Tuesday, 24 April 2012


Steve Balshaw looks at the ever growing popularity of Zombie fiction.

As Grimm Up North prepares for its Zombie Triple Bill this Friday (27th April 2012), and I finish reading Wayne Simmons’ breakneck, bloody and rather brilliant take on the zombie apocalypse, FEVER, I find myself reflecting on the current popularity of the undead. Not just a new influx of films every year, but TV shows, novels, comics, computer games, citywide “Zombie Walks”, even a charity - our old friend Carl Whiteley’s Zombie Aid.

Let’s face it, Grimmlins, Zombies have gone mainstream. The undead are everywhere; shambling across our screens, leering at us from the pages of comics, being pulverised on our Playstations, and wandering our shopping malls every Halloween. So familiar as to seem almost, well… cosy.

When did this happen? When did Zombies go from being the much-reviled subject of banned video nasties to the increasingly ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon they are today? When did brain-eating and entrail chewing cease to shock us? And why did it happen?

Roll back to the early days of popular horror, and Zombies were conspicuous largely by their absence. There were a few classic early films - the Halperins’ seminal WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), of course, and Val Lewton and Jaques Tourneur’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) - but for the most part, the screens of the 30s and 40s were dominated by other horrors: Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Werewolf, the Mummy, Jekyll and Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even Hammer, during its golden era only managed one, solitary Zombie film, the eerie and undervalued THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966).
Bearing in mind how effective all of these classic Zombie films are, how much each is now regarded as a genre classic, it seems strange that the walking dead should initially have been such a rare subject for horror cinema. But perhaps our perspective is unduly coloured by the benefit of hindsight. Back then, Zombies were an unknown quantity.  The other monsters were all tried and tested. They had literary origins, they had precedent and provenance. The mythologies surrounding them were already familiar from books and theatre and myths and fairytales. But if TIME magazine is to be believed, the word “zombie” first found its way into the English language in 1929, in William Seabrook’s book THE MAGIC ISLAND, which means the Halperins were really on the cutting edge of horror when they made WHITE ZOMBIE only three years later. The early Zombies, however, both in the Halperins’ film, and in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, were very much tied to the superstitions of Haiti, as were those afflicting Cornwall in Hammer’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, where the local squire responsible for the zombies just happens to have spent time Haiti, learning the necessary rituals.

The modern Zombie is an entirely different breed of creature. While traditional zombies do still shamble onto our screens from time to time, in Fulci’s Caribbean-based ZOMBIE FLESHEATERS, for example, or Wes Craven’s extraordinary THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, for the most part the depiction of the walking dead in contemporary popular culture has its origin in, you guessed it, George A. Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).

Here is where we first find the first version of the Zombie Apocalypse scenario. Here is where we first see the zombie being used as a metaphor for social change and social unrest. Voodoo is no longer to blame, but Bad Science / the Military Industrial Complex / the Government / the Man. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is  very much a product of its era. This was an age of apocalyptic visions. The late 60s and early 70s were rife with such stuff, from films such as SOYLENT GREEN and THE OMEGA MAN (based, of course on Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, which had been an inspiration for Romero), in which paranoid gun nut Charlton Heston lived out his worst fears of black people and hippies taking over everything, to the nihilistic New English Library novels I devoured as a kid, where Hell’s Angels, mutant rats, giant crabs, or whatever, preyed on the population of an increasingly damaged and dystopian Britain.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was at the forefront of this trend, and it is Romero we have to thank for both the modern version of the zombie, and also for the ambivalence with which it is viewed. In Romero’s films, Zombies are both a marauding, flesh-eating horde - the threat, the monster - but also victims. They represent a debased, damaged, helpless humanity. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the military kill everyone at the end, zombies and the uninfected alike; in DAWN OF THE DEAD, the zombies wander around the shopping mall, pitifully staring at the consumer goods they once valued. As Romero’s zombie cycle progresses, the battle lines are drawn. Zombies on one side, the military industrial complex on the other, and the rest of humanity caught in the crossfire, likely to fall victim to either side.

And this is where things get confusing, or interesting, or both. Because suddenly the metaphor gets a bit… blurred. The zombies are a threat to society, but they are also victims, creatures created by that society. Depending on the politics of the individual filmmaker, they might represent the media-numbed, consumer-goods-oversaturated suburban populace,  Nazis, hippies, civil rights activists, the so-called underclass,  the Anarcho-Crusties, The Occupy Movement. Or none of the above. In short, they are a threat to social stability, but they are one that comes from within, and as such can be endlessly reinterpreted for each new age, each set of social values.  Their metaphoric meaning is not fixed, it can shift, even within the same narrative. I am reminded again of the fact that Romero was inspired originally by Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, written at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts in the USA, which ends with the bone-chilling realisation that while the novel’s protagonist has been massacring the infected “vampires”, they have actually been (re)building a society, in which he, not they, is the real monster.

But while a horde of zombies might be a threat, an individual zombie is rather pitiful, and might even be sympathetic. Bub in DAY OF THE DEAD, for example, or Cheese, in the more recent DEADHEADS, one of last year’s festival hits, whose final destruction brought a big groan of dismay from our Grimmlins, of the kind a mainstream audience would reserve for the death of a cute puppy. DEADHEADS is also a manifestation of a recent trend for zombie slacker films (another such would be THE REVENANT, screened at the very first Grimm Up North), in which the undead might be a bit decayed around the edges and have somewhat unpleasant eating habits, but are otherwise affable, easygoing dudes, whom it is all too easy to empathise with.

The zombies, then, in short, are us. All of us. Which might explain the rise of phenomena such as the Zombie Walk, which seem to have acquired a popularity far beyond their original horror fanbase. They have become days out for the whole family; a chance for the general populace to embrace and to celebrate their “inner zombie”.

But perhaps I am reading too much into all of this. A filmmaker friend of mine once admitted that what he liked about zombies was the simple fact that you could destroy them in ever-bloodier, more outrageous ways on film, and the audience wouldn’t mind because zombies are already dead, so it doesn’t matter what you do to them. Basically, zombies are cinematic, simple as that. They offer the opportunity for full-on, guilt-free mayhem.

And of course they allow the sfx guys to have a field day.

Go here for more info on our zombie night:  http://grimmfest.com/grimmupnorth/2012/03/zombie-night-fri-27th-april/

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