With the Zombie genre up and shambling things might have gone on at a sedate pace with horror's first created monster appearing in the odd flick without too much damage being down to the sensibilities of mainstream movie audiences. However in 1968 a group of pretty much amateur film makers took it up a notch and horror would never be the same again. Of course at the time they didn't realise they were making a zombie movie, but hey who's going to argue with misconceived opinion, certainly not writers in the horror genre who will dry hump any idea that seemingly gives some sort of legitimacy to an at times ghetto genre. George A Romero and friends were making a monster movie, they had no idea of the impact they would have on a major genre, and the ripples this would send through other genres. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the cemetery, Uncle George ensures that's not going to be a pleasant experience.
Okay just in case you are concerned, I'm not going to cover every movie directly influenced by George A Romero, in fact for our purposes I'll simply stick to the current six Romero entries in his Dead Universe, and one of the franchises that took the mainstream in a different direction to where horrordom thought it would go. Let's face facts here folks, for every decent zombie flick coming out there's a butt load of movies that you wouldn't show the guy down the road whose front lawn you allow your dog to take a crap on, because he's the living embodiment of all that fires up your anger.
Part 2 - "Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up."
George A Romero and his happy band of amateur film makers, taking time out of making beer commercials, seemed to have had a notion that they might shot a movie featuring flesh devouring monsters heavily influenced by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954). The furthest thing from Romero's mind was making a zombie movie; he never refers to his flesh devouring re-animated corpses as "zombies" being more comfortable with the term "ghouls". This was of course 1968 rural Pennsylvania, not exactly the place anyone would have considered as fertile ground for a horror movie that would change it all, for better or worse. And I'll repeat it for the slow readers amongst us, Romero et al did not set out to make a zombie movie, they had no concept they had made a zombie movie till some lazy Critics applied the term and the rest of horror-dom lapped it up like the unthinking morons we all become from time to time.
Right from the start of Night of the Living Dead all cinematic bets are off, Romero isn't making a traditional movie that is going to get all warm and close to the then movie tropes that Audiences expected. In a long opening shot, that wouldn't be out of place in a John Ford Western, we are introduced to a bickering couple, Johnny and Barbra - two American kids doing the best that they can. The first surprise is they aren't actually a couple, they are siblings, the second surprise is Johnny going all hero and then promptly going down as the first victim of the movie. We have Johnny pegged as the hero, someone who needs an abnormal situation to bring out his heroic nature - the traditional hero's journey of Western literature, and he's done within five minutes of the opening shot. Worse was to follow for period Audience and Critics expecting the same old.
Barbara makes her way to a farm house, having crashed a car because it was doing 10 mph and all, in a sort of daze, thankfully no wandering zombies stop that flight from terror. For pretty much the rest of the movie Barbara sinks into a comatose state, taking any expected love interest out of the equation, she does however wake up long enough to become a victim of her brother Johnny who has resurrected sometime previously. Feminist groups have railed for pretty much the last forty years over Barbara's portrayal here. Frack em, let's see what their reaction would be in the face of a zombie horde growling for their blood, right after their brother was murder in a graveyard during a visit to put flowers on a grave. That morning is likely to put a dampener on even on the most optimistic person's day.
Our hero for the evening is Ben, a character who makes one bad call after another, and then retreats to the basement, something he rallied against when another character suggested it. The cinematic expectations are continually shattered in this one, including the fate of our central character.
What's cool about this movie is that a butt load of Critics, including Ebert, rallied against it till it become the highest ever grossing Independent movie of the time, then reviews were revisited and changed in one of the more sickening displays of Critics showing themselves to be total cocks. Anyway, and moving along here, Romero busted the genre conventions for all time and made a movie that wasn't viewed as being a zombie movie by the people who made the movie!
It didn't take long for Critics, while hastily rewriting their reviews to give glowing praise, to label NOTLD as a "zombie" movie. Naturally the horror loving public brought it hook, line, and sinker without anyone pointing out Romero's monsters weren't actually zombies, as they were known at the time. What's working here kids is your horror audience are basically sheep, rather than thinking through what's said about the genre the general view is acceptance of the sort of bullshit analysis that Critics deliver due to having zero notion of doing anything approaching research. So resurrected flesh eating monsters basically became zombies due to some Critic rewriting their review in the face of public praise of a movie they formerly thought was crap! And try getting that idea happening in a movie, people would run it down as unbelievable; fact is way more bizarre than fiction folks!
By 1978 and Romero's follow up movie, Dawn of the Dead, the traditional notion of the zombie had been totally consumed by the shambling flesh craving "undead"! Slight detour here kids, "Undead" was a literary term applied to Vampires not Zombies that was once again subverted by Critics who quite honestly couldn't find their arses with both hands when it came to research and actually having any idea of what they are writing about. Don't get me started on the total misuse of the term "slasher" by modern Critics, looking at you La Pomeranz. Once again I'll state it for the record, horrordom lap up any crap notion because basically we are brain dead morons who accepted the ideas of people who would be hard pressed to put their pants on in the morning correctly. You really think a fat ginger with poor personal hygiene has any notion of what makes a good movie? I've got a harbour bridge built over swamp land for sale by the way, bargain price, our operators are waiting for your call.
Without delving too much into Romero's excellent follow up to his seminal classic, it's all about consumerism and the publics' role as purchasing sheep who think no further than their local mall. Actually after five years hanging on the Central Coast Romero got it exactly right, the Bogans - who view the local mega plaza with something like an Islamist's religious fervour for Mecca, are pretty much already zombies, shuffling up and down the corridors without an expression on their faces. Frack me you could shoot a zombie movie, in the modern sense, without spending anything on make-up! Romero, like the best of horror Directors, uses the horror genre to subversively attack society and its institutions.Importantly for us, and the article series, the zombie has been by Dawn of the Dead completely re-created, and bares little semblance to the original idea of what a zombie is, based as it is on ideas coming out of the dark jungles of Haiti. More importantly hardly a word of dispute was raised about this evolution of a traditional screen monster; the sub-genre really hadn't done too much beyond a few oddities to build a place in the heart of horror fans. More importantly people were okay with the evolution, taking things in new directions, showing us something we hadn't seen before. Back in the day horror folk were certainly more accepting and open minded than the currently crop, we'll get to that notion in the final part of this series.
Australian Writer and Zombiologist Chuck McKenzie has coined the terms "Trad-Zom" for the sort of shambling voodoo induced zombie of the pre-Romero era, and "Rom-Zom" for the shambling flesh craving ghouls Romero unleashed on an unsuspecting World. There's something of a continental divide going down there that both fans, who deserve a smack in the mouth, and Critics, who continually demonstrate they are intellectually challenged, seem to have missed. Clearly, besides the fanbois who will take anything in print as gospel if about the horror genre, a lot of folk simply shrugged their shoulders, dug Romero's movies, and went on with their lives. Pity about the whole avalanche of sub-standard movies that followed Romero's original releases,and things were about to get a whole lot worse for the sub-genre, including at least one stinker from Romero himself.
Having touched bases with rampant and brain dead consumerism, re-stated the theme of zombies being the least of your troubles during an apocalypse, Romero next turned his attention to the military in a sort of scatter gun approached that to a certain extent mires Day of the Dead (1985). What's important for our discussion is the seemingly tame zombie Bud. Dr Logan has spent some time working with the zombie, and surprisingly the zombie is starting to show more human traits than the military commander Rhodes. What is important here is that Romero continues to show his zombies evolving, something missing from the thousand and one cut price rip offs that lifted their ideas and reason for being from the Romero universe. It's an intriguing notion and certainly backs up Patricia Tillman's Barbara in Tom Savani's remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990), "we're them and they're us."
Romero continued the concept in his fourth movie, the controversial amongst horror fans Land of the Dead (2005). Regardless of what you think of the movie, and there was definitely some disappointment from some sectors of horrordom given the decade it took for a new Dead movie to appear, Romero continues to show his zombies evolving. Big Daddy, who clings whimsically to his previous life as a gas jockey, is working things out and learning at about the same pace as a Bogan. Okay it might be slow, but Big Daddy is getting there, and building his army to seek out vengeance against the raiders from the fortified human city out on an island in the river. Equally under Big Daddy's tutelage, some of his army are picking up weapons and even working out how the whole gun thing works. Tooled up zombies folks! - that's cooler than Nazi Werewolves for mine.
One of the more amusing criticisms of Land of the Dead is that the zombies are picking up tools and using them to good effect, check the Tom Savini cameo for example that revisits his character from Dawn of the Dead. Apparently Zombies have never before used tools in a Dead movie according to the self opinionated experts, guess they missed a couple of scenes from Night of the Living Dead then, or didn't get the concept of zombies evolving to some aspects of their previous existence. This criticism for mine at least, highlights the issue with those attracted to the zombie sub-genre, they hold forth without giving any regard to what has previously gone down in the genre. Anything prior to Romero's seminal work is apparently not in the zombie zone of the dark genre, IQ levels continue to plummet in the Western World, I blame mobile phones and Twilight. We're becoming mindless automatons for Mormon sexual practices, and are texting the fact apparently. On the bright side of the blade stalkers can now claim Stephenie Myers made them do it!
If people were up in arms over Land of the Dead, a grossly underrated movie for mine, then they went into a psychotic meltdown over 2007's Diary of the Dead, Romero taking the Dead universe into the found footage era. The 2007 version takes the action and returns it to around the time of the outbreak in Night of the Living Dead, except it's all happening a few decades later than events going down in the late 1960s. Welcome to the marvel of modern movie making, nothing is as it seems kids, get ready to try and get your mind around how movie makers think, The Last Exorcism Part 2, anyone thought that one through yet? Anyways Romero had a group of would be horror film makers out in the woods when the real horror explodes onto the scene. We follow our group of young would be documentators as they observe and then are submerged by the ghoulish new world. It's effective stuff for mine but I can understand the anger of the great unwashed who were expecting something entirely the same, and get angry when film makers try something different.
Romero returns to a world where zombies are mindless shuffling predators, their only apparent drive being a hunger for living, and in some cases not so living, human flesh. For mine what the Director is underlining here with a big black pen is the concept of the zombie evolving, from the initial brain dead mobs of flesh cravers to entities that long for their old dimly remembered lives. It's actually quite poetic, and a subversive view of the human condition, but hey that's not what Diary of the Dead is all about Citizens. What we have is the mindless resurrected going gangnam style on the living.
While some folk didn't like the movie, and let's face facts with the internet the haters are in their elements, it was interesting to see Romero take stock of where his Dead universe was at and in effect reboot it for an audience that is tiring of the same old shuffling dead movies we seem to get in increasing quantities each year. When was the last time a zombie movie did well at the cinema? Surprisingly Zack Synder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead is the last one to do something at the box office. This year we do get the completely asinine Warm Bodies and the long awaited World War Z, so expect one of those movies to get some intellectually challenged chicks through the ticket booth, no prizes for guessing which movie achieves that. But the point remains, for all the chest thrusting testosterone bullshit coming from certain sections of horrordom, zombie movies haven't been doing all that much. With Diary Romero I believe is trying to take it all back to the baseline and re-establish the tropes, as he saw them - fired up as he was on Critical acclaim like a five year old on a sugar rampage. I leave it to the reader to decide if going back to the future was the correct approach, I dug it, and it certainly underlined one of the themes of this article series.
Romero's final, to date, entry in the Dead universe was the strangely inept Survival of the Dead (2009). At this stage Romero is completely out of ideas, and the movie does nothing to advance the concept of the Rom-Zom, besides a zombie riding a horse in one of the move ludicrous developments sent our way. While the movie certainly has its fans, from primarily the Romero fanatics, no one is really going to put the movie into their top ten. To be honest you have to say when Romero is running out of ideas in a sub-genre he pulled in a new direction then the well is dry when it comes to original concepts. Time to close the book on the Rom-Zom and move along perhaps, the horror genre if anything has always been one of evolution rather than relying on past glories, regardless of what Boredwood might think with their dribble chined remake bandwagon.
With Romero simply dominating the "zombie" genre and impacting the genre overall, the concept of the Trad-Zom was completely undermined. Sure we were still getting the odd movie reverting to that good old time voodoo, but the American print avalanche had submerged the origins of one of the few cinematically created monsters under the debris of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. The strange thing was no one questioned this, pointed out the issues with a number of Critics being unable to find their collective arses with both hands, but hey we have never claimed horrordom is the most intellectual of a collective. For better or worse the decades of the Rom-Zom had arrived, and there was nothing anyone could remotely do to stem the tide, as half arsed film makers pumped out bad movie after bad movie for the slack yarned masses who equate violence and gore with horror.
Surprisingly, even with Romero re-inventing things and the genre changing via some numb nut writers, there were a few movie makers throwing other ideas on the table that threatened total chaos for those trying to define the Rom-Zom and quietly forget about forty years of cinematic and literature history. Chief antagonist here was Dan O'Bannon who saw the humour inherent in Romero's idea of the resurrecting dead wanting human flesh. In O'Bannon's universe, now stretching over five movies of dubious quality, the "zombies" are not so much interested in warm salty flash, they want living human brains and voice the culinary requirement in a constant refrain. Surprisingly O'Bannon's B-grade entry in the subgenre has had more impact on the consciousness of the great unwashed than Romero's ground breaking movies! Go figure, guess a bit of humour helps the zombie gore go down, and apologises to Mary Poppins fans, frack off you are on the wrong site!
O'Bannon, who of course was the dude who invented the concept of Ridley Scott's Xenomorph, is surprisingly more aware of explaining things than Romero was. Identifying a requirement of the modern horror movie goer, O'Bannon puts forward an explanation for all things. The whole apocalypse is caused by an exotic Military gas that turns your normal friendly corpse into a brain desiring psychopath. Aha, it's always the Military folks, it's always the Military. Okay so the zombies are rocking on, and they require human brains as somehow the consumption of the grey matter stops the pain of decay, rigor mortis, and realising that as a corpse you are giving a far better performance than Kristen Stewart is in Twilight. There's not a single element of the original Return of the Living Dead that is left unexplained, in fact in amongst the chaos and humour O'Bannon has the modern teen's back covered, no fear of having to think with this one folks everything is neon sign posted.
What's of interest here is that the mainstream seems to have equated O'Bannon's brain eaters with the concept of zombies to a far greater extent than Romero's flesh eaters. Think about that for a moment, and I'll revisit this concept in the third and final part of this article series, for the vast majority of society zombies are brain eaters. You want to argue the strict definition of the term "zombie", a hell of a lot of people are going to disagree with you, or truth be told simply not care. Horror geeks are like any other geek, they view the subject of their affections as far more important than the reality gives it any right to be. An example here folks, my wife at the time of writing is a pastry chef in training and recently had to produce a pineapple cake creation to the level of European expertise. Now my Wife simply hates the concept of horror, can't stand it, tends to rally with some venom on occasion against it, hence she has no idea on zombies beyond what has peculated into the mainstream. Anyways she dubbed her pineapple creation the "zombie cake" as it reminded her of a human brain sitting on the plate. Hell certainly sounds delicious and can't wait to dig on in, BRAINS!!!! What the salient point here is my Wife doesn't watch zombie movies, doesn't have any knowledge of them, and wouldn't know who the hell George A Romero is if she was introduced to him at a party, yet she immediately associates brains with zombies. Ladies and Gentlemen, Dan O'Bannon has had more of an impact on the mainstream than Romero! I could throw more examples onto the table, but let's not get bogged down in detail here. In effect folks, if the mainstream believes zombies are brain devouring ghouls, then guess what zombies are. Suck it up, the idea has once again been subverted to the demands of people with no knowledge of the genre beyond a passing experience, in much the same way as zombies have evolved from Haitian rituals to resurrected undead flesh eaters at the hands of a few Critics with no real idea of what the hell they were writing about. A little research goes a long way kids, don't get me started on media ideas of "hackers" or tight arsed University papers inventing concepts like that of the "final girl".
Guess the point of the last three thousand words or so was to point out the zombie evolved from being the victim of Haitian voodoo practice to being a resurrected undead flesh eating ghoul, mainly due to the efforts of independent movie maker George A Romero and some Critics who are an insult to the profession. Anyways, we have the Trad-Zom and Rom-Zom in play, surprisingly some "zombie fans", for want of a better term like "twats", only have room for Rom-Zoms. Yes folks we are not talking the pinnacle of Western education here, we're talking about people who really shouldn't voice their ideas as it just confirms our opinion that they are fracking idiots. Clearly, and the evidence is conclusive, zombies are either victims of Haitian voodoo practices, or the more modern cinematic antagonists they evolved into. While a lot of people have room for both ideas, a vocal minority still holds that the only zombie is a Romero shambler - in the face of irrefutable real-life evidence. The second group of people, who seem to have missed the mainstream adoption of the zombie as a resurrected brain eater, were about to get real angry when the zombie evolved yet again in the face of the Romero inspired movie trend dying, no pun intended, due to the idea having run out of steam. Once again I'll state the horror genre is surprisingly one of evolution and is not shackled by its historic tropes, it's a living breathing thing, albeit with an ice cold draft that smells faintly of the graveyard.
In the third and final part of this article series we'll turn our attention to the "infected", and that folks is where the real zombie war gathers momentum with lines being drawn in the sand. The zombie movie needed a major injection of new ideas, and Brit film maker Danny Boyle provided those ideas much to the hatred of what turn out to be some pretty narrow minded individuals.