Breathing New Life into the Living Dead
My buddy Nick and I were walking through the Mohegan Sun casino in July on our way to a Bellator MMA event. As we entered the resort, we noticed that there were relatively few people there for a Friday. "This place is dead," said Nick, who never misses The Walking Dead.
Suddenly a dim, flickering bulb went off over my head.
"Imagine if there was a zombie apocalypse and a cross section of people were trapped in a casino," I added sagely. We both agreed that this had never been done before. As I racked my brain for other ideas along these lines, they eluded me.
The Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later and it's sequel breathed new life into the flesh-eating zombie genre by making the monsters plague victims that could run fast and were in a perpetual frenzy; they weren't true living dead but all the tropes associated with the genre were there.
The obscure 80s" film Warning Sign actually first used the idea of living people infected with a biological weapon as substitutes for zombies proper. An Italian film of the same vintage, Nightmare City, used zombies with blackened, burnt faces that could run quickly.
Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy with zombies. Fido is a satire about a boy and his special bond with the family pet; a tamed zombie. The Walking Dead is a night time soap opera with zombies. This year's Maggie is a domestic drama with zombies. The Joe Lansdale novel Dead in the West....well, you get the idea.
How do you give the genre a jolt? Have Bill Cosby's reputation rise from the dead and eat human flesh? The obvious solution is to use a setting or time period that has never been used before. This is difficult when you consider that there is even a Star Wars extended universe novel that apparently uses the hungry dead.
There is always the notion of giving zombies abilities or powers with which they are not normally associated. Of course they become something else altogether if you take the idea too far. Crossing the genre over into another one, such as martial arts or vampire mythology, has been done to varying degrees.
But the one aspect of the genre that too often gets overlooked, or at least treated superficially, is politics. When George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, he invented the modern zombie genre by steering clear of the traditional zombie from Voodoo legend. He added elements of science fiction and vampire films. But he added more.
The film has a black hero, a redneck posse that can't shoot straight and depressing news broadcasts during a time when the Vietnam War was occurring. The gestalt of the late 60s' infuses the film, although perhaps unintentionally.
Dawn of the Dead, which was the immediate sequel, addressed the consumer culture of the following decade by using a shopping mall as a setting. Day of the Dead, which Romero made while Ronald Reagan was president, had excessive militarism as a figurative boogeyman. Land of Dead, which came out after 911, focuses on terrorism and totalitarianism.
Will new zombie films feature our government hiding in bunkers and using drones on zombies? Will they feature a battle for supremacy between officials with Utopian goals and local baronies with Red State politics trying to carve up a tainted land? Will they have Islamic extremists trying to take advantage of the apocalypse?
Maybe what the genre really needs is a new social context within which to operate.