Zombies After Romero
an overview by Tony 'Brraaaiiinnnss!' Chester
In 1968 came the most successful independent, low-budget film of all-time; I refer, or course, to the hugely influential Night of the Living Dead directed by George Romero.
So much has been written about this film over the years that, one would think, little remains to be said. However, perhaps there is still some room for exploding certain myths, or clarifying certain details, so forgive me if you have heard all this before, but it just cannot be avoided. I suppose the first thing that's worth saying is that this film didn't just spring from nowhere: Romero himself has recognised influences as diverse as the EC comics mentioned above, and films such as Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962). Many of the 'innovations' in the storytelling, indeed the choice of 'monsters' itself, were dictated by the small budget. The use of a black protagonist, seen by many as social commentary, was nothing of the sort (by Romero's own testimony it was simply a case of choosing the best actor for the role); in fact John Russo's original script had the protagonist as a woman! That train of thought saw fruition in the 1990 re-make (which we will get to later). It is true that the film was shot over a number of weekends for a budget in the region of US$114,000, and it did eventually make over US$12million in profit. However, the film was not an overnight success and most of the money it made was long after Romero had lost control of it to the 'public-domain' (poor old George saw very little money out of the film). And the film, furthermore, was not immediately perceived as a 'classic'. Nonetheless, it did become and remain the most successful independent film made for the next 25 years, returning something like $12 of 'profit' for every $1 of budget (contrast these figures with a film from an established franchise, for example Star Wars: The Phantom Menace barely broke even! Star Wars makes its money from the spin-off merchandising, action figures, computer games etc. In purely cinematic terms it should be seen as a 'flop'!). What the film really had going for it was great timing. As pointed out by Jeremy Dyson (writer for the League of Gentlemen) in his book Bright Darkness (1997), 'With scenes from a bloody and terrifying war in Vietnam being transmitted round the globe, people were being presented with uncensored factual images of bodily mutilation for the first time. They had a new horror to contend with and it's no surprise to see that a new kind of film emerged that could give voice to that horror.' He also notes, rightly, that things had been moving in the direction of 'explicit violence and visually shocking imagery' for some time, citing the films of Herschell Godon Lewis ('The Godfather of Gore') and the more explicit versions of Hammer's films made for the overseas market.
As for the film itself, well, it is, clearly, the masterpiece that totally redefined the zombie. If a ghoul is a living person that preys on the dead, then the 'new' zombie was something like a reverse-ghoul, someone dead preying on the living. And the true horror of them is that they are not 'evil'; there is no chuckling mad mastermind behind the plot, there is no switch that can been thrown, no master spell to lay the revenants to rest... In other words, there's just no way to win! And it is not as if the zombies need to get 'organised' - just the introduction of their 'chaos' into society's 'order' is enough to bring about the total collapse of 2000-years-worth of civilisation. They are flesh-eaters, which itself confronts a long-held multi-societal taboo, and they are relentless; how can one reasonably expect to stop an 'enemy' that adds to its ranks every time one of 'us' falls prey to one of 'them'? And, of course, the most obvious horror of all, eventually made explicit in the first sequel, is that they are us! It is for this reason that the films, collectively, have engendered and invited criticism in terms of their social commentary: the films are an allegorical invasion story; the zombies are 'youth' rebelling against and overturning the established social order; the films are about the futility of war. Choose your favourite theory, there are plenty! And yet, for all that, the film itself is pretty simple... A satellite returning from Venus picks up some strange 'radiation' which causes the dead to rise and imparts cannibalistic tendencies. A diverse group of humans take shelter in a farmhouse and attempt to keep the hordes of flesh-eaters at bay. Ultimately the group tears itself apart and even the 'hero', Ben (Duane Jones), despite having done everything 'right', is ironically killed at the end, mistaken for one of the zombies by a band of roaming redneck vigilantes. One of the great things about the film is that Romero establishes clichés, only to turn them upside-down; in addition to the ironic shooting of the hero, you also have the heroine (Judith O'Dea) who should, by convention, be screaming and in peril at every opportunity, but who is in fact shocked into complete passivity and is not defended by hunky heroes. No one 'wins', no one saves the day, everybody dies. Compare that with the idea that, up until then, Dracula is always defeated, the werewolf is always shot dead, the mad dictator is always blown up in his laboratory... Now, the Romero 'Dead' story does not stop there, but we will leave him for now so that we can continue to see the zombie film story in context.
One measure of just how unsuccessful Night of the Living Dead was is in the fact that no one fell over themselves to jump on the zombie bandwagon. For the next few years the traditional horror subjects continued to rule: vampires (1970 was an especially big year for them!), werewolves, witches, Frankenstein-ian creations, psychopaths, you name it; all were represented. But the next significant zombie film did not arrive until 1971 in the form of Amando de Osorio's La Noche del Terror Ciego (aka Night of the Blind Dead). This Spanish film, and its numerous sequels, has for its villains blind zombie 13th century Templars. They suck the juices and life of their victims, more often than not sexy women, in a peculiar hymn to Puritanism. The story takes a while to get going over an introduction to the Templars, the story of whom to this day is usually more fiction than fact, luckily for horror and thriller writers. After that the usual formulaic plot is tripped out - teenagers stray into a deserted monastery, the dead rise, there's a lot of running about (except for the zombies shot in slow motion on ghostly horses), some deaths, and one girl gets away, though she is frightened near insane. The sequels are more of the same: The Return of the Evil Dead (1973), Horror of the Zombies (1974) and Night of the Seagulls (1975) were all directed by Osorio. A not directly related film has come to be associated with the series, The Devil's Cross (1975) dir. John Gilling. Note here how the film, and all of its sequels, was made long before Romero himself returned to the Dead. Note also that the zombies remained supernatural creatures, as before Romero, rather than being 'scientific' as expected after Roero. Zombies started to pick up real steam in 1972 with a handful of interesting films. The hugely influential director Bob Clark and scriptwriter Alan Ormsby gave us Dead of Night (aka The Night Andy Came Home, inter alia) in which a returning (Vietnam?) vet (Richard Backus) turns out to be one of the living dead, dependent on blood to arrest his decomposition; William Huyck contributed Dead People (aka Return of the Living Dead - Romero's title, at least, having an influence) which has an entire colony of zombies; Carlos Aured contributed Horror Rises from the Tomb, with more lake-bound zombies; Jose Luis Merino trotted out mad-scientist created zombies in La Orgia de los Muertos; Leon Klimovsky directed the rather poor La Rebellion de las Muertas (aka Vengeance of the Zombies); and in Tales from the Crypt, dir. Freddie Francis, three of the stories featured zombies (Ian Hendry, Peter Cushing and Richard Greene respectively in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of the five tales).
We should not lose sight of the fact, here, that the early seventies were generally good ones for horror films but 1973 was not quite such a frenetic hive of activity for zombies, though it did contain the excellent Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things from the team of Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby. A troupe of actors and their director (Ormsby) travel to a graveyard on an island in order to stage a satanic play to raise the dead. When the thespians retire to a nearby cottage it turns out their act was all too convincing when the dead rise. The zombies are none too pleased at having their rest disturbed and decide to take it out on the troupe. This surprisingly lively little film, filmed in just 14 days for the princely sum of US$70,000 puts this firmly in the low-budget category, but had surprisingly effective special and make-up effects. Of course, it was The Exorcist that dominated 1973, and the 'Devil' bandwagon was one that many would jump on. In House of the Seven Corpses (1974), dir. Paul Harrison, while making a horror film in an old house, the star (Faith Domergue) accidentally awakens the dead by reading aloud from a mystic tome (a possible influence on The Evil Dead?) and havoc ensues. Joel M. Reed's The Chilling was Nazi zombie nonsense. But the real gem from 1974 is Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. Loved and hated by critics in equal measure this film is, in my opinion, every bit as influential as Romero on the future direction of the zombie film. A Spanish/Italian co-production, it is shot in England (the Lake District) with an international, and therefore multiply-dubbed, cast. The hero (Ray Lovelock) is given a lift by a woman (Cristina Galbo) after she runs over his motorcycle; she is on her way to see her mentally ill sister. In the area the government are trying out a new pest-control device in the fields that uses ultra-sound, a side-effect of which is that it raises the dead. Murders follow, investigated by a no-nonsense cop (Arthur Kennedy) who does not like young, arrogant, long-haired types and so assumes that Lovelock is the villain and a member of some kind of Satanist cult. Lovelock works out what is going on, destroys the ultra-sound machine, and torches the zombies in a hospital. Kennedy, however, shoots him dead. The machine is repaired and switched back on, Lovelock rises and takes his revenge on Kennedy. Night of the Living Dead's gore is mitigated by being shot in black and white, whereas The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is full-on colour. More importantly the former's setting at a relatively remote farmhouse distances it somewhat from urban settings and modern times, but this film, partly set in a hospital, with the action starting out in a city (from which Lovelock sets out on his journey), and featuring the police establishes the film firmly in contemporary and semi-urban settings. With a firmly 'scientific' explanation for the risen dead, these factors combine to make the film a thoroughly modern zombie film.
More's the pity, then, that for a few years once again zombies floated into the background, while horror film makers cashed in on 'Devil', serial killer and 'evil-child' films. Of this last, however, of note is 1977's The Child, dir. Robert Voskanian, which has an evil-child (Rosalie Cole) capable of raising zombies to avenge herself on those she believes responsible for her mother's death. Ken Wiederhorn's Shock Waves (1977) gives us a battalion of Nazi zombies freed from their underwater grave by a disturbance, following which they go on a rampage killing most of the cast (including Peter Cushing). By now the films being copied included The Omen (1976), Jaws (1975) (despite both having their own sequels), and Halloween (1978) (although this was, itself, following in the footsteps of Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974)); and cannibal films were becoming popular. The only zombie film of note from 1978 was Jean Rollin's Les Raisins de la Mort (aka Pesticide), which borrowed somewhat from both Night of the Living Deadand The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. Unintentionally funny, the film has a vineyard's pesticide raising the dead, and they get to kill everybody. This environmental awareness also features in 1979's Bloodeaters, dir. Chuck McCrann, in which the active chemical is a herbicide used on a marijuana crop. Neither of these last two films are really worth bothering with, unless you are a zombie completist. John Carpenter's The Fog (1979) has a bunch of ghostly maritime zombies avenging themselves on a town whose ancestors sent the spooks to the bottom of the sea. While all this was going on, Romero was making great films like The Crazies (1973) (a near-zombie film itself) and Martin (1976), but returned to the zombie fray in 1979, more or less at the invitation of Dario Argento, with perhaps his definitive (and much copied) film, Dawn of the Dead.
If the films from 1932-67 were full of 'traditional' zombies, and those between 1968-78 represent a transitional period, then Dawn of the Dead is the proverbial 'it', the moment when the zombie film changed forever. While some zombies would remain supernatural, the vast majority of them would be flesh-eating monsters and never go back to being shuffling slaves. Argento invited Romero to Italy to write the film and he also co-produced it (with Richard P. Rubenstein); he also had the right to make a cut of the film for the Italian market (released as Zombies), leaving Romero to do as he wished for other markets. In truth, the Argento cut is not as good as Romero's, though some (particularly Argento fans) enjoyed the greater use of the band Goblin on the soundtrack (they've scored loads of Argento films, both before and since). It should be pointed out that none of Romero's 'Dead' films are sequels in the true sense; there are no direct connections between them, no background story arcs. Each needs to be seen on its own terms as Romero examines a world overrun by zombies from different angles. If anything Dawn could be seen as a re-make of Night, just upon an expanded stage. Once again, the plot is simple, what I will refer to from now on as 'the survivor plot', in which a group of survivors from the initial overrunning of society take refuge somewhere and continue to survive until the zombies either kill them all, or some of them get away. In this case the survivors are a helicopter pilot (David Emge), his girlfriend (Gaylen Ross) who is a TV researcher, and two members of a SWAT team (Scott H Reininger and Ken Foree). They escape a city as it falls, but make a haven for themselves in an out-of-town shopping mall. Reininger gets himself unnecessarily killed, the mall falls to a group of bikers who let the zombies back in, Emge dies and Ross and Foree get away. It is in this film that Foree gets to say, in response to the question "What are they?", "They're us." (It is also the moment when he gets to utter the film's poster tag line: 'When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth'). During this moment the zombies are trying to get back into the mall, drawn there by some remnant instinct, just at the point where the survivors are growing sick of their meaningless plenty. This is, perhaps for the first time, where Romero's Dead films do move consciously into the territory of social commentary. The condemnation of consumer society is quite unmistakeable and, with it, the criticism of Western society in general. It is greedy, meaningless and shallow. Having lots of 'stuff' does not bring happiness; being wealthy is pointless if one suffers from emotional and spiritual poverty. The 'message' of the film is that Western society will eventually consume itself to death (hard to argue with, given current financial circumstances). The film is greatly loved, as much for its (often sympathetic, sometimes merely slapstick) humour as for its gore. The zombies themselves are completely egalitarian; there are nurses and nuns, hare krishnas and hockey players, young and old. But humans still have 'Uses' and 'Thems' (the survivors vs. the bikers). The gore, courtesy of Tom Savini's excellent effects, goes both ways - the zombies get to bite messily into humans, people get to messily blow the zombies' heads off. Fun for all the family! And fun for many filmmakers that followed in this film's footsteps...
Starting practically immediately with Zombi 2 (1979) (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters) directed by Lucio Fulci. It is probably worth mentioning at this point at least two things about Italian cinema: firstly, that everybody copies everybody else in a bid to 'do box office' while popular subjects remain popular; and secondly that, for all intents and purposes, cannibals and zombies are more or less interchangeable. Anyway... on with the (flimsy) plot. A zombie gets off a boat in New York and kills a policeman. Tisa Farrow and Ian McCullough and another couple of meals, sorry, people go to the West Indian island of Matoul where they discover a professor (Richard Johnson) who is experimenting with voodoo. Loads of zombies are created, both native blacks and long-dead Spanish conquistadors, and a munching good time is had by all. Farrow and McCullough escape back to NY just in time to find it being overrun by zombies. The End. Lots of great gore, but little humour or plot. Hard on this film's heels came Le Notti del Terrore (1980) (aka Zombie 3, Zombie Horror) directed by Andrea Bianchi. A party on an estate is interrupted by zombies that have escaped from a nearby Etruscan tomb (!) and damn near everyone gets eaten. Then there's Zombie Holocaust (1980) (aka Dr Butcher MD, inter alia), dir. Marino Girolami, which is a sort of cross between Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) and Zombi 2, so you get both cannibals and zombies. (Wow! Two for the price of one...). A cannibal is discovered in a New York hospital and is traced back to the island of Kito. Alexandra delli Colli and Ian McCullough go there, discover a doctor (Donald O'Brien) who is performing extreme transplant experiments, a side-effect of which is producing zombies, which piss off the local cannibals. They come to worship delli Colli (who can blame them?) and help her save McCullough from O'Brien's clutches and wipe out the zombies. Starting to see patterns? Wait. There's more. 1980 also gave us: Nightmare City (aka Invasion by the Atomic Zombies, inter alia), dir. Umberto Lenzi - irradiated mutants do the munching here; The Lake of the Living Dead, dir. Jean Rollin - more underwater zombies; and City of the Living Dead, another Fulci film - the gates of Hell are opened by a priest's suicide and Christopher George and Katherine MacColl only have three days to close them before the apocalypse starts... munch, munch, splat! I will not even mention the three European co-production cannibal films... The point of all this being that where Night of the Living Dead did not immediately spawn imitations, Dawn opened the proverbial floodgates. From here-on out you could not walk two paces without falling over a zombie film. Over the next two decades the once-ignored zombie genre would come to rival vampires in sheer numbers of films made, and this is before we get into the seriously low-budget stuff!
1981: The best zombie film this year (by a long way) was Dead and Buried dir. Gary Sherman. Co-scripted by Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon shortly after Alien, this is the story of Potter's Bluff and its murderous inhabitants. James Farentino is the sheriff trying to find out what's going on and why, and what his wife (Melody Anderson) has to do with it, and Jack Albertson the coroner/undertaker who has all the answers. Albertson is, in effect, a mad scientist researching re-animation. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro provided a good novelization which, strangely, came out a year before the film, somewhat spoiling the twist ending for all those who read it when the over-hyped publicity went into action. Italians (and Italian/Spanish co-productions) continued with another Fulci film, the excellent The Beyond (or E Tu Vivrai nel Terrore! L'Aldila if you want to be pedantic about it) in which a hotel stands above the gates of Hell, the dead spew forth and people die. They are combated by the hotel's owner, Katherine MacColl, and a doctor, David Warbeck, only for them to find that they've been in Hell all along. Bruno Mattei contributed Zombie Creeping Flesh, set in Papua. A scientific experiment goes wrong, some journalists - including the nominal heroine Margit Evelyn Newton - are threatened, commandoes are sent in, led by the hero Franco Giraldi, and mayhem follows. This year even the Koreans joined in with Strange Dead Bodies (Koesi) dir. Kang Bum Koo, in which insecticide is once again the villain of the piece. The following year Romero's Creepshow (1982), scripted by Stephen King, featured zombies in two of its five stories; and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1982), while a demon-possession story, certainly seemed to have zombies in all but name. Also in 1982 the Spanish production of Ignasi P Ferre Serra's Morbus mixed zombie gore with soft-core sex; French director Jean Rollin, in one of his better films, gave us The Living Dead Girl in which the dead girl (Francois Blanchard) is revived by gases released in an earthquake, but needs blood to keep going, so her childhood friend (Marina Pierro) supplies her with victims, until it all goes wrong; the Jesus Franco Spanish/French co-production The Treasure of the Living Dead features more Nazi zombies; and the Indonesians joined the fray with Sisworo Gautama Putra's Pengabdi Setan (Satan's Slave), which is more of a witchcraft tale, and the witch's zombie slaves owe more to the 1940s than the 1980s. It should also be remembered that 1982 was the year dancing zombies appeared in the John Landis directed video for Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'. 1983 was relatively zombie free, but for fake zombies in Hong Kong's The Trail, dir. Ronny Yu, and references in Zeder - Voices from Beyond, an Italian film dir. Pupi Avati; and 1984 really only had the so-bad-it-is-good Hard Rock Zombies directed by Krishna Shah. However, it also had Trancers by Charles Band: In 2247 half the world is underwater (from global warming) but is ruled by a benevolent 'peace council'. They have outlawed the raising of zombie-like 'trancers' produced by the mystic rebel Whistler (Michael Stefani). He goes back in time to 1985 to kill the ancestors of the peace council. They respond be sending their agent Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) after him, with some nifty SF gadgets, including a watch that can slow down time. In the 80s Deth teams up with a girl (Helen Hunt) and together they crack the case. This excellent low-budget film spawned at least four sequels and, while obviously more a time travel film than a zombie film per se, at least shows some inventiveness in the actual use of zombies.
Somewhat less successful, but also having zombies spill over into SF territory, was Night of the Comet (1984) dir. Thom Eberhardt in which the light from a passing comet turns most people into piles of dust, some into homicidal cannibal zombies and others it does not affect at all. Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney and Robert Beltran decide to go shopping in LA, while they are pursued by some scientists, including Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis, who want to create a serum from their blood. Throw in a load of good gags, invert a few genre expectations and this is what you end up with. Now, lest you think I had just descended into giving you a list for the sake of it, the actual point is that, while the zombie film floodgates had opened, it was the Europeans and the Asians who were pouring through it. Anglophone cinema, in the wake of the Video Nasty 'debate', had somewhat drawn back from horror in general and zombies in particular (Italian zombie and cannibal films were much featured in the so-called debate). SF was having a great time, but horror spewed forth a lot of lacklustre 'teen' and comedy horror flicks, and there were few UK or US directors that would care to challenge the censors. This would not change for a while, however...
Having been around a while, zombies were ripe for parody. 1985 had three such, from the appalling Raiders of the Living Dead dir. Sam Sherman (don't bother), through the very well done Bloodsuckers from Outer Space dir. Glen Coburn (do bother), to Return of the Living Dead dir. Dan O'Bannon (please yourself). Having cut his zombie teeth on scripting Dead and Buried, this was O'Bannon's directorial debut, but he also scripted from a story by Night of the Living Dead's writer John Russo. The army has stored drums of a chemical that featured in an 'incident' in Pittsburgh in the late sixties; the chemical gets out and the dead rise, hungry for 'Brrraaaiiinnnsss!' While this is quite amusing, once, this film spawned a franchise that, at last count, was up to film number eight! They're all pretty awful and I have no intention of listing them here, but I will mention that Ellory Elkayem, director of Eight-Legged Freaks (2002), was responsible for two of them. While not quite a parody Re-Animator dir. Stuart Gordon was very amusing, but is also a good film in its own right. Based (very loosely) on HP Lovecraft's 'Herbert West - Re-Animator' (1922), this features Jeffrey Combs as West in his acting debut. He creates a reagent that can re-animate the dead, but his professor (David Gale) steals the chemical (despite having been beheaded!) and raises an army of the dead. Chaos follows, as do two sequels... But the zombie event of 1985 was Romero's third, and most underrated, Dead film Day of the Dead. In one sense, it is the survivor plot all over again, but with the emphasis peculiarly shifted to the zombies. A bunch of scientists and soldiers are in an underground storage facility searching for an answer to the zombie problem, presumably set up before society completely crashed. Richard Liberty is a Frankenstein-ian scientist trying to domesticate the zombies, and having some success with his star pupil, Bub (Howard Sherman); Lori Cardille, on the other hand, is very sceptical. But relations between the scientists and the military personnel (led by Joe Pilato) have already broken down and are on the verge of collapse. When Pilato discovers that his former commanding officer is being fed to Bub, the excrement and the fan have a fatal meeting. Once again the themes that run through the film include the 'equality' of the zombies (they do not eat each other), while the humans turn on each other all the time; and society, represented by the endless boxes of paperwork in the storage facility (including tax returns!), is shown to be shallow and pointless. The zombies, through Bub, are re-inforced as being 'us' as he is taught to appreciate Beethoven and use a telephone (and, ultimately, a gun). When Liberty is killed, Bub avenges his death by leading the zombie revolt to kill Pilato. Cardille escapes with a couple of helicopter pilots. Human endeavour is shown to be pointless if one loses love and compassion. And there Romero left the Dead films for 19 years, though it wouldn't be the last time he tackled zombies in the intervening period... Meanwhile, the following year, Night of the Living Deadwas 'colourised' for TV - a truly pointless exercise since (a) it looked totally crap, and (b) Romero had turned the 'limitations' of black and white to his advantage by shooting an excellently composed chiaroscuro film that rendered colour needless.
As the eighties continued to be horror-poor, so too did the zombie fare. 1986 had the poor The Supernaturals dir. Armand Mastroianni, but also had the really rather good Night of the Creeps dir. Fred Dekker. An alien jettisons an experiment from a spaceship and slug-like creatures land on 1950's Earth. While a girl's date goes to investigate, she falls prey to an axe-murderer. Flash-forward to the 1980s. Jason Lively and Steve Marshal steal a cryogenically frozen corpse from a hospital lab as an initiation prank for a fraternity; the alien slugs emerge and start jumping into people's mouths, zombifying them. Tom Atkins as the cop has to postpone his suicide to investigate, which ultimately means blowing zombies' heads off. This funny parody relies a little too much on in-jokes but, if you are 'in' on the jokes, then it's very funny indeed. 1987 featured Wes Craven's quite good voodoo film The Serpent and the Rainbow, based on a non-fiction book by Wade Davis, but also had three very poor zombie films, The Video Dead dir. Robert Scott (the least bad of the three), Zombie High dir. Ron Link and Zombie Nightmare dir. Jack Bravman. 1988 had the bizarre but interesting Dead Heat dir. Mark Goldblatt, which is a weird cop-buddy film that teams a living and a dead cop out to smash a plot that involves a rich guy's 'resurrection machine', and Evil Altar dir. Jim Winburn deserves a mention (but that's all it's going to get). 1989 saw things finally starting to look up with a few interesting films. Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town dir. Dan Hoskins is a good-hearted comedy that combines elements of Plague of the Zombies and Dead and Buried with The Magnificent Seven! (see it if you do not believe me); The Dead Pit dir. Brett Leonard is little more than a B-film, but reasonably well-done for all that; The Laughing Dead dir. SP Somtow (writer Somtow Sucharitkul), while not exactly a zombie film is still well worth a look; Night Life (aka Grave Misdemeanours) dir. David Acomba is a thinly-veiled class-war, as preppie zombies (revived by a combination of chemicals, from the truck that killed them, and lightning) stalk blue-collar schmoes Scott Grimes and his mechanic girlfriend Cheryl Pollak; and Mary Louise Lambert gave us Pet Sematary scripted by Stephen King, based on his 1983 novel. Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) and his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) move out of the city for the sake of their child. Neighbour Jud (Fred Gwynne) warns Louis about queer resurrections in the local pet cemetery, a former 'Indian' burial ground, which Midkiff quickly confirms when the pet cat dies. Even though it comes back as a zombified, glowing-eyed monster, he cannot help taking his dead child there after a road accident. When the zombie kid gets his hands on daddy's scalpel, the fun starts. In 1992 it continued with Pet Sematary II, also dir. Lambert, in which Edward Furlong revives his dog, a sheriff and his mom. The first of these is just about watchable, but the second should be avoided at all costs. Another two films worth mentioning from '89 are the Belgian splatter comedy Rabid Grannies dir. Emmanuel Kervyn, though this is more Evil Dead territory than zombie, and the Russian film Posetitel Muzeia (Visitor to a Museum) dir. Konstantin Lopushanski which, though overlong (what is it with the Russians and their overly long films?), is interesting enough for the zombie fan to check out. Thus endeth the eighties.
Now the thing about the nineties and onward is that, while there had always been a low-budget straight-to-video market, the increasing sophistication and availability of cameras (and, ultimately, editing software) to amateurs, dilettanti and tyros meant a several-fold increase in 'independent' filmmaking (whether the filmmakers could then get any form of distribution or not was another matter, but that was solved as the decade progressed as cheap 'labels' did deals with cheap outlets, eg. Gorezone with Poundland). Obviously this also meant that a hell of a lot of crap was made, for instance Ghoul School (1990) dir. Timothy O'Rawe, but by the same token some very interesting work was done as 'independents' were able to take chances that 'studios' never could, and new writers tried their best to put new spins on old subjects. Having said that, it is interesting that the decade was, to some extent, 'bookended' by Romero and Night of the Living Dead...
In 1990, twenty-two years after the original film, Night of the Living Dead was re-made, in colour, directed by gore effects maestro Tom Savini, produced by John Russo and Russ Streiner and scripted by Romero. Obviously it had better production values than the original, and better actors too, but few real twists and the ending was, putting it politely, a cock-up. But perhaps the biggest change, and a very good one, was that Judith O'Dea's catatonic heroine was replaced by a post-Sigourney Weaver hard-as-nails, well, bitch played by Patricia Tallman (she had appeared in Romero's Knight Riders). If anything, her transformation from a seemingly bookish type into what can only be described as a psychopath, or at any rate a callous murderer, certainly foreshadows the more sadistic heroes (and villains) that would come to dominate zombie films. When the world has gone to hell, and there's no law enforcement to speak of, payback and murder is easy to get away with. Sadly, for me at least, I feel that there are just some films in this world that simply do not need to be re-made, though I would be the first to sympathise with anyone in that position. You're 'damned if you do and damned if you don't', which is to say that if you change the original too much, then you are condemned for being 'unfaithful' to it; if you do attempt to do something interesting with the material, then you are being disrespectful. You just can't win (so leave well alone). That same year Romero and Dario Argento teamed-up on Two Evil Eyes, adapting two Edgar Allan Poe stories. Argento took on 'The Black Cat' while Romero tackled "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" in which Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau) and her lover Robert (Ramy Zada) keep her husband Valdemar (Bingo O'Malley) hypnotised near death while his will is sorted out. But Valdemar's corpse provides a home for 'others' to enter the world of the living... Twisting this story into a zombie-flick is probably an adaptation too far, though it could be argued that Vincent Price in Roger Corman's Tales of Terror (1961) was a very similar take on the story, but Barbeau keeps things lively with a suitably bitchy performance.
1991 was a bit of a dog's breakfast of a year for zombies, most of them being reduced to the role of 'cameo monster' in mostly dumb films. The exception was Umberto Lenzi's Black Demons (aka Demoni 3 to cash in on the popularity of Lamberto Bava's two films Demons and Demons 2), the over-simplistic plot of which had six negro zombies rising from the dead, after a hundred years, to fulfil a curse and exact revenge on an equal number of white victims. I suppose, if you wanted to stretch a point, you could include in this overview the three Maniac Cop films (1987, '90 and '92 respectively) but, to my mind, these are more in Halloween territory than zombie country.
In 1992 Peter Jackson did for horror what his 1987 film Bad Taste had done for SF, which is to say make it extremely gory and very very funny, with Braindead. It's 1957 in New Zealand and dutiful son Timothy Balme is falling in love with the girl from the grocery store, Diana Penalver. But his domineering mum, Elizabeth Moody, thinks her unsuitable due to her ethnicity. While spying on the lovers at the zoo one day, mum is bitten by a rare (animated) Sumatran rat-monkey, dies and becomes a zombie. Soon she has infected a nurse and a priest and her son is having a hard time keeping it from the neighbours, especially when the nurse and priest produce a little zombie baby. Mum seemingly dies and is buried in the cellar, but then the relatives turn up for the wake and the will. The zombies multiply, in the usual tradition, and rally around the obnoxious Uncle Les (Ian Watkin). Balme's had enough and sets about the lot of them with a lawnmower - cue the flying limbs and the buckets of blood. As if that were not enough mum, now hideously mutated and gigantic, rises from her grave and chases the lovers onto the roof for the finale. In the same ballpark (suburban horror comedy) Flesh-Eating Mothers (1993) dir. James Aviles Martin satirizes adultery. Roddy Douglas (Louis Homyak) is the carrier of a strange sexually transmitted disease, dormant in men, but which turns women who have had children into cannibal zombies! Officer McCormick (Mickey Ross) is forced to kill his ex-wife when he finds her eating their son. He tells his experience to the coroner Dr Grouty (Michael Pelier giving the film's most laughable performance) who eventually teams up with the nurse from the local VD clinic, Felicia Codd (Carolyn Gratsch) to find a cure. Meanwhile all of Roddy's lovers succumb to the urge for meat, embarrassing their teen offspring. The film turns its low-budget amateurishness to its advantage and puts its soundtrack and sound effects to good use. At the other end of the spectrum, quality-wise, Zombie Cult Massacre (1997) dir. Jeff Dunn was an exercise in gore-for-gore's-sake. Marvin (Michael Botouchis) and Sally (Lani Ford) are attacked by zombies, but are saved by Billie (Bridget Otto) and George (Randy Rupp) from the local end of the world cult. Transported to the cult's compound they are introduced to the cult leader, Jeffrey (Bob Elkins), who sets about seducing Sally while giving Marvin to his tame mad scientist, Lenny (Duffy Hudson). It turns out that Jeffrey is the one responsible for producing the zombies (from his own cult members) but, meanwhile, Marvin has done a deal with the Devil (Steve Losey) to take over the cult. Lenny pisses off bike-gang leader Roach (Lonzo Jones), who was only trying to score some drugs, and so the motorcycle hoodlums assault the compound, letting in the zombies. Then it's a gory free for all with zombies vs. bikers vs. cultists. While the film tried hard, with fairly good make-up, good gore and the use of some virtual sets, the whole thing is rather incoherent, though this did not stop it from winning at 'Screamfest' in 1999. The other end of the Night of the Living Deadbookend came with the release in 1998 of the 30th anniversary edition of the original film. Some additional scenes had been filmed for it, by way of a framing device for the film, with a born-again preacher type spouting apocalyptic nonsense, but the new footage jarred terribly with the old and added nothing over all. A nice idea, perhaps, but one you'd wish they'd never bothered with. If the nineties were short on zombies (and long on vampires), the new millennium was going to be the opposite, with an explosion of zombie films not seen since the early eighties.
Fans of Asian cinema were treated to Versus (2000) dir. Ryuhei Kitamura. There are 666 portals to the 'other side', the 444th of which is in the Forest of Resurrection in Japan (where '4' is an unlucky number, as is '13' in the West). If you can open a portal you will be granted a 'power'. In a pre-credits sequence we see a warrior kill a bunch of zombies, 500 years in the past, before being killed himself by a black magician. In the present prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) has been broken out of jail and taken to the Forest. We recognise him as the warrior. Some Yakuza arrive with a woman (Chieko Misaka), led by a knife-wielding psychopath (Kenji Matsuda). When one of the gangsters is killed, he immediately comes back to life as a zombie, whereupon he is killed again in a hail of bullets. The warrior escapes with the woman, after which the gangsters' real boss (Hideo Sakaki) turns up, and we recognise him as the black magician. The Yakuza realise that the Forest is filled with the corpses of many of their victims, and soon they are battling with a horde of gun-toting kung-fu zombies. They are killed, but are themselves resurrected by the magician as 'hyper-zombies'! The magician also kills KSC2-303, but he is resurrected by the blood of the woman and the two men fight with kung-fu and swords. The warrior wins but, in an epilogue set 99 years later, the magician is reincarnated into a devastated world... This is a high-octane, hugely entertaining thrill-ride. In 2001 John Russo produced Tor A Ramsey's Children of the Living Dead in which an unfortunate town lives through a zombie invasion in 1968 ("There were rumours about some space probe from Venus"), only to have the pesky critters turn up again in 1986. During that turkey shoot Deputy Hughes (Tom Savini) falls at the hands of resurrected killer Abbott Hayes (A Barrett Worland), while his former partner Deputy Randolph (Martin Schiff) rescues a bunch of kids, one of whom grows up to be the heroine, Laurie Daneri (Jamie McCoy). 14 years later five teenagers desecrate the grave of Hayes' mother and he promptly kills them, resurrecting their corpses with a bite. Another year goes by and the old Hayes place is sold to a car dealership, along with the conveniently located graveyard. Matt Michaels (Damien Luvara), the son of the dealership's owner, is sent to oversee the new development, but he does not know that his dad has instructed the site foreman, Gregg Peters (Tom Stoviak), to move only the headstones and relocate the coffins to a communal trench. Soon zombie fun is being had by all. Laurie, Matt and now-Sheriff Randolph are trapped in the local diner, but Gregg arrives with his gun-toting site crew and the zombies are put down. Except for Abbott Hayes... This hokum is quite well done, but has plot holes you could drive a truck through.
In all but name 28 Days Later (2002) dir. Danny Boyle is a zombie (or hyper-zombie) film, though some might argue that the Rage-infected humans, never having 'died', are not zombies. Down at the indie end of things Zombie Chronicles (2002) dir. Brad Sykes features the make-up work of Joe Castro, known to direct the odd cheapie or two himself. A woman reporter, Tara (Emmy Smith), is chasing down ghost stories in Scopesboro when she knocks over a guy, Ebenezer (Joseph Haggerty), who obliges her with a couple of zombie tales (both knowingly EC comics inspired). In the first a woman and her new lover get rid of her old man by scaring him to death near the grave of a soldier he has killed. But then the old soldier himself gets up and does for the new couple. In the second, three campers disturb the rest of outlaws Wild Jim and Crazy Helen and are soon munched on. His tales told Ebenezer disappears and the reporter gets attacked. Would you believe that this was shot for 3D presentation? From Australia Undead (2002) dir. The Spierig Brothers (Peter & Michael) revisited the Plan 9 from Outer Space plot... sort of. The town of Berkeley is bombarded by meteorites which zombify the inhabitants. Local beauty queen Rene Chaplin (Felicity Mason) teams up with loner Marion (Mungo McKay), also picking up Wayne (Rob Jenkins), his pregnant girlfriend Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham), Sgt. Harrison (Dirk Hunter) and Constable Molly Ford (Emma Randall). As if the zombies were not enough to cope with, it also starts to pour acid rain and aliens construct an impassable barrier around the town. It turns out the aliens are here to combat the zombie plague but, after Wayne has flown over the barrier, missing out on the alien cure, he returns to start the plague again. It is effectively the survivor plot, but with loads of great gags and gore.
More firmly in Edward D Wood country Wild Zero (2003) dir. Takeuchi Tetsuro, from Japan, throws rock 'n' roll into the mix. Ace (Endo Masashi) accidentally saves his favourite band, Guitar Wolf (Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf, Drum Wolf), from the unscrupulous Captain (Ianmiya Makoto) earning their friendship. Which is just as well when aliens arrive and start zombifying people prior to invasion. Ace, meanwhile, has fallen for ladyboy Tobio (Shitichai Kwancharu), and also crossed paths with arms dealer Yamazaki (Nakajo Haruka). As the world goes to hell Ace summons Guitar Wolf with his special whistle and the splat-fest commences. This is a great little film, and both the Aussies and the Japanese anticipated the parodies yet to come. There was also a wonderful little independent film in 2003, Exhumed, written and directed by Brian Clement. This inventive little gem features three linked tales, each filmed in a different style. It opens with 'The Forest of Death', with Japanese sound and English subtitles, in which the samurai Zentaro (Hiroaki Itaya) teams up with the monk Ryuzo (Masahiro Oyake) in search of an artifact said to bring the dead back to life. It does, and the zombie fun begins until Zentaro seemingly destroys the artifact. But it turns up in 1940's America in 'Shadow of Tomorrow', shot in black and white. PI Jane de Carlo (Claire Westby, one of the film's executive producers) is hired to follow Vivian (Moira Thomas) by a jealous ex-husband. But the private investigator uncovers the plot of the sinister Dr Farell (Rob Nesbitt) to resurrect recently dead ambassadors and gain control of the world. He is using a device discovered on the ice-bound plains of Leng, led there by writings in the Necronomicon; a device of alien origin. We fast forward to the apocalyptic future of the 'Last Rumble' in which mod vampires fight rocker werewolves! But the human General Deus (Chuck Dupape) has plans for the last survivors of each gang. As his country is about to fall, he is using a device which can reverse the local flow of entropy, and his plan is to send the consciousnesses of his army back in time to change the past. Experimenting first on the vampire Cherry (Chelsey Arentsen) and the werewolf Zura (Chantelle Adamache), their minds and Deus's end up back in the 1940s for the climax, and the device itself is sent back through time to feudal Japan, completing a timeloop. This brilliant film, despite low production values, is more inventive than a barrel-load of Hollywood product and should be sought out by the fans.
Romero's influence was diversely felt in 2004, most obviously in Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead featuring Ving Rhames. It was another totally unnecessary remake and used fast-moving 'hyper-zombies', but it was complete rubbish, hated by the fans, and more or less sank without a trace (which is a shame, as Snyder is a better director than this film would suggest). More honest and respectful was the British parody Shaun of the Dead, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg, and written by them both. It is just the survivor plot, but done with knowing and lovingly depicted gags. Just as Shaun (Pegg) decides to sort his life out, would not you know it, the dead start to walk and feast. He jumps into a car with his best friend Ed (Nick Frost), picks up his mum (Penelope Wilton) and step-father (Bill Nighy), then zooms off to 'rescue' his ex-girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) and her friends Dianne (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran). The film features cameos from the pick of British comedy series, including Pegg's Spaced co-star Jessica Stevenson, as Yvonne. One of the best moments in the film is when Shaun's band of survivors crosses paths with Yvonne's, and each of the main characters is mirrored in the other group. Unlike Americans, who head straight for the mall, our plucky Brits go to a much more secure location. The pub. However, the best zombie film of 2004 was far and away the lovely independent low-budget film The Stink of Flesh, written and directed by Scott Phillips for just US$3000! Phillips' best known previous screen credit was as the writer of the excellent martial arts thriller Drive (1996) dir. Steve Wang, featuring Mark Dacascos. Nathan (Ross Kelly) and his wife Dexy (Diva) have an open marriage, but how do you persue an alternative lifestyle when the world has suffered a zombie apocalypse? Why, by 'kidnapping' other survivors of course, such as Matool (Kurly Tlapoyawa). Once again it's the survivor plot, complicated by the arrival of SWAT team survivors Mandel (Billy Barberina) and Vega (Devin O'Leary) into the happy home of Nathan and Dexy, which they share with Dexy's sister Sassy (Kristin Hansen) and her conjoined twin Dorothy. With too many roosters in the henhouse, Nathan satisfies his urges with a zombie chick chained up in the shed! But this gathering is disrupted further by a silent survivor kid who wants Dexy all to himself... Considering the average Hollywood blockbuster budget is in the region of US$45million, to think that a film this good can be made for just three thousand bucks is incredible. This is another one the fans should really seek out (it is a Gorezone film, so check out your local Poundland if you have one; it will be the best quid you ever spend).
2005 had three very poor films and one very good one. The worst of the bunch was Day of the Dead 2: Contagium dir. Ana Clavell and James Glenn Dudelson. It had hyper-zombies and talking zombies and, if anything, was hated more by the fans than even Dawn of the Dead (2004) (check out the comments on IMDb), and was seen as something of a prequel to that remake, since it was neither a remake itself, and certainly not a sequel to Romero's Day of the Dead. The second-worst was The Wickeds dir. John Poague, featuring much-loved porn and low-budget horror star Ron Jeremy. He plays a graverobber who steals an amulet from the corpse of a black magician. The dead rise and assault the house in which he's taken refuge, along with the kids who were partying there. It is pretty awful. Curse of the Maya tried hard, but was re-titled Dawn of the Living Dead just to get noticed! This falls into the category of 'vanity filmmaking' as it was written, produced, directed and starred in by David Heavener. Dr Geoffrey Morgan (Joe Estevez, the best ringer for Martin Sheen you will ever see for, I hope, obvious reasons) and his patient and girlfriend Renee Summers (Amanda Bauman) buy a house near the Mexican border to get away from it all. But the house used to be home to a family of illegal immigrants who were slaughtered there. Michael Richards (Heavener), who maintains the local wind farm, seems more sympathetic to Renee's visions of the atrocity than Doc Morgan, and soon they're having an affair. But the dead family were practitioners of ancient Mayan rites and were never buried properly. So they rise and, not finding the feast that should have been prepared for them, start munching on anyone they can find. Eventually Renee lays them to rest, but also discovers it was Richards that killed them (all too obviously, since there were few others around who could have). Eventually things work out alright. The film tries hard but is let down by a poor script, poor editing and, with the exception of Estevez, rubbish acting. All of which is by the by, since the only zombie film anyone had any interest in during 2005 was Romero's next instalment in the Dead franchise, Land of the Dead. It had been two decades since his last outing and expectations were high. He did not disappoint, proving that bigger budgets and decent production values still had a place in the zombie sub-genre, at least when in the hands of a writer and director as experienced as himself. Riley (Simon Baker) and his sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), along with others such as Cholo (John Leguizamo) raid towns in a country all but given over to the dead. They do this for supplies for the people in and around Fiddler's Green, a human enclave set up by businessman Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). But the zombies are getting smarter (as hinted at by Bub in Day of the Dead) and one of them, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), is upset by the incursions of the raiders and so begins a march on the enclave. Meanwhile Kaufman dispenses with the services of Cholo, so Cholo steals the heavily armed vehicle 'Dead Reckoning', designed and built by Riley, in order to blackmail Kaufman. Needless to say he does not want to pay up and so sends Riley after the machine, and he takes Charlie and the hooker Slick (Asia Argento, daughter of Romero's old pal Dario) with him. Soon the zombies invade the human enclave and it all falls apart. Without, I hope, reading too much into it - not least because zombie fans will be all too happy with the state of the art splat and gore available these days with puppet zombies and CGI - the film is clearly about class and inequality. Kaufman is set up like a feudal lord, Riley, Cholo and the others are his subjects, and the poor old zombies out in the wilderness are the peasants. Kaufman upsets his subjects, his subjects upset the peasants, and it's unsurprising that before too long revolution is in the air. Equality is only restored to Fiddler's Green after the peasants' revolt. If part of the message of the previous films had been that they (the zombies) are us (the humans), then this film contains the neat inversion that 'we' are 'them'. After all, we're all equal in the grave!
There was a slight pause for breath in 2006 before we plunged into three more releases in 2007. Flight of the Living Dead, subtitled 'Outbreak on a Plane' for the hard of thinking, was directed by Scott Thomas. It was a 'have your cake and eat it' film that combined two sub-genres: how do you make an airplane disaster film even more exciting? Why, by chucking in some snakes or, in this case, zombies! Dr Leo Bennet (Erick Avari) of Medcom has been experimenting with a Vietnamese mosquito virus (!), which kills organs and then re-animates them. The reason is to extend the battlefield life of wounded soldiers. All of which is really beside the point as the film is an excuse to pull off some silly gags (one or two are good) amid the gore effects. Once the zombies get going, there is really no place to hide; not that the audience cares much about the one-dimensional characters, most of whom you are glad to see die. The exceptions are the survivors, Frank (Kevin O'Connor, the best actor in this film, along with Avari), a prisoner and his escort, Truman (David Chisum), an air marshal, Paul (Richard Tyson), and one of the hostesses, Megan (Kristen Kerr). It is all very silly, but mercifully brief.
Better received was the low-budget film The Zombie Diaries (2007), written, produced and directed by Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett. The use of the camcorder has been a godsend to low-budget filmmakers since 1999's The Blair Witch Project but, of course, it depends greatly upon whose hands the technology is in. The problems are several-fold. First, 'shaky-cam' (as it has become known) can be very irritating; second, it requires a sidebar bit of plot to justify their use; and third, directors often need (or want) to include shots that could not possibly have been taken by the characters, and such inserts 'break the spell' so to speak. I personally have another problem with them. Lovers of horror films will know that many characters will die because of transgressive behaviour (they smoke dope, or dare to get laid, for instance), but there are also those characters who deserve to die: people who refuse to accept the reality of their situation, people who whine too much, or get hysterical, people who wander off on their own, people who walk into danger unarmed, etc. To that list we can now add people who are too stupid to stop messing around with their camcorders when surrounded by monsters and zombies! Be that as it may, this film is split between three 'diaries': 'The Outbreak' in which a news film crew are stranded outside of London, tracking down stories on an avian flu pandemic which, of course, turns out to be a zombie epidemic; 'The Scavengers', set one month later; and 'The Survivors' from around the same period. The ensemble acting throughout is of extremely variable quality, tending toward the dire end of the scale, and the plot twist, while welcome, is telegraphed all too obviously. One of the survivors is a sadistic killer, and we eventually discover that he took care of the original film crew out in the woods. Also, because of the plot construction and editing, we (the audience) cannot know much of what has gone on and cannot get near an ending. For instance, what happened to the killer's original accomplice? Who, if anyone, ever recovered the scavengers' camcorder? What happened to the killer? And so on. So, over all this was a creditable try at a film, but ends up unsatisfying.
The best film of 2007 was Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a masterclass of ensemble acting, great scripting, excellent plotting, fantastic gags, and so many in-jokes and cultural references that only complete geeks (like me!) could possibly get them all. Originally released as one half of the Grindhouse double-bill (with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof), the film also includes a trailer for a fictional film, Machete, which you just wish Rodriguez would actually make! The older cinema fan may well be acquainted with exploitation film chains that showed prints of films that were in poor condition, but nowadays these 'effects' have to be added digitally but not, in this case, randomly. The 'defects' are used to cue certain types of action that play on the audience almost subliminally. Rodriguez even includes (or perhaps that should be excludes) a missing reel segment. Considering how an amateur can mess up a film just with poor editing alone, the fact that he can 'leave out' an entire reel, but still keep the film perfectly intact, is a tribute to Rodriguez's genius as a filmmaker. It's 'just' the survivor plot again - an experimental biowar agent gets out and starts zombifying people. This apocalypse must be survived by the go-go dancer Cherry (Rose McGowan), Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), Dakota (Marley Shelton) who is trying to also survive the murderous attention of her husband, Block (Josh Brolin), Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn) and his brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), who makes the best damn barbecue in Texas, and a bunch of others. The film also features Bruce Willis, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Tom Savini, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Parks, among others. The gags are brilliant, the gore is pure Grand Guignol, the script is sharp, and the whole damn thing is so cool it makes you want to cry with joy. How I wish that amateur filmmakers would pay more attention to the 'ten minute film school' mini-documentaries of Rodriguez...
In 2008 the Romero influence was still firmly at work. However, in the instance of the Steve Miner not-really-a-remake of Day of the Dead, you would wish it was not. This was yet another pointless remake that was as unwelcome as it was unnecessary. The fans, quite rightly, hated it. Hopefully history will forget this abomination. On the bright side, Romero himself was back, returning to 'ground zero' so to speak with Diary of the Dead. It is a bit on the shaky-cam side, but in this case used knowingly (and very well), poking fun at itself for its own limitations. Certain horror film clichés are also set up, and then cleverly exploited, for instance when, near the beginning of the film, a heroine complains that the scene where the girl stumbles over her own shoes, letting the slow-moving monster catch up, is stupid and further refuses to do the scene where the girl's tits get shown, beautifully sets up the scene later in the film where just those two things happen! Bear in mind that this film is being made 40 years after Romero's first ground-breaking film in the sequence. If Land of the Dead was showing the big-budget, studio-driven guys how it should be done, then this film served up a similar helping of know-how to the very (low-budget) people that Romero himself inspired. You could be forgiven for thinking that there was something wryly ironic about that. One of the main themes of the film, very appropriate for our viewing-drenched society, is that on the one hand there is a tendency to believe, as one of the characters states "if it didn't happen on camera, it's like it didn't happen at all", while on the other hand, at the same time, the cameraman and voyeuristic viewer find themselves almost immune from what is being shown, or at any rate divorced from, well, war, atrocity, starvation, disaster, you name it. There is a lot of difference between watching a tsunami and being in a tsunami. Be that as it may, the film is the good old survivor plot: a bunch of University of Pittsburgh film students are making a horror film when the dead start returning to life. The main bunch of survivors include Jason (John Close), who is making the film-within-a-film called 'The Death of Death', his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) who is the one that edits the film together, Eliot (Joe Dinicol) who is the techy who helps recover footage from other sources, Tony (Shawn Roberts) who is the sceptic, Tracy (Amy Lalonde) the actress, and Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth, the best performance in the film) their teacher. Some die, some live, nearly all kill, nearly all shoot footage. The parallel between the gun and the camera is well made, they're 'too easy to use'. But perhaps the most surprising thing about 2008, and Romero's influence, is that while zombies had appeared on the small screen before, usually in 'anthology' TV horror series, in this year Britain's Channel Four produced the three-part mini-series Dead Set. It is the survivor plot, but the characters are contestants in the Big Brother TV show. Neatly isolated from events in the Big Brother House, the plot unfolds with all its depressing inevitability. Fun to see Davina (the real-life presenter of the real Channel Four Big Brother Show) getting her throat ripped out, of course, but sadly little real originality (just changing locations does not make something 'new').
After all that what, if anything, can we conclude? Well, first I think it's probably time that zombies had a bit of a rest. Do not get me wrong, I love a zombie film as much as the next fan, but you can achieve a kind of overload! Second, and this applies as much to studio-driven projects as to the indies; if you really must do a zombie film, then first and foremost make damn sure you have a real story, good plots and subplots, a really good script and, for heaven's sake, make sure that your actors can actually act! It is all very well to have great gore and splat, and I would never deny filmmakers and viewers that fun, but if it's not done in the service of a good story it's pointless. To people using camcorders or similar, get a tripod! Let us wipe out this shaky-cam stuff: it does not add to verisimilitude, it is just irritating.
Zombies will, no doubt, be around for years to come, and it is clearly Romero's influence and inspiration that has raised them to the same level of popularity as the vampire. But those who have been influenced and inspired by him must realise that his films, while funny and gory, were never a case of 'gore for gore's sake'. He always had something to say, and he always made damn sure that he had a great script to help him say it. I personally hope that those (perhaps younger, perhaps simply newer) fans who encounter Romero through the zombie films will also seek out his many, many other excellent films, e.g.. The Crazies, Martin, Two Evil Eyes, The Dark Half and Monkey Shines to name but a few, but few can doubt that it is mainly his zombie films for which, in time, he will be remembered. Long live the zombie; long live Romero!
The above article follows on from Zombies Before Romero.
Tony has also written an article on the Top 10 (and worst 10) SF Films. Meanwhile Adrian James has written a a couple of film articles: Science Fiction in Film Serials and The Masked Villains of Cinematic Serials.