A Genre In Need of More Brains

Sam Jacobsen, Junior Editor

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On the first of October, 1968 a movie was released to the American public.  The movie was a 60s monster horror, and by that definition it should have been cheaply made with dashing heroes, poor effects, bad plot, and a villain that would end up losing.  This movie was not any of those things.  This movie was graphic, sad, and truly terrifying.  Said film was released an exact month before the MPAA rating system; anyone could see it.  Monster flicks were a favorite amongst young children and teens in the 1960s, so younger audiences flooded to see it, and they left sickened.  The movie was widely hated by many, but loved by so many too.  So loved in fact, that it would go on to spawn a sub genre of film that would shape America.  This movie was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and it is arguably one of the most influential films of all times.

The film was disgustingly morbid, depressing, and monstrously terrifying.  Following Night of the Living Dead many, many modern zombie films (there are films that use the word zombie prior to this, but none in the sense the word is used in today) came into being.  However, few have stood out as prevalently as the ones Romero himself has constructed.  Following his first movie there was the masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (an even grittier 1978 release that is, of the many zombie flicks I’ve seen, my ultimate favorite).  After the Dawn there was 1985s far less masterful, but no less thought-provoking, Day of the Dead.  The next films (Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead)  in Romero’s series were disappointing in many ways.  The reason Romero’s later films were of lesser thew is quite simple–there’s only so many times you can tell the same story.  

The sad truth is that there is only so many times you can retell a story before people start losing interest.  It’s true with all stories.  When the first modern zombie flicks came out in the 70s they came with great excitement, for they were new and exciting!  But, as time dragged on the hype for flicks featuring shambling corpses flickered and burnt out.  

Most zombie tales follow the same outline:

  1. Some sort of outbreak makes the dead rise, or people turn to cannibalism, or some other event to lead to the rise of zombies.
  2. A group of survivors group together.
  3. People die.
  4. Already dead people die a second time.
  5. More people die.
  6. The survivors try to keep going against all hope.

And, in all honestly this outline is pretty good.  The zombie story skeleton is in hue a primal tale of survival and our ultimate demise.  Zombie stories portray the biggest battle in human history–the battle between life and death.  And in the 70s, 80s, and even into the early 90s with such films as Braindead (Dead Alive) zombie movies portrayed that horrifying battle perfectly.  But, as time lagged on the number of good zombie films (which has never been that great considering the sheer amount made) diminished significantly to maybe one or two every three years.  And it is largely because the zombie film formula started to become more and more outdated.  

The reason Dawn of the Dead was so fantastic was because it was an early zombie film; the formula hadn’t been overused yet, and there were still plenty of inventive things that hadn’t been done before in zombie cinema.  However after that with the release of Day of the Dead it is clear the Romero had expended his resources.  The zombie movie formula is pretty strong, but it isn’t very expensive, so new and exciting takes on it wore out pretty quickly.  Then all is left are movies that no one wants to watch because they are exactly the same as countless other films.

Many of the newer zombie flicks (Planet Terror, the Resident Evil series) have sadly traded horrifying stories filled with emotion and purpose with glorified violence and gore.  Now, zombie films have always been notorious for being extremely gorey (I wouldn’t recommend watching one while eating), but good zombie movies have never used gore as pointless filler.  In Dawn of the Dead (I turn my mind back to my favorite) the gore, and there is quite a lot of it, is there to make the whole thing seem all the more animal–all the more terrifying.  In the movie there is nowhere to run to in order to escape the ever present drizzle of death in the form of warm red blood.  But as time went on and directors ran out of good, original zombie story devices they turned to mindless blood and guts.  And when that happened, suddenly zombie movies were less of a controversial art and more of a brainless controversy.  

I wish to restate that there are still a few good, and even great zombie movies coming out.  These films however are far in between, and it seems like for the majority of them the only reason they’re decent is because they’re different.  The recent zombie movies that have done so well (Warm Bodies, 28 Days Later) have done well primarily because they pull away from the pre-set zombie format.  And the few good zombie movies that follow the old format are good mostly because they follow an older, better zombie movie in mannerism (Dawn of the Dead 2007 Zack Snyder remake).

I love the zombie genre; I enjoy a good zombie flick.  Something about the way the dead softly shamble through the dark in their own little worlds draws me to it.  As one who one day hopes to make films of his own, I see oodles of potential in the genre (which at this point most people have thrown to the dogs).  I want others to see this potential too–to see this downfall from grace as simply another opportunity to start anew.  I look forward to the next truly great zombie flick (I know it’s out there somewhere), and hope that soon the zombie genre will start getting back what it has wanted for so long–Braaaiiinnnsss!   

          

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