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History Of Zombies In Pop Culture

If you like zombies, then you are probably familiar with George A. Romeros’s film, Night of the Living Dead. This 1969 American film not only  started a pop culture phenomenon and developed the modern zombie, it did so with only independent backing and in black and white. It has been preserved in the National Film Registry because it is "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

This film was shot in rural Pennsylvania in Butler County. Evans City, Pennsylvania provided much of the scenery, including the graveyard and interior scenes. The casting proved controversial as well. The film’s hero was an African-American, Duane Jones, as Ben. The remainder of the cast was European Americans. Ben rescues the sister of a pair who open the film with their visit to a rural Pennsylvania graveyard, only to be attacked by a zombie. Ben helps the entire group of survivors of attacks fend off zombies while they seek refuge inside a boarded up house. Ben is the lone survivor of the zombie attacks, but is killed the next morning when the rescue crew arrives. He is mistaken for a ghoul himself and shot.

The film fell under criticism because of its audience, often comprised of children, who “take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that's not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It's just over, that's all” (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times).

The film was criticized due to its gore and realistic depiction of violence. However, critics eventually came to see it as a social film commenting on Cold War politics, racism, and 1960s American society. Other critics felt it was critiquing the Vietnam War.

Despite the criticism, the film grossed more than any other horror film produced outside of a mass studio. It has been hailed as a “new dawn in horror film-making.” This was the film that opened the gate for splatter films.

Most importantly for pop culture zombies, Romero crossed the undead zombie with a vampire to create the flesh-eating zombie.
Romero issued six films in his Living Dead film series. The first sequel was Dawn of the Dead. Following its release, Lucio Fulci released a film, which was called Zombi2 in overseas markets, which led many people to see it as the sequel to Dawn of the Dead. But the films were in the process of filming and production at the same time. In the States it was released as Zombie.

Zombi2 is a 1979 film. It served as vehicle to propel Fulci to horror icon, and it is the best known of all of his works. When released, critics panned its gore and bloody scenes. It was banned in several countries, but it revived the career of Fulci, who had previously directed comedies, then turned to thrillers.

This film features an abandoned yacht, which ultimately brings the undead to New York City, but also transports the film’s hero and heroine to the island of Matool, where a zombie outbreak is in full force.

In the 1980s zombies hit the Chinese film market. In 1981 Hell of the Living Dead was released. The director, Bruno Mattai, listed as Vincent Dawn in the credits, suffered the scorn of critics who claimed his film did not make the viewer think. However, the film introduced the idea that a chemical leak lead to the undead.

In 1985, Dan O’Bannon took up this same idea in his film, The Return of the Living Dead. This film was a comedic look at zombies and horror. However, it introduced the idea of zombies as brain-eating monsters rather than just flesh-eating. The critical reception of the film was good and it ultimately led to four sequels.

The film is set in Louisville, Kentucky, and its plot centers around a toxic chemical produced during an experiment gone wrong, and accidentally released. Its ending echoes the social criticism of Night of the Living Dead, when the Army, who was responsible for the experiment gone wrong, pronounces only 4,000 people dead as a success and ignore the reports of skin irritation, claiming the rain will wash everything away.

By the mid-80s, the zombie horror film was an underground phenomenon. In 1992, Dead Alive was released in the United States (released as Braindead in other countries). This film was held as one of the goriest films in the genre, maybe of all time. It was directed by none other than Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame. This film actually won awards and had positive critical acclaim. But the film was banned in many countries and shown only in cut versions in others. In fact, in the U.S. the film was shown cut as well. In this film, zombies are the result of a species of animal resulting from the rape of tree monkeys by plague rats. (Don’t trouble yourself with the logistics of how that would come about.) One of these monkeys is housed at a zoo in New Zealand, where he gets the opportunity to attack and infect someone. The zombie’s son tries to keep her under control with animal tranquilizers, but she wrecks havoc on the townspeople despite his best efforts. The film ends with the main zombie stuffing her son back into her bloody womb and rebirthing him. He escapes and walks away with his love interest.

1993 saw another comedic twist on the genre with Bob Balaban’s My Boyfriend’s Back, featuring a high school zombie who returns to profess his love for his girlfriend. In the film, zombie Johnny feasts on human flesh to try to compensate for the disintegration of his own body.

Critics attacked the film’s weak plot and acting. However, the film’s cast included popular actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Matthew McConaughey, Renée Zellweger, and Matthew Fox, who appear in bit parts.

Michele Sovai brought 1994’s Cemetery Man to the United States. (Its Italian title was Dellamorte Dellamore.) Rupert Everett stars as a caretaker of a cemetery in Italy, named Francesco, who fights zombies while trying to win the love of his object of affection. She tells him she is terrified of men’s penises. So, Francesco, the dedicated lover, goes to have his removed. The doctor refuses but injects him with something that renders him impotent temporarily. In the interim, this woman is raped by the new mayor in town. This incident reveals to her that her fear of penises has been cured. However, she marries her rapist since she thinks Francesco is impotent; this is a problem for her now that she realizes she actually loves sex. The movie ultimately ends with Francesco killing a host of people including zombies, and trying to escape the town in which he lives. However, he realizes there is no reality beyond the one he knows.

This film received little attention and mostly negative criticism.

In the late 1990s, Asian cinema had a zombie film renaissance. Bio Zombie depicts zombies being created from an experimental Iraqi biological weapon. Wild Zero was released in 1999 and is a comedic look at zombies. The dead rise in response to an alien invasion. Another film released in 1999 is Junk, which remakes the Japanese mafia movie, Score, but with zombies. Versus is a 2000 zombie movie where mobsters have to battle the zombie corpses of people they have killed and buried in the forest. It also has an element of reincarnation. Stacy is a 2001 zombie comedy in which every girl between the ages of 15-17 turn into zombies. These teen zombies are called a “Stacy.”

With 2002 came the Resident Evil series, which was well received by fans, but not by critics. The series opened with the tale of amnesiacs battling zombies who are infected with a virus. The first film was followed by a sequel two years later, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Resident Evil: Extinction, in 2007, and the film, Resident Evil: Afterlife in 2010. Milla Jovovich plays the lead character. The film is considered to carry an anti-corporate message.
The 2002 28 Days Later film was very well received by critics. In fact, one magazine hailed it the second best zombie film of all time. In this film, the zombie outbreak is provoked by the release of animals from an experimental lab. The film was purposefully cast with unknowns to add to its believability factor. This film was followed by a sequel, 28 Weeks Later and there  is rumored to be third installment, 28 Months Later.

The Uwe Boll 2003 House of the Dead was universally panned, but featured a new breed of zombies, who are faster and more intelligent than previous zombies. The plot involves a group headed to a rave party on an island, only to be greeted by zombies.

Zack Snyder made his directorial debut paying homage to Romero’s Dawn of Dead with a remake released in 2004. This film finds some survivors holding down a shopping mall surrounded by zombies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Critics were not terribly impressed. Ebert claimed, that the “plot flatlines compared to the 1979 version, which was trickier, wittier and smarter." The film updates zombies, making them faster. Fans also criticized the larger cast, which cut down on the character development. The change to the zombies, making them more vicious, smarter, and agile has not been well received by fans or critics.

In 2009, zombies went mainstream with the comedy, Zombieland, starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin. The film features a road trip in search of a zombie-free sanctuary. This film received critical acclaim, and had critics expressing surprise at the level of comedic relief while retaining the focus on zombies. The film employs many pop culture references.

There is also a television series based on a comic book about zombies. The Walking Dead is a hit show on AMC. In this show, a deputy wakes up from a coma to find the world dominated by “walkers,” which resemble Romero’s zombies. The show has gained much critical acclaim and been nominated for awards. This show deals with racism.

In fact, studies have found that periods of war and social unrest are typically followed by a surge of zombie movies.

The concept of zombies is often tied with world-ending themes, so much so that apocalyptic movies are sometimes hard to separate from zombie movies. Case in point: I Am Legend, which features a man-made cancer cure gone wrong, which produces a virus that produces mutated humans, who want to feast on human flesh. The mutants are called “Darkseekers” in the film, but they have some zombie-like qualities much like the new breed of zombies who are smarter, faster, and crueler.

Overall, it appears that much like the Haitians, from whose zonbi our zombies have come, zombies are symbolic of something bigger. Zombies seem to be a vehicle for talking about social unrest, inequity, and destruction.

Google Search Trends For Zombies

If you are an analytical type, here is a great graphic created by A. Saleem that displays Google Search Trends for the web searches "Zombies", "Vampires" and "Horror". "Horror" of course has always be consistent, but in 2009 "Zombies" surpassed "Vampires" in terms of search interest and then explodes after 2010, surpassing the Horror genre itself. Zombies are officially mainstream.

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