The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall Again of Zombie Nation

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There are times when we love to watch our former bowling buddies snack on small children– or revel as our next door neighbor munches on the mailman.

And, there are times when we would rather not.

Our passion for living-dead cinema waxes and wanes. These modern monster movies tell us more about the state of American politics than just about any other facet of popular culture–the best barometer we have of when society is flashing red.

Zombie movies have been a Hollywood staple for very long time. They were part of the horror movie craze in the 1930s and early 1940s, though back then the dead didn’t eat the living or conform to any other of the rules for appropriate modern zombie-like behavior.

During the depression years, horror films became a way for Americans to wring-out their anxieties over all their troubles, With Frankenstein, Dracula and later the Wolfman, Universal pictures established the monster movie as a theatrical cash cow. Americans wanted so spend their scarce entertainment dollars to be terrified. Looking for more box-office business, studios scrambled for scripts with anything evil. That’s how zombies got enlisted in the campaign at saturday matinees to distract the dwellers in the dust bowl from the reality of soup kitchens and Hoovervilles.

Mostly drawing on zombie-mythology from Caribbean voodoo practices, the original zombies were either living humans bewitched by evil forces or the dead brought back to life to serve their evil masters. They walked like arthritis victims and had no will of their own. Shuffling along in films like White Zombie (1932) or Revolt of the Zombies (1936) they too found their way to the silver screen.

Zombies 1.0 continued to show-up in movies from through the 1960s, but they never really caught on as an established franchise. While Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman appeared in movies again and again, there were never zombie sequals.

The living dead were simply second-tier horror.

Zombie movies still appeared occasionally because they were cheap to make, like the other scary staple of the time, the guy in gorilla suit. Zombies were even less expensive than renting a ape suit. No make or special effects required, producers just had had to hire extras to amble around like they were walking. Even then, more often than not, the studio would spring for the gorilla costume, cranking our really bad films like the truly awful Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).

Over time, monster movies in general became less of a box office draw. Americans had real horrors to worry about. With our troops fighting on every front from Germany to New Guinea, the war film became the place where we worked out our darkest fears. In movies like Guadalcanal Dairy (1943), the GI generation, during and after the war, watched the all-American squad with one kid from Jersey, one from New Mexico, and another from some farm in Iowa, topple real-life monsters.

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In the 1950s, Eisenhower’s era saw the explosion of a new genre of horror movie–the science fiction thriller. These films allowed post-war America to shake out its new found anxieties–the twin terrors–Soviet communism and the “bomb.” In the Thing From Another World (1951), Americans battled the “other,” a space monster who stood in for the invading Soviet menace. In Them (1954), giant mutant ants from the radioactive desert near the first nuclear test sites, threatened to over run Los Angeles. These two classic sci-fi films really defined the American nightmare–and how to handle it. Not concidently, in both films the US military steps in to the save day.

The Thing and Them established a sci-fi formula that Hollywood emulated again and again. The GIs that saved us from Hitler and Tojo, on screen our “boys” proved effective at kicking-ass on space alliens, like those in Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956) and monsters, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). If it wasn’t Army troops themselves that saved the day, it was citizens or scientists, adopting militaristic, take-charge behavior that got the job done, like in Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957).

On rare occasion the way of the Pentagon failed. That was the case in The Day Earth Stood Still (1951), a film that was really just progressive pacifist propaganda masquerading as science fiction movie. More often, All-Americans just kicked alien butt.

In the age of Ike, it was hard for zombies find work. Zombies were too easy picking for the GI generation. Americans wanted their monsters to smart, evil, and devious like the Russians, or powerful like the bomb. Slow-moving, brainless horrors just weren’t the fashion. The few films with zombie protagonists that made it to the screen such Teenage Zombies (1959), Invisible Invaders (1959), and Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), have the distinction of ranking among some of the worst and unwatchable movies ever made. 

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Then came George Romero. Romero and his team that put together Night of the Living Dead (1968) reinventing the zombie movie, and in the process making it the most accurate of measure of American politics since the invention of polling.

Vietnam proved a catalyst for an existential crisis in the United States. No American institution, no aspect for the American way of life was beyond suspicion. Rather than the nation’s protecter, the armed forces were the enemy. Young anti-war protestors like John Kerry described American soldiers as a brutal, rootless homicidal horde–not the guys that saved you from space aliens. The great American economic engine sputtered. Washington figured out how to hamstring economic growth and spark unchecked inflation at the same time.

In an age when Americans were never more confused, afraid, and conflicted,they craved new horror films to play out all their fears on the silver screen. On a next to nothing budget, set in a farm house in rural Pennsylvania Romero delivered.

The Night of the Living Dead re-imagined the zombie in unprecedented ways.

Zombies 2.0 did not serve a malevolent evil master. There was no reason for their rampage. They were the perfect symbol for a world falling apart. Society and all the institutions that kept us warm and safe collapsed under their mindless assault. They were everything everyday Americans harbored as their deepest, darkest nightmares. America was on the brink, helpless to control the spiral into despair and chaos into which the nation was falling.

Romero’s other innovation turned zombies into ravenous cannibals. Other sci-fi movies had introduced man-eating monsters before. For example, Day of the Triffids (in many ways a precursor of the modern zombie film) featured walking plants looking for a human lunch, but the 1951 film was not very graphic. That was then. By the late 1960s, our distaste for bad taste had changed. After watching raw violence from Vietnam on the evening news every night, Americans no longer winced from seeing people chewed alive on the screen.

In one stroke, Romero made the zombie both terrifying and culturally relevant.

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Night of the Living Dead, also broke with the sci-fi formula that provided the audience comfort and relief–no one came at the end of film to save the day. In fact, Night of the Living Dead concludes with the traditional armed-to-the-teeth rescue party managing to shoot the hero after he survives a night of zombie holocaust.

In-fighting and lawsuits prevented Romero from immediately building on the mythology of the Zombie 2.0 though he did reintroduce many of themes of the world spinning out of control in The Crazies a greatly under appreciated 1973 film.

Nevertheless, others adhered to the new zombie formula, particularly in movies like Italian filmmaker Lucio Falci’s City of the Living Dead (1980). In the US, a wave of slasher films followed the “society can’t save you,” and humans are just “more meat for the slaughterhouse” model. Popular horror characters like Jason, Michael Myers, Leather-face, and Freddy Krugger, were all variations on the relentless, mindless killer theme.

Over the following decades, zombie movies made an occasional comeback but they didn’t signal the return of a dramatic American identity crisis.

After a court settlement split the legal rights to own the “Dead” and the “Living Dead.” Romero went on to make a series of “Dead” films that continued to be fashioned around a core of social satire. Dawn of the Dead (1978), takes place in a shopping mall mocking contemporary consumerism. Day of the Dead (1985) lampoons our faith in modern science and government. The remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990) celebrates feminism. Still, social commentary in horror movies was now old hat, Romero’s later films, and similar fare like Dino Argento’s Demons (1985 ) and Demons 2 (1986) appealed mostly to horror movie cult fans and drive-in B movie addicts. 

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The other spate of zombie films, like Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985) largely played the zombies for laughs. There were countless variations and ripp-offs of the franchise including the incredibly bad Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1981). These films reflected the reality that from Reagan through Clinton, Americans didn’t worry much about being murdered in their bed. The zombie-apocalypse was the last thing on their mind. Everybody went shopping.

Even the zombies in a more recent and popular film series that started with Resident Evil (2002), were there for fun, based on a popular computer game. There are lots of zombies, but little gore.

The wake of 9/11 changed all that. Americans caught a case of the angst that they hadn’t experienced since Vietnam. They watched Iraq become a wasteland. They saw Katrina ravage the American south. They witnessed Code Pink own the streets in a way that had not been seen since the draft-riots of the 1960s.

Our anxiety meter swung into high gear.

Predictably, the zombies we feared were back to help us work out worries at the movies.

Zombies 3.0 were as hyper-active and impatient as modern America. They no longer lumbered around in a protein-hungry drunken stupor. The undead became man-eaters on speed. In the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) and the British films 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later, (2007) the zombies chased their prey down like sprinters. This innovation made them more contemporary and more terrifying. Paired with plots that showed the collapse of order and the everyday world, these films played well to the angst of post 9/11 movie audiences.

But like the trauma of Vietnam, the worry didn’t last forever. Americans aren’t sanguine about the 2007 economic crash, the painfully slow economic recovery, the threat of terrorism, the rise of China, or stalemate Washington politics but, like the frog in the pot of hot water they seem complacent as the heat is turned up. 

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America’s nonchalance attitude in the face of the ongoing violence against the American dream that is Obama’s America is reflected in the fate of the celluloid zombie. As the horror of 9/11 and the uprooting political discord of the Bush-era have faded so has our fear of the undead.

Increasingly, zombies are played for laughs, like in the comedy-tinged Australian movie Undead (2003); the hilarious British film Shaun of the Dead (2004); the Norwegian zombie-comedy Dead Snow (2009) and the comic commentary on post-911 hysteria–ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction (2009).

The dead are also shamelessly exploited, (as were theater-goers) in the crass, dreadful World War Z (2013), a pathetic effort to bank in on the post 9/11 zombie craze with Brad Pitt before it ran its course.

Americans did stick with the undead in the AMC TV series The Walking Dead, but not because of the man-eating hordes. Viewer loyalty is mostly a response to the well-crafted character-driven plots.

The truth is today–zombies are dead to us.

Today, American politics are just angry, not apoplectic, certainly not apocalyptic.

For now the undead as symbol of American angst is dead.

But with a pathetic foreign policy and a disastrous domestic agenda, the next great crisis in confidence could be just around the corner.

The dead might be back. Zombie 4.0 could be scary as hell, if World War III doesnt get here first.