombies rampaging through Wellington, New Zealand adhered to the image of Zombies as mindless, his offerings were somewhat more sprightly. This shift in Zombie levels of fitness, whilst happening in a much more slapstick take on the genre than Romero’s offerings, was to infect more recent films turning Zombies from their shuffling archetype into much more athletic beasts. In doing this Jackson has managed to move the foundation of this genre from suspense to action satisfying the MTV generation, interestingly a term commonly recognised as originating from a Simpsons episode of the same year (Homer’s Triple Bypass, 1992, Silverman). Sadly Jackson’s strain of Zombie has even managed to infect the modern source of this once great genre as can be seen in Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). Other notable films to feature these upgraded versions of the undead include 28 Days Later (Boyle, 2002), I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) and most disturbingly of all the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Snyder, 2004), all films featuring Zombies capable of running. All films offering nowhere near the same level of ‘hide behind the sofa’ chills as Romero’s originals.
Whilst Jackson is capable of delivering outstanding fantasy epics I accuse him of bringing a once great genre into disrepute and given the risible King Kong (2005), this is not something I am prepared to forgive easily. It could be argued that Jackson is blameless in this and that his slapstick Zombies are simply the first identifiable case in the move from suspense to action as the basis of the whole horror movie class, reflecting a paradigm shift in the entire movie industry as it delivers pulp celluloid to an A.D.D audience.
Does this signal the end of the ‘classic’ Zombie? I hope not but fear the dust behind my sofa may remain undisturbed for some time yet.
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