Zombie Films Through the Ages: A ‘Dying’ Genre Brought Back to Life?

Updated on April 20, 2016

The definition of genre

The term ‘genre’ according to the English dictionary is a “kind of style”; something very difficult to pinpoint in the ever changing film industry. Genres are constantly mixing and matching to give the illusion of ‘new’ exciting ones, when really it’s just an approach to revive tired content. The horror genre is the mother of evolution in film, having been the bearer of countless subgenres – one of my favourites being, zombie films!!

A scene from Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari (1920)
A scene from Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari (1920)

Early zombie movies

Allegedly, Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari (1920) was the earliest zombie style movie to be made (for all you zombie fans out there, correct me if I’m wrong). When I first watched this German Expressionist film, I was shocked how tame it was compared to modern day standards! Most of the grisly details are implied by relying heavily on the viewer’s individual interpretation (as opposed to having it thrust in ones face).  At the time, this subtle approach really made the audience ‘tick’ - just the way special effects does for a lot of people now days.

It was this very film that first featured the famous shuffling steps of walking corpses; a convention that a lot of zombie films copied in later years. Despite the film’s merit, BBFC wanted the film banned due to its ‘disturbing’ nature. This is an example of how audience interpretation has changed over the generations.

Zombie films of the 1920s and the silent era in general, relied on dramatic costume and clever acting to communicate the storyline; presumably because they didn’t have much option back then! After all, they didn’t have the endless visual effects artists like we do today. Instead, they were resourceful with what they had - a different approach to “escapism” (KRUGER, RAYNER and WALL, 2001, 140) as we see it now.

Flamboyant, cult attire such as black vampire capes and dark melodramatic makeup were the norm in zombie films of the 1920s; in fact, film makers applied the same extreme attention to detail with their camera angles and lighting too.

The unusual camera angles were a trademark of this genre; often said to heighten the contrast between order and the disjointed and distorted characters in the film. Perhaps these techniques were used to suggest the state of Germany during World War I?

Truth be told, I love these old films! It’s a sad fact that we have become hardened to the harsh modern world we live in. At one time you would be on the edge of your seat watching old classics such as these! This is because an audience’s pleasure is heightened if “they recognise particular character types or storylines” (KRUGER, RAYNER and WALL 2001, 58). Over time even genres from our present day will eventually fail to deliver in the same way they did previously.

A shot of Bela Lugosi from the film, White Zombie (1932)
A shot of Bela Lugosi from the film, White Zombie (1932)

Prior to the mid-50s

Zombies were usually presented as “mindless individuals, controlled like puppets by magical masters” (JONES, 2002, 130) such as the famous ‘White Zombie’ (1932). They were typically not dead but possessed. Could this be a social message once again?

The horror film is a good reflection of contemporary social situations. For instance, the fear of losing one’s individuality seems very similar to communism, don’t you think? Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) is a good example of this. The horror of “people quite literally living off other people” (WOOD ET AL. 1979, 20-22) suggests issues of capitalism and the destruction of social rules.

Loving nuclear families were often forced to break apart, allegedly linked with paranoia during the cold war. The modern day equivalent would be the consequences from September 11th attacks. Films evolve at a steady pace, parallel to real world affairs.

A new  subgenre is born! Braindead (1992)
A new subgenre is born! Braindead (1992)

Leading up to modern day

The cult zombie film “Braindead” (1992) by Peter Jackson (released as Dead Alive in the US) is a classic example of how zombie films progressed over the years; bit of a contrast from the reserved film noir approach used in the 1920s.

Braindead spares no thought for subtlety and ploughs straight into the depths of blood and guts; the well-known conventions of “the typical splatter horror film” (PRINCE, 2000, 143).

Braindead is reputed to be “the goriest film ever to be made” (RUSSELL, 2005, 88-90) taking many ‘adult themes’ to a totally new level. It takes gore to tackiest extremes and ceases to be scary; more of a comedy if you like!

My favourite scene is where the main character battles a crowd of zombie using a lawnmower; spewing gallons of fake blood and limbs everywhere. In one word, epic! Search for “Braindead Lawnmower scene” in Youtube (I don’t think Hubpages would let me show you here)!

Tacky Zombie movies contradict the purpose of most horror films with a primary objective to “generate suspense, shock and terror” (GELDER, 2000, 19). In some ways, the film is a mockery of the genre itself – just the way “Scary movie” (2000) and “Shaun of the dead” (2004) have done in the last decade.

Once upon a time, low budget films were regarded as uncultured but let’s face it - it’s not unheard of for the art world to borrow from lower cultures. In some cases, low forms of culture have actually ‘recovered’ from previously bad reputations and consequently receive social approval once established amongst the masses.

The use of parody in horror has the effect of toning down the macabre and transforming it into something rather watchable. Mixing comedy and horror has certainly helped cater for a wider audience of people in later years! The use of humour has certainly made the zombie genre more approachable.

Modern zombie female going about her daily business
Modern zombie female going about her daily business

Modern day zombies

Although it is still commonplace to see comedy used in zombie films, most modern zombies in films today are portrayed having a ‘mind’ of their own; the Resident evil series is a classic example. In some ways, a thinking zombie is far scarier because it stirs a feeling of paranoia and fear amongst us.

Is it any surprise though? The world is practically crumbling around us in all aspects; not only our environment but our economy too. This lack of certainty is enough to spur anyone to make a horror flick!

Another common theme in modern zombie films is the outbreak of highly contagious viruses, leading to stereotypical zombie behaviour.

Just because the zombie genre has changed in modern times, doesn’t mean old classics like "Night of the living Dead"(1968) are forgotten or disliked because they important landmarks in zombie history! Without these cult favourites, our modern zombie’s would not exist.

“Some things won't stay down... even after they die” (Braindead, 1992)

Zombie films will continue to change and develop until the codes and conventions alter completely; leaving the original zombie genre as a legacy of the past. Until this day comes, the modern zombie will reinvent itself and combine with other genres to suit our constantly evolving population.

Some people argue that post-modern horror films lack originality compared to the old classics. I suppose we have all come to accept that repetition is part of the modern genre. Do we seek comfort in repetition or is it just ”the cheapest trick in the book” (JONES, 2002, 309) to stir a reaction in people? From the perspective of the film makers, it is far easier to adapt a winning formula than it is to create a completely new one.

I guess we have learnt to grow up and welcome the new age of film, quite simply by ‘adapting’ to trends. Ultimately, we just love reminiscing and idolising the things we grew up with as a kid – I know I do. In my opinion we need to embrace the modern world of zombie flicks! If the zombie genre did not change, it would have died decades ago (for good this time)!

Questions & Answers

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      • Richawriter profile image

        Richard J ONeill 

        6 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

        Hey, interesting read!

        I most certainly embrace the modern day zombie movies and they are changing, although I think most people still prefer the slow shambling zombies of old.

        Myself, I love 28 days later zombies, however, they do die a little too normally for my taste. Starvation and all that, come on!

        If you have a chance, check out my zombie stories.

        Peace. Voted up and interesting!

      • FilmRebel profile image

        FilmRebel 

        7 years ago from Ohio

        Hey Geek_princess i really liked reading your page. I was about to do a similar one and decided to see if someone had already done it. Check out my page I mostly write about film.

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