Fernando Sanchez returns with his final instalment of the origins of the horror genres we know and love today.
The golden era of monster films and the first great cycle of sci-fi classics eventually gave way to a more downbeat tone, marked by a series of historical and social events. The outbreak of a landmark conflict in South East Asia would bring great upheaval to a changing society, and darken the mood of cinema goers, as we began to explore our sense of mortality and fear of mass extinction through the guise of the zombie genre.
Flower Power and not a monster in sight
The 1960s were not good years for monster movies, particularly in Europe. The continent was only just starting to move on from the post Second World War trauma. Europe had become conflict-weary, and largely remained oblivious to a looming major conflict in South East Asia, half a world away. The reconstruction of Europe’s major cities and their infrastructure had mostly been completed over the dying years of the previous decade, and thus society could look forward to a relatively peaceful future one again.
Society soon became dominated by a series of social movements that would define many aspects of the modern world for years to come. The civil rights movement, the student movement, and global anti-Vietnam protests would highlight major social issues going on at the time.
Still, Europe was in no mood for monsters during the 60s, it seems. More ‘traditional’ genres, such as Western and war epics would see a great resurgence. Audiences would be introduced to the so-called Spaghetti Western, thanks to the Italian director Sergio Leone. Titles such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a few dollars more (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) would become timeless classics due to their particular visual style and pure kitsch.
The 60s, devoid of big monster movies as the decade was, did become significant – cinema wise – for two reasons: Italy would begin producing the overly exploitative giallo, and even more importantly, the zombie genre would be born in this decade. (This magazine previously published a specialist piece on giallo, go and seek it out).
Zombies: Tales of the Undead
The term ‘zombie’ would not really enter the collective mind of American audiences until 1929, on foot of a semi-fictional work by W.B. Seabrook called The Magic Island . Seabrook, a self-proclaimed occultist and explorer a la Alesteir Crowley, told a highly sensationalized tale of zombified villagers in Haiti.
Back in 1968, a then little known director named George A. Romero shocked cinema audiences with a black-and-white account of a zombie uprising. Night of the Living Dead (1968) became a seminal classic that became the focal point for a whole new type of monster movie. Shot by a bunch of friends on a paltry budget of about $114,000, Night of the Living Dead became an instant hit and went on to rake in upwards of $18m worldwide.
Despite a simplistic storyline, Night’s… greater significance cannot be underestimated. It kickstarted a whole new genre, no less, elevating the humble zombie creature to the same ranks of popularity as the most classic monsters, like vampires or werewolves.
Romero followed Night of the Living Dead with two ‘official’ sequels, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) and ‘Day of the Dead’ (1985), thus completing his ‘Trilogy of the Dead’.
The origin of the ‘zombiness’ in Romero’s movie is left ambiguous. Though it is implied that supernatural forces are to blame, there are also hints that a ‘radiation leak’ may have been the triggering factor for raising the dead.
Nu-zombie: The Resurgence of a, well, zombified genre
Romero’s zombies were slow, shambling creatures roaming the world searching to consume the still living. The zombie’s only instinct is to prey on their erstwhile fellow human beings. Interestingly, the z-word is not mentioned once throughout the movie. The beleaguered humans refer to the undead menace simply as ‘the creatures’.
For a while, that was the norm. But audiences soon got tired of zombies slowly perambulating around cities or countrysides, looking for brains. The genre was mercilessly mocked and lampooned, bringing about a steady decline in popularity. For most of the 80s and 90s, most zombie movies were straight-to-video (later DVD) fodder.
But that was all about to change in 2002 with a British film called 28 Days Later.
Directed by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame, 28 Days Later became the reinvigorating shot in the arm for the moribund zombie genre. No longer are zombies the slow, groaning creatures of yesteryear. Now, they have been upgraded to violent, aggressive, dynamic beings that run and jump and do all they can to get you. While not truly zombies in the strict definition of the word (the so-called ‘infected’ are not dead, but simply afflicted with a viral disease that turns them into brainless, homicidal creatures), they are terrifyingly effective.
28 Days Later not only became a highly grossing movie in its own right. It brought about the next step in the natural evolution of the zombie, no mean feat by any standards. All subsequent examples of this undying have adopted this canon of nu-zombism.
There have been some prime examples of zombie films since. 2004’s remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead by Zack Snyder would jump out as a gory, effective, and altogether great monster movie.
2007’s REC also became a surprisingly good zombie yarn, though much like in 28 Days Later, the word zombie may not truly apply. In REC, the cause of the disease is a rabies-like virus that gets passed on through bites, turning people into hyper-aggressive maniacs.
Equally, there have been truly dire examples. Hyper-kinetic and hyper-silly Versus (2000) by Ryuehi Kitamura, and any of the Resident Evil films stand out as low points in a genre that has delivered gems and trash in almost equal measures. However, recent entries like World War Z (2013) and Train to Busan (2016) show that there’s still plenty life left in this timeless subgenre.
Article by: Fernando Sanchez
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