#Film: The zombies are rising, which means the world is in crisis again
The Dead Don’t Die, a horror comedy set to hit screens soon, is already making waves. Come to think of it, there’ve been a lot of the undead around lately.Updated: Jun 08, 2019 16:06 IST
Zombies come at you in one of only two ways, a slow shamble or a mad sprint, but filmmakers and audiences have come to the zombie genre in many ways over the last century -- derisively, fanatically, amusedly, and lately pretty earnestly.
In May, the Cannes Film Festival opened with Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, which pays homage to this subversive film sub-genre; the heavyweight cast including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits shows exactly how far the genre has come.
For long, zombies were the imbecile cousins of slick vampires, dashing werewolves, and guileful witches, invited to the same horrific family dinner but not allowed to sit at the high table with the elders. Then the world dumbed down enough for zombies to get a shot at respectability.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, along with HP Lovecraft’s works, helped shape the idea of this sub-genre. But WB Seabrook in his 1929 book The Magic Island first conjured up the Haitian voodoo zombie that took celluloid form in the 1932 film, White Zombie.
If the superhero fantasy studies our desire to be saved, the zombie film explores our fantasy to save ourselves. No one conjures an apocalyptic fantasy and imagines themselves not making it.
The genre continued to trudge along until George A Romero bumped into it. He created the modern zombie with his iconic Night of The Living Dead in 1968, a time when domestic racial conflicts and the Vietnam War were raging. Although the word zombie was used to describe these new Romero-brand ghouls only 10 years later, the undead attackers of Night of the Living Dead defined the modern rules of the genre – hunger for human flesh, multiplying through an infectious bite, hunting in hordes.
The film released in the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination and controversially featured an African-American protagonist who survives the monsters of this new apocalyptic world, only to finally be shot dead by vigilante rednecks.
This small, independent B-movie impressed critics, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert among them, and became a top grosser. It subsequently featured in all important film lists and was deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” enough to be added to America’s National Film Registry.
With the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, ingeniously set in a shopping mall, Romero used his zombies to comment on the mindlessness of a consumerist society, and came to be hailed as the Father of the Zombie Film or Godfather of the Dead.
“As movie monsters go, zombies are the most human. They were human at one time. So we are confronted with ourselves in a way, which is much more frightening and disturbing,” Romero said in one interview. “I always have CNN on. That’s where I get my ideas,” he said in another.
A good horror movie isn’t just escapist but also cathartic. It serves as a release valve for mass social anxiety. The fantasy of a zombie apocalypse has endured because we continue to see social structures around us collapse.
From Romero’s brain-dead monsters of the 20th century, a subversive take on a world making a hard right towards bizarre choices — war, racism, rampant consumerism, unscrupulous bio-engineering, nuclear proliferation — to the ‘walking dead’ of television, film and literature in the 21st century, the zombie trope in pop culture has served as a piñata symbolising social ills concurrently deemed deserving of a good thrashing.
Zombies rise when the world is in crisis. The trailblazing Resident Evil game franchise that started in 1996, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), Brad Pitt’s World War Z (2013) based on the 2006 bestselling Max Brooks novel, The Walking Dead TV series (2010), even Pulitzer-winning novelist Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) have all followed world mood and events such as 9/11, the financial crisis, virus epidemics and growing xenophobia.
A good horror movie isn’t just escapist but also cathartic. It serves as a release valve for mass social anxiety. The fantasy of a zombie apocalypse has endured because we continue to see social structures around us collapse. Add to this the looming threat of global warming, and the diffusion of technology-induced ennui. Look around a minute and you see our society and people acquiring a striking resemblance to a zombie world. On a daily basis, we blindly follow social media-driven trends, fake news, the Insta Church of cats and coffee images. We’re infected with opinions and rage. The world has polarised itself into a left and a right, with nothing in between. Pick a side — the dead or the undead?
Above it all is the eternal question: what does it mean to be human? This is also the basic premise of one of the most watched shows in cable television history, The Walking Dead. Who are the walking dead — us or them?
Perhaps the zombie genre also addresses the exhaustion of excessive options. The idea of elimination of all choice, of going back to bare basics, of testing your mettle against a clear and present danger, and of starting afresh without hybrid skills, acquired debts, past infractions, social hierarchies, may seem appealing on any wearisome Monday.
If the superhero fantasy studies our desire to be saved, the zombie film explores our fantasy to save ourselves. No one conjures an apocalyptic fantasy and imagines themselves not making it. So a zombie fan, at the end of the day, is an optimist. Alive in the world of the dead.