Birth of a Zombie Nation: The Undead in the Movies 

From Bela Lugosi's zombie love slave to George Romero's Living Undead through the soulless corporate workers of more recent films

Wednesday, May 13 2009

More zombies: Read GENDY ALIMURUNG's "This Zombie Moment: Hunting for What Lies Beneath the Zombie Zeitgeist,"  STEVEN MIKULAN's "I Rode With a Zombie: An Undead Memoir," and GENDY ALIMURUNG's web-exclusive interview with Zombie Research Blog founder, Andrew Morisson.

Also, view more zombie photos in the "What Lies Beneath: Zombies, Serial Killers & Suicide Girls" slideshow. 


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One of filmdom’s most malleable metaphors, the zombie has come a long way since Bela Lugosi’s voodoo priest Murder Legendre tried to turn bride-to-be Madge Bellamy into a Haiti plantation owner’s mind-numbed love slave in 1932’s White Zombie, generally considered to be the first zombie movie. Released 17 years into the U.S. occupation of the island nation, the film helped to popularize the notion of these strange, pitiable creatures — neither living nor dead — as oppressed figures, prisoners inside their own bodies. Two decades later — and six decades before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies arrived on bestseller lists — French émigré director Jacques Tourneur and influential horror producer Val Lewton concocted their own mix of Victorian literature and Caribbean superstition in I Walked With a Zombie (1943), a retrofitted Jane Eyre in which the first Mrs. Rochester isn’t a madwoman but rather a zombie woman.

Today, the most iconic movie zombies are the ones who staggered their way through a Pittsburgh cemetery and into the Zeitgeist in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and who have returned in four subsequent Romero features, been parodied (in the 1980s Return of the Living Dead series) and even subjected to a big-budget Hollywood remake. In terms of sheer visceral impact, however, none have come close to topping Romero’s 1968 original, which seemed to rise up out of a cultural graveyard populated by the corpses of the decade’s slain political leaders and Vietnam soldiers. Indeed, well before Night arrived at its still-startling final image of the movie’s black hero being gunned down by trigger-happy good ol’ boys, it was clear that Romero was giving his audience just as much to chew over as his flesh-eating undead. We’ve never gone hungry since.

If Romero’s zombies are undeniably more fearsome than those of Hollywood’s Golden Age, they are also recognizably human — sometimes all too much so. Arriving at the zenith of the one-stop-shopping era, Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead neatly skewered the pod-person conformity of American consumerism, as its living and living dead alike found themselves inextricably drawn to a giant indoor mall. In 1985, the considerably bleaker Day of the Dead used the human-zombie battleground to stage a cautionary tale about the potentially radioactive fallout of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America, while Romero gave us, in the servile, Frankenstein-like “Bub” Romero, a zombie considerably more sympathetic than his military captors.

Two 2002 releases, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the videogame adaptation Resident Evil (which began as a Romero project) further collapsed that distance by making their zombies stand in for the victims of AIDS, SARS and other late-20th-century plagues. (These creatures had also figured out how to run, sparking a circular fanboy debate over fast zombies versus slow.) By the time Romero himself resurrected his evergreen franchise with the studio-backed Land of the Dead (2005), we had come full circle: The pallid ghouls were now clearly avatars for all of the faceless, nameless victims of unchecked capitalism and government malfeasance. They were, in short, no longer consumers but the consumed: the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the torture victims at Abu Ghraib and the displaced residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, banding together under a cognizant zombie leader known as “Big Daddy” in something like a class uprising. Then, just in time for the 2008 election, Romero was back again with Diary of the Dead, a zombified Medium Cool in which the undead were again the unwitting victims, this time of camera-wielding film students and viral videographers.

Concurrent with Romero’s second act, there has emerged another kind of zombie movie, in which no actual bodies rise from the grave but an air of dead-eyed soullessness is still acutely felt. Set predominately within the corridors of corporate power (where else?), these Enron-era zombie films include The Class director Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (2001), in which a newly unemployed businessman continues to pantomime a daily routine of appointments and deadlines before his unknowing wife, parents and children, at one point drifting anonymously through a modern office building and eavesdropping on a meeting, indistinguishable from those who actually belong there. Going a step further, Nicolas Klotz’s tragically underseen Heartbeat Detector (2007) — even better served by its original French title, La Question Humaine — equates a German petrochemical firm’s purging of 800 “unnecessary” employees with another infamous policy of mass extermination. And although German director Christian Petzold’s recent Yella (2007) does feature at least one possibly reanimated corpse, it isn’t nearly as scary as the poker-faced power brokers who negotiate hostile takeovers in the movie’s glass-and-steel boardrooms.

In Petzold’s film, the title character appears to survive a watery car wreck on the eve of starting a lucrative new accounting job, just as the eponymous law-firm “fixer” of the same year’s Michael Clayton emerges from his own vehicular mayhem as a kind of phantom, shortly before swallowing Tilda Swinton’s sweaty-pitted she-zombie whole. In a world driven by greed and paralyzed by debt, these movies seem to be showing us that the living and the living dead have become one and the same. Which begs the question: Does that make Oliver Stone’s W. officially the first movie about a zombie in the White House?

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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