Zombies; they have been with us since the dawn of the film itself and even before that in books and novels. 1932’s White Zombie and 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie pioneered the look and physical appeal that the classic Hollywood zombie would have. They were to be mostly white faced, bulking around, mindless, drones with their arms slowly moving around but these films mainly attributed voodoo to be the reason why the dead are walking.
It wasn’t until 1968 when George A. Romero created the idea and look of the modern Hollywood Zombie in his film Night of the Living Dead. By using the same looks at the zombies of previous films and the science of a viral plague (first seen in H.G. Well’s “Thing to Come”), he created zombies that would act like typical undead beings but he made them more brutal, more violent and more threatening. Here, you see the zombies brutally attack anybody they see as living and you see them eat and barbarically cannibalize other people. They are still slow and very dumb, but they pose a great threat, which is something that is truly frightening about them. Much like piranha, one or two alone isn’t bad but when they start swarming it’s usually the end. Here, there is some reason behind their existence and it’s related to a falling satellite that was emitting radiation. The grotesque and bloody actions of these zombies would set a new standard for how zombies would be depicted in film including the continuation of the controversial ‘slow-moving zombie.’
A decade after Night of the Living Dead, Romeo came back to what he was good at and made another classic zombie movie as a sort of sequel to Night of the Living Dead. This movie came out in 1978 and was titled Dawn of the Dead. In this film, zombies are still portrayed as mindless ‘creatures,’ only it’s debatable because there is some brain activity going on. When Fran asks, “Why do they come here?” Steve responds by saying “Some kind of instinct. Memory. What they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” The aspect here is that the zombies, though deprived of any logic but primal instinct, still have the memory of going to the mall and that this memory and ritual will remain in their lives forever. I think Kim Paffenroth, who wrote Gospel of the Dead best explains it: “Again, the horror of the human beings lies not just in being torn to pieces and eaten alive by zombies, but in becoming one of them, a mindless mallgoer, ever again able to conceive of anything higher or more interesting to do than wander about with… lustful stares at windows and racks and displays useless, worthless, stuff” (pg 56). Here, the zombies are not just brainless people; they are a metaphor for the brainless people who go to the mall every other day. However, this will be a precursor to his next film.
After establishing that zombies are able to think back on a very, very, very low intellectual scales, Romero decides to take this one step further in his 1985 film Day of the Dead. Here we have established that the zombie apocalypse has consumed the entire world, where as Dawn of the Dead, it was still the beginning stages. Day of the Dead is my personal favorite zombie film because it doesn’t show the zombies as the antagonists so much as the people themselves. Here, the little group of survivors are full of the bad guys pitted against each other and the zombies are just something that they must overcome. BUT, here we have the first character zombie known as Bub, who was captured by Logan and is used to show that zombies have the capability of thinking and rationalizing. Here, Bub understands music, he understands simple shapes and letters and sentences and when Rhodes kills Logan, Bub understands the emotion of sadness, nakedness and rage. It’s the next evolutionary step in the zombie species. Day of the Dead show us that it is possible for intelligence to grow in the heads of zombies and when Bub salutes Rhodes as he is about to be pulled apart, it shows further that he is now completely developed as a character. Day of the Dead will then lead into the ultimate realization of the zombie apocalypse.
Us zombie fans waited 20 years for another brilliant zombie film to cap off the trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead and in 2005 Romero gave us Land of the Dead. Here, the land truly belongs to the dead considering that the entire world has now been overthrown by zombies and living people have become the less dominant species. The zombies in this movie have slowly started to learn and they soon began getting their lifestyle skills back by trying to act like couples, or businessmen, or gazebo bands or even families. It was also during this movie that we get the characterization of yet another zombie character known as Big Daddy, who is like Bub 2.0 where he tries to act like a car station mechanic but regular people still see him as a dead person. He doesn’t understand this and here is where we encounter our major plot point: the zombies see us as the invading disease because they think they are normal, so Big Daddy decides to revolt against the living. He is vastly intelligent compared to most zombies and he understands that the ‘sky flowers’ are just distractions so people can raid the stores and kill ‘his people.’ He is a revolutionary, he teaches the zombies to use their weapons like meat cleavers, batons, guns and their appetite to revolt against the living and take back their land. We can see the progression of the sickness as the zombie’s faces get worse and worse and they still retain their mannerisms as seen in the 1940s and 1930s. The zombies have become more aware of things, they have become a living people with lifestyles and the living must realize that they are no longer welcome. In the final scene, when the zombies are storming Fiddler’s Green and Riley looks back at Big Daddy, they don’t do anything because both of them know that they are in essence, one of the same.
The reason why I left out Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead is because of two simple reasons: Diary of the Dead didn’t contribute anything to the zombie lore and Survival of the Dead hasn’t come out yet… theatrically.
Paffenroth, Kim. Gosepl of the Living Dead: George A. Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006. 56. Print.