Tuesday, July 05, 2011

June Zombiepaloozapocolypse

Inspired by watching AMC's excellent Walking Dead series and my love for George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), I dedicated June to watching major (and often influential) works of zombie film:
Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (the third of his zombie trilogy- 1985),
and Land of the Dead (his fourth movie - 2005)
Return of the Living Dead (1985- of which I had seen portions of years ago)
28 Days Later (2002)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Zombieland (2009)

Shaun and Zombielands are more affectionate, comedic takes on zombie films than anything, although it's worth noting that Shaun does this extremely well and is a very funny movie, taking full advantage of zombie film conventions and turning them on their head in a clever way.  Zombieland starts out promising, particularly with it's "rules" for surviving zombie attacks, but after a stop at certain comedic icon's Hollywood mansion, fades into a rather by the numbers and not so funny zombie movie.  It never fully capitalizes on the fun premise of a zombie rulebook and throws its own film logic on its head at the end, unfortunately. Also, the promise of a zombie-infested Disneyland type amusement park is woefully under-delivered.

Romero's zombie trilogy (Night, Dawn, and Day) more or less builds on itself and are best known for their social commentary.  Although Dawn seems to garner the most praise, I find the film's commentary far too obvious and blunt, although at its time perhaps it was less so.  It's also the least frightening of the three and tends towards a more comedic approach.  The characters are very likeable and it's not clear who will and will not die. This is a facet of zombie films (and not just Romero's) that I enjoy over other horror films; rarely is it obvious from some character flaw or personality who will bite the dust.  Teens having sex or nubile young co-eds will most likely get the axe from Freddy, Jason, or Michael, but, in a zombie film, anyone might survive or die.  Also, non-white characters tend to be as heroic and as likely to survive as white ones; zombie films tend to be very equal opportunity.  Still, in Dawn, people do stupid things (sometimes incredibly and mind-bogglingly stupid) often for really no good reason and this detracts from the otherwise enjoyable movie.  

Although Night is my favorite for hands-down creepy and scary, Day is his most nuanced and interesting film.  Day tends to get a bad rap among reviewers, but Day asks important questions about who is good and who is evil (and what constitutes evil).  Day, interestingly, creates seeming villians from obnoxious, racist, sexist, stupid military types who seem to threaten the noble scientists trying to find relief from the zombie plague.  The head scientist seems kind and intelligent, if a bit absent minded and idealistic.  Still, despite their problematic character traits, the soldiers are proven correct in putting a stop to what turns out to be bizarre experiments and the mutilation of dead soldiers' corpses (not to mention using them to feed zombies).  The head scientist fails to see his wrong-doing; he's simply being utilitarian.  The film critiques both the military as well as the scientific establishments.  Day also differs by making the zombies sympathetic; it's easy to feel sorry for them.  They never come off as evil threats.

Return of the Living Dead offers little social commentary (other than a slight critique of the military), but provides the infamous "brains" line associated so popularly with zombies as well as the first fast moving and the first thinking/speaking zombies (apparently whether zombies are better as slow, Romero types or fast, running zombies are a bit of a debate in the zombie fan community. I take no stand.).  RotLD also is a great, sometimes scary, often darkly humorous 80's flick that is interesting to compare with Day given that they came out in the same year.  Return zombies punish both the middle-class establishment, the police, and young adult subculturists.  Return does suggest a critique of shallowness (the punk leader ironically (yet obliviously) proclaims his leather and chain clothing is a statement, not just a costume; he doesn't make it out) but this criticism is neither as strong nor as nuanced as those of Day.

Land has an interesting premise ripe for social critique.  The ultra rich have barricaded themselves into a city skyscraper while the rest of society lives in grubby conditions around and outside the building, supporting the wealthy elite.  Of course, it all comes crashing down when zombies led by a Black gas station attendant invade.  Unfortunately, this is the extent to which any critique is carried out - this obvious analogy.  Roger Ebert suggested that it would be fascinating to get to know the residents in the tower and their thinking and perspective, but we never do.  Instead, we are left with a rather boring and predictable story even though this has Romero's best special effects (a terrible and laughable scene of glass "shattering" notwithstanding).
Dawn suggested that zombies (a word Romero never uses) appeared because Hell no longer has any room; Return attributes zombies to bio-chemical warfare agents; 28 Days Later will attribute scientifically created and blood-born viruses. Zombies are never consistently one thing; zombies stand in for any number of social ills or are themselves just blind agents of destruction, suggesting that humankind needs no reason or motive to destroy itself.  It just will.  Dawn explicitly draws the analogy (and then proceeds to beat the audience over the head with it, although often humorously) that we are already waking zombies in the face of consumerism and capitalism.  All of the Romero movies make clear that other human beings are the real monsters. 

28 Days zombies are easily seen as any virus (smallpox, avian flu, or hoof/mouth disease) but given its specifically blood borne transmission (and the genesis of the movie disease), HIV springs to mind. Appropriately, anyone stands to be infected (although unfortunately 28 Days zombies are raving mad sprinters who seem truly evil and insatiable). Still, ultimately, 28 Days, like Romero's films, emphasize man's inhumanity to man; people are more monsterous than the monsters.

28 Days critiques science, the military, and, briefly, religion.  I don't remember much said about it at the time, but its worth noting that our protagonist is first accosted by a priest after entering a church filled with zombies.  None too sublte that, I think.  Although it picks up on various previous zombie movies (Day and Return, specifically) for inspiration, it's an excellent film more about sacrifice and compassion.  It is at times spectacularly dark and uplifting.  Hope and hopelessness are nicely managed in the film.

Which brings us up to Walking Dead, which seems to borrow heavily from 28 Days and Romero.  Non-whites and women tend to fare less well in the series than in zombie movies, which is my major complaint.  That said, there are strong Black and Asian characters, and, depending on how closely  it stays to the comic, more may be on the way.  Like its better cinematic inspirations, Walking Dead is more about the people surviving in the world and their relationships.  Zombies are few and far between, making appearances special and truly frightening.  Walking Dead seems to promise a look at a world of complete anarchy; the government is much more collapsed and civilization is far more ruined than in most zombie narratives.  The comic asks strong questions about the morality of the law, but the series has not quite yet reached those stories and may not, as it's taken some very different paths.   Currently zombies are the biggest threat; will the living replace them?

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