What Happened to Zombie Movies?
Let's Talk Zombies!
A Discussion Brought to Life
Recently, I took a look back at two rather substantial milestones within the zombie subgenre of horror; those being the original George A. Romero 1978 masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead, and its 2004 remake directed by Zack Snyder. After writing my reviews on both films, I started reminiscing of my fond memories for one of Romero’s later cinematic ventures with zombies, which was 2005’s Land of the Dead. Out of sheer entertainment reasons alone, I watched Land of the Dead for probably the first time in over ten years. I loved it, truly a great post-apocalyptic zombie epic that was action-packed and full of intelligent social commentary. Of course, it was written by the horror mastermind himself. But it got me to thinking about zombie movies in general; the roots from which they sprouted, their legacy in the horror community, where they are now in the public’s interest, and all of the ups and downs in-between. Beyond that, I realized more and more how much George Romero truly had a significant impact on this movie genre as a whole, time and time again over forty-plus years in his filmmaking career. Bringing me to where I am now with this article, going from several different iterations in my head as I brushed up on a little bit of my zombie flick knowledge via watching several others within the genre; whether they be the classics or the misfires, I watched as many as I could during the last week. Now I’m here to discuss my take on it all, from what I admire to what turned me into a crier. Here is what I have to say about the zombie genre.
My Personal History with Zombie Flicks
I feel that it may be important to reveal my standpoint on zombies and horror in general. Growing up, horror played a huge part in my life. You name it, I likely watched it on repeat when I was a kid. Supernatural hauntings, demonic possessions, crazed slashers, man-hunting monsters, and flesh eating zombies were my cup of tea all the time. To this day horror is still quite possibly my favorite genre of film as it can work on so many levels being combined with several different elements to supply a tone that is frightening, hilarious, or even heart wrenching. This also includes the zombie subgenre, zombies can be portrayed as horrifying things that chill us to the bone or they can be bags of stupid that humor us, and I love that. I love seeing the creative ways that filmmakers craft their monsters and the stories they reside in, zombies usually are created with some of the most visually interesting designs as the concept and makeup artists have practically limitless possibilities at their disposal when designing the look of the undead. Leaving in or taking out as much humanity as they wish, removing specific body parts or flesh, adding in any amount of gore they like, and even right down to the physical performance of the zombie actor can vary in a multitude of ways. As a kid I darkly relished in the deliciously creepy and twisted ways that films would take the human form to turn it into a terrifying image to behold, the zombie genre does exactly that. I admire the ambition and creativity it takes to create the undead makeup and costumes, there seems to be no real ‘wrong’ way to make a zombie now as there are so many directions that one could take them in.
My favorite zombie film of all time is without a doubt, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead is the perfect blend of horror, fantastic practical effects, character writing, and brilliant underlying social commentary. For myself personally, in the long line of zombie films that have come before and since, nothing has beaten it. Admittedly there have been a select few that have come close to being on par, but Dawn of the Dead still sits on top of the pyramid as one of my favorite horror films of all time. I couldn’t even dream of making a film half as good as Dawn, that is how much I love and respect Romero’s work from that film.
- 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978) Movie Review
I take a special look into the extended cut of the 1978 George A. Romero classic! Zombies and bikers and shopping. Oh my! *WARNING* This is a long, in-depth analysis. A.k.a. I got a lot to say.
In my late teens, early twenties, during the more current zombie boom I did honestly become pretty exhausted with them. Everyone was extremely vocal about their obsession with zombies, zombie makeup was all the rage among the youths at the time, zombies flooded media everywhere whether online or in television and movies. Everything with zombies added up over the course of five or ten years and it became redundant for me, I got bored and somewhat fed up with it being everywhere all of the time. I never lost my love for the greats within the genre or anything like that, but the oversaturation did push me away from watching anything zombie related for a long time… which is a major reason why I have never seen a full season of AMC’s The Walking Dead yet. That’s right, the most successful zombie television show ever made is one that I may have seen a handful of episodes at best. I apologize to the people that might want my head for that, although recently I have gotten back into watching the genre so maybe I will finally take a look at the show that everyone is still in love with after nearly ten years on the air. Maybe, I’m bad with TV shows though.
Zombies’ History with UsClick thumbnail to view full-size
We’ve had a strange relationship with zombies in film from the very beginning. Some would argue that 1931’s Frankenstein was technically the first big screen interpretation of a zombie, others would say it was actually 1932’s White Zombie that was the true cinematic debut of the flesh hungry corpses. Either way, the premise proved to be accepted by audiences. However, zombies quickly were thrusted into a more B-movie status. Even Ed Wood had his hand in the zombie genre… in spectacular fashion, might I add. Most films that featured zombies over the next thirty years or so weren’t really taking the monsters all that seriously, zombies were interjected in somewhat campy horror flicks that utilized them as a product of the main villain only to do their bidding and not usually being the focal threat. That is until when the year 1968 rolled around with George A. Romero releasing Night of the Living Dead. What Night of the Living Dead did for the zombie genre was bring these mindless creatures into the forefront and it also brought them into a reality not far off from our own. Night felt as though it could easily be taking place in our world, while prior to this smart move made, it was mainly a farfetched concept that took place in a setting that was clearly fantasy. Now zombies feel more of a tangible idea than ever before, making them something terrifying.
Even though Romero’s directorial debut was successful and soon regarded as a horror classic, the zombie genre really didn’t gain traction too much at the time. Still being trapped within the realms of B-movies mostly, but they were made a little more as the threatening force in the select films afterward. Probably the best example being 1977’s Shock Waves, a Nazi-Zombie exploitation movie that has garnered a small cult following in recent years, but fell short of anything substantially impacting at the time of its release.
Then in the following year of 1978, it seemed like George Romero had something to say about our materialistic culture and he had an avenue in order to say it through the use of the undead once again in Dawn of the Dead. Immediately becoming a hit with audiences and critics alike, as well as earning quite the numbers at the box office. That’s when zombies truly started making its mark in the horror genre through the efforts of other prominent exploitation-horror directors at the time. Particularly ones that worked within the Italian market such as Lucio Fulci, Bruno Mattei, and Claudio Fragasso. Together they produced one of the more popular exploitation franchises with their Zombi series; a foreign horror film series that was marketed as a direct continuation of Dawn of the Dead as Dawn of the Dead in foreign markets was actually entitled Zombi instead.
Zombie ‘80sClick thumbnail to view full-size
The 1980s was the decade that really launched the horror-comedy genre combo into effect and that, of course, included zombies. They became a bit of an in-joke for audiences, with filmmakers exploring what else can be done with these mindless creations. Some of the most well-known interpretations of the less intimidating zombie would be with John Landis’s take in An American Werewolf in London and more notably one of his most famous directorial efforts with Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video from 1983. That led down the path to movies like Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Creeps, and of course the ultimate classic being C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud.
The inclusion of a dark sense of humor became somewhat synonymous with zombies for a while. But as time went on, productions and movie-goers were taking the idea of zombies less and less seriously. George A. Romero came out with what is now considered a classic in 1985’s Day of the Dead, but upon its release was a little bit of a thud at the box office. Day of the Dead was, for a long time, the finale of Romero’s “Living Dead” trilogy. Providing yet another suspenseful story with intelligent themes of human decency vs. radicalism. Doesn’t seem like people were as interested in seeing a serious tone in the same vein as Romero’s previous ‘78 zombie venture. However, they were more likely to purchase their tickets though when a certain hockey mask wearing slasher became one of the undead as well. The mid-to-late 1980s was when slashers were at the height of their popularity, leaving very little room for zombies that weren’t named Jason Voorhees.
When the Dead Stay Dead
Entering the 1990s, it appeared as though zombies were reaching an all time low in attention. While there were noble efforts within the subgenre, between Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (Braindead), they didn’t manage to make money like they used to. Even old Jason Voorhees had faded out of the spotlight by the mid-90s for a while. The last noteworthy zombie flick from the ‘90s was Return of the Living Dead III, which was released in a whopping nine whole theaters in 1993. Just like that, the zombie craze was seemingly dead. Occasionally making appearances in direct to video works, but nothing like how it was before. The ‘90s was an era in horror that became fascinated mainly with the psychological thriller genre.
The ResurrectionClick thumbnail to view full-size
When zombies were practically a distant memory, all of the sudden in the year 2002, there was a strange and overwhelming resurgence for the subgenre. There was not one, but two major hits at the box office that heavily played with the zombie formula with Resident Evil and 28 Days Later. Zombies were catapulted into the public eye again, with a vengeance. Every year that passed only grew with the amount of zombie movies that were produced and the amount of people wanting to see more. This new wave spawned countless interpretations and innovations, but also some major blunders as well. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg payed tribute to the zombie genre as a whole, with the intelligence of Romero interwoven with a satirical wit that wasn’t quite seen before within this particular subgenre. And Uwe Boll was there too… being a terror to filmmaking in general and zombies with his “contribution”, House of the Dead.
No matter the quality of film, no matter the tone, every zombie movie was released with a solid R rating during the mid-2000s. The amount of gore and violence was at an all time high for this new batch of flesh-eaters, pretty much every addition trying to one-up the last. When Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead came out, it more or less cemented the zombie boom while also seemed to be when people’s perspective of zombies largely shifted from seeing them as slow moving corpses into taking on the identity of sprinting maniacs. No, Snyder’s Dawn was not necessarily the first to make the creatures run; they’ve been seen running before in the Return of the Living Dead series, but most notably in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of zombies from his film 28 Days Later. That style of sprinting and screeching zombies carried over into the Resident Evil film franchise eventually, as well as several other movies since. Although that didn’t influence George A. Romero’s return to the genre with his 2005 zombie comeback, Land of the Dead. Bringing a whole new level of filmmaking quality to the zombie formula as he crafted what may have been one of the first true zombie post-apocalyptic epics ever. Nowadays, they seem to be nothing new after several Resident Evil installments and Maze Runner sequels attempting to replicate the same world building epic quality, but Romero’s Land of the Dead was the first to introduce a society living within the realms of the undead as their normal way of life. Before Land, zombie flicks usually centered on the initial days of the epidemic and less what happens after the fall of a stable civilization. Changing the formula in a way that is still being used today. Even video games such as The Last of Us series has Romero’s Land of the Dead to thank for this post-apocalyptic adaption.
A Shift in the Tides
Over the next couple of years there really wasn’t a whole lot to report, that is until 2007 hits and there was a clear change in the public interest. That year there was three zombie movies that showed promise for box office returns, two of which being Grindhouse’s Planet Terror and the other was the sequel to Danny Boyle’s zombie cult classic, 28 Weeks Later. Both earned a modest amount in their revenue, but nowhere near matching the financial success of the Will Smith post-apocalyptic zombie action vehicle that was I Am Legend, grossing over 585 million dollars worldwide. A number that was unheard of in the genre prior to that point and was also a movie that did a few distinct things that wasn’t present up until its release; one being that the zombies were entirely visualized through the use of computer effects, before 2007, zombies were realized strictly with the help of makeup and prosthetics. In my opinion the best way and possibly only way to make a zombie for film is through practical means, but at this time CGI was a special effect that only grew more and more in popularity. With the release of I Am Legend, audiences were mystified by the new toys that Hollywood had to offer. The second unique thing that I Am Legend brought to current zombie trends was making the genre piece with a PG-13 rating. Not necessarily unheard of in the past to have a zombie movie that snuck below the R rating, but it was by far the most financially successful to not supply substantial amounts of gore or blood within the visuals. These two creative decisions altered the course of how the Hollywood machine went about constructing their new line of zombie movies.
Initially, zombie films adopted the use of CGI more abundantly while still maintaining the R rating for a little while longer. Even George A. Romero fell subject to the CGI train with his last two installments of the “Living Dead” series, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, taking advantage of computer imagery to put in place of its gore effects rather than how they were achieved before with makeup effects and prop design. Sadly sullying the visual aesthetic of both products, along with other films that chose CG effects work as a means of a shortcut for production such as the 2008 and 2018 loose remakes of Day of the Dead and we can’t forget to mention this also includes anything that Paul W.S. Anderson touched within the last twenty years.
Spot the CGI...
Less is Less, Not More.
In terms of film, support for the R rated monsters risen from beyond the grave begun waning and the PG-13 censor sunk their hooks right into the genre. Although AMC’s The Walking Dead since airing in 2010 did prove prosperous in most everyone’s living rooms, maintaining a lot of the practical makeup work and even a decent amount of gore, cinemas saw much less of that. Over the course of seven or eight years, Hollywood became particularly determined to force the zombie formula into a world and tone more suitable for younger viewers. Especially when the marketability of Y.A. (young adult) films skyrocketed from the success of movies like The Hunger Games and Twilight and pretty much anything that attempted recapturing the essence of those two franchises. 2013 included the likes of PG-13 box office hits World War Z and Warm Bodies, the former utilizing the most digital effects in its two and a half hour runtime and holds the largest budget out of any zombie apocalypse movie before or since. Then in 2015 we saw with The Maze Runner’s first sequel, The Scorch Trials, introducing zombies and a post-apocalyptic world that also apparently lacked blood in anyone’s body; which 2018 brought that series to a close with The Death Cure.
Every R rated zombie movie within the last ten years, with the exception of the Resident Evil installments, have either been met with an extremely limited release or subpar box office profits. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse was released in late November of 2015 and it was the third R rated zombie movie that was given a relatively wide release since 2009’s Zombieland, the other two were sequels within the Resident Evil series. Scouts Guide barely made over sixteen million at the box office, while I personally despised the movie, this seemed to only reinforce the idea that zombies were losing their relevance with current audiences. The following year even became a failure for the PG-13 rated decayed baddies as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies couldn’t manage recouping its own production budget of 28 million dollars, only garnering 16 million in returns. The last cinematic zombie venture actually did receive a wide release from the assistance of producer J.J. Abrams, I’m talking about latest in Nazi-Zombie exploitation with last year’s Overlord. Unfortunately, like I mentioned previously, it didn’t exactly soar fantastic new heights in the box office as it limped over breaking even with its own budget of 38 million. Also, oddly enough, Overlord too was released in the month of November. Surely not doing it any favors falling into the holiday months.
Scouts Guide to AwfulnessClick thumbnail to view full-size
Have We Gotten Sick of Zombies?
If we are talking strictly about what is being released in the cinema, that appears to strongly be the case with modern moviegoers. Whether good or bad, PG-13 or R, gory or bloodless, no one seems to give a sh*t. That is unless we are including Milla Jovovich in some skintight BDSM getup while wielding a couple of semi-automatic weapons, then people rush to the theater… I don’t blame them. Just saying. However, strangely enough, the dead have only risen in the ranks when it comes to television and video games. The Walking Dead has spawned a number of its own spin-offs in TV and video games, The Last of Us is one of the most highly regarded in the genre with its sequel being one of 2019’s most anticipated releases among fans, responsible for a whole slew of other recent zombie oriented games, Resident Evil is still going strong in its video game life, TV shows such as iZombie and BBC’s In the Flesh have collected quite the cult following as well in recent years.
So why is the genre seemingly dying in the theater, yet thriving at home? Have we as a society become content with zombies being more of a home viewing experience? Are we gaining far more quality programming from our television sets rather than on the big screen? Do films and marketing now lack that dose of motivation needed to get our asses off the couch? Has zombie films said all that they can say within the movie medium? Is there nowhere else for them to go? Are they not worth our hard-earned money to shell out for tickets anymore? Maybe the horror community has hit zombie burnout from the oversaturation that has flooded the mainstream over the last seventeen years, I know that I certainly did for a good long while. Although the love for zombies doesn’t seem to be completely dissipated, as I pointed out with what is being provided in television and videogames. Plus, visit any sort of horror convention or amusement event and I guarantee there will be an abundance of people wearing zombie makeup. Because of all this, I know that zombies aren’t quite dead with people.
What If There’s More to This Life?
If I were to make a wild claim, and hang in there with me on this one please, what if we’re waiting for the next George Romero to up the ante? Think about it, when was the last time the formula was really played with while keeping the terror intact? To the mainstream, not a whole lot. Just a bunch of bloodless and toothless products revolving around the pretty-teenager-apocalypse and Paul W.S. Anderson refusing to leave a beloved videogame adaptation alone. Look a little deeper and you may find some real gems underneath the surface. Seven years ago there was a little stop-motion animation by the name of ParaNorman. No, not exactly unknown, but didn’t exactly make Illumination Studios money in the box office either. ParaNorman does provide a unique take on the zombie genre, mixing things up with a bit of a role reversal between the undead and the living, with some brilliant social satire sprinkled in for good measure. Another zombie movie that mixes things up would be 2015’s Maggie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin. With Maggie, this is a much more dramatic approach to the material rather than horrific or even comedic, paralleling the zombie infliction as more of a disease that society has grown accustomed to in very much the same way as AIDs or cancer. The characters try to appreciate the time they have left before they deteriorate and inevitably pass away, this gives a fresh take on the zombie genre that may not frighten anyone in the traditional sense, but maybe give an emotional perspective on death and illness. Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex is a fun throwback to the horror-comedies of the 1980s. Freaks of Nature draws a humorous parallel between zombie-ism to drug use. Even Overlord manages to shake things up with a story execution resembling From Dusk Til Dawn inside of an homage to Nazisploitation. So there are clever things being done with zombies in film, they’re simply struggling to live within the masses.
An Overlord in Fun
With all that said, I think people miss being terrified by the walking dead again and that really hasn’t happened in the last fifteen years in the cinema. Not since Land of the Dead, in my opinion, has a zombie film retained its horror roots and thought provoking themes to pair with. We’ve had funny interpretations, we’ve had smartly written themes, and we’ve had straight up bad executions. Audiences haven’t been scared by a zombie in a long time now. Even in television, the undead appear to be less of a threat and more of a backdrop. And call me crazy, but I highly doubt that Disney Channel’s Zombies will be putting the fear of God in me any time soon. Just a hunch.
In conclusion, zombies need to be to be scary again. That is my diagnosis of the zombie genre in its current state, they don’t really scare anyone right now. Most examples that can be found in today’s media don’t even attempt to scare anymore, either taking a vastly lighter tone or the real threats being that of the individuals fighting to survive amongst themselves. We need a new George A. Romero… pre-Diary of the Dead Romero. Sorry, but Diary and Survival of the Dead are terrible. I don’t like them. Or even if Edgar Wright came back to revamp the genre once more, maybe then we could have a superior zombie resurgence. Until then, it seems like we are stuck with bupkis at the moment. The paranormal and supernatural are what currently reigns supreme in horror, but I miss the variety and I hope that something changes so that the next corpse that rises from the ground scares the unholy sh*t out of us all.
That's All Folks...
Once again I’ve made a long-winded spectacle out of film. My apologies. But what did you think of this article? Did you like or dislike it? Agree or disagree? Stop reading after the word “Recently”? Well, comment down below and let me know! Share your thoughts and opinions on the zombie genre as a whole, whether it’s something that appeases you or a genre you have no interest in, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Also, if you did like my article then do me a little favor and share this around the social media world as that helps me out a great deal. Thank you all so much for reading and have yourselves a brain-devouring good day!
© 2019 John Plocar