World War Z and the Growing Appeal of Zombies

This month sees Brad Pitt head up one of the biggest zombie flicks ever; World War Z takes a more action orientated standpoint for an era where zombie movies have become a huge part of popular culture. The film itself is a tense action thriller that manages to successfully pull some originality from a sub-genre that has been twisted in every way you could possibly imagine. But despite this does the film’s action blockbuster appeal mark the final nail in the coffin for a former cult staple of horror? Or can zombies continue to be a diverse movie element that can hit big at the box office?

It would probably be best to go back to the very beginning in order to fully chart how the sub-genre has changed over time. The first ever idea of a zombie originates from both African and Haitian tribal beliefs from centuries ago. In both incarnations the zombies are dead people summoned back to life by a person, in most instances somebody practising voodoo. What’s interesting to note is that in the original stories zombies were not harmful beings but slaves to whoever may have reanimated them. There is very little to be found in these original folklore tales that resemble the undead we are used to seeing on our screens today. Moving on from the tribal origins there is a dotted history of literary works with various different re-imaginings of the idea, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of course being one of the most famous. The first ever zombie film is believed to be White Zombie (1932) a film which is regarded poorly amongst critics, it depicts zombies in a way that is closely connected to it’s first folklore tales. There were a large number of other zombie movies after White Zombie but it wasn’t until George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) that we had the first interpretation of the plague-ridden zombies that we know today. The conventions that its ‘Living Dead’ adhered to included the idea of biting the living to turn them into a zombie, their horde mentality, and the slow staggering walk. It was really a culmination of traits from lots of different monsters and folklores that were combined to form Romero’s definitive “zombies”.

night_of_the_living_dead_3Night of the Living Dead spawned two sequels to become Romero’s original Living Dead Trilogy; Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). The three together became and remain the definitive trilogy for all zombie movies. As Romero’s series went on zombies became a regular feature of horror movies and a sub genre was born. The majority of early zombie movies are of a low quality, produced in the era of Hammer Horror when it was cheap and profitable to make low budget movies frequently and churn them out at a ridiculously fast pace. It may look as though the zombie movie has never exactly been something with much class but although all they really were was grimy b-movies the walking dead struck a chord with many and built a cult following that would continue to grow to this day.

The love of the living dead seemed to strike a chord particularly in young first time film-makers which led to a large number of low budget but interesting zombie movies during the seventies and eighties and their appeal was ever-growing. The next big hitter for the sub-genre came in the form of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), another film that, like Romero’s, has retained a devoted fan base. Raimi’s low-budget shocker garnered controversy for the infamous tree rape sequence but also was one of the first zombie pictures to have an element of humour to it. The humour was explored further in it’s sequel, Evil Dead II (1987) another cult classic which is arguably the first ever zombie comedy or zom-com. It takes it’s action to the level of parody and has its tongue firmly in cheek as it, pretty much, re-tells the same story of its predecessor. With the birth of the zom-com the undead’s world takeover had taken a huge step. (We’ll refrain from talking about the third part in Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, it’s best forgotten.)

Take a short fast-forward and we find the next classic zombie movie which came from the one and only Peter Jackson in 1992. Braindead was Jackson’s second feature which he made in his home country, New Zealand, with a very low budget. The result is one of the funniest movies ever made, with ridiculous gore and violence, corny dialogue and the most fake blood ever used in a film, apparently. While it’s an unusual beginning it’s clear to see, in Braindead, that Jackson was to become one of the most important film makers of our time. But after this bloodthirsty highlight zombies still remained under the radar, known only to film buffs and horror nerds. Apart from the odd classic the sub-genre consisted mostly of poorly made films that failed to utilise it’s living dead subjects. It’s not until the turn of the century that the zombie became one of the most powerful forces in the blockbuster industry and much of their success can be credited to British legend, Danny Boyle, with the fantastic 28 Days Later (2002).

28-days-laterBoyle took the genre back to basics and back to it’s horror roots, forgetting about the comedy that zombies had become more known. Taking the once tribal folklore characters and giving them a modern, more realistic makeover which revived this buried corpse of a genre and set it loose all over the beautiful, green land of England, which would lead to an infectious spread across the globe. Known for its famous shots of the abandoned streets of London, Boyle created a completely believable zombie apocalypse in one of the worlds most iconic cities. The film is one of the most effective horror movies in history and a true modern classic that paved the way for a new wave of intelligent zombie fiction to grace the big screen. 28 Days Later also gave us one of the first instances where the zombies are created not from the dead rising from the grave but a plague that turns it’s victims into feral beings that survive through sinking their teeth into human flesh and passing on their disease. It sparked a new lease of life for zombies by giving story tellers a chance to rethink ways in which they could bring zombies about in their work. It led to what I like to call the ‘golden age’ of zombie flicks that spawned some of the greatest movies of the noughties.

While the UK was delivering its own re-imagining of the genre the States also had something under their belts with the video game adaptation Resident Evil (2002) which, much like this years World War Z, gave the zombie’s an action adventure personality. It has spawned one of the longest running zombie franchises with its sixth instalment planned to be out in 2014. It must be said, though, that the series is not of the highest quality with confused plots and hammy acting, it’s a wonder to me how it has managed to keep going. But what is clear is that it has spread the appeal of the genre even further by being perhaps the first real action based zombie movie whilst still containing elements of horror and a gaming fan base of it’s own. Another hit for the genre would come with Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). The director, known for his stylish work, gave the walking dead one of it’s glossiest screen incarnations yet, opening it up a new generation of horror movie-goers. While, personally, I prefer Romero’s original Snyder’s effort is a better movie than many critics would have you believe. It contains a good combination of humour and horror and provided us with the zombie mall invasion that would influence Dead Rising one of the most fun zombie video games out there.

It was in Britain again that we’d get our next fix of flesh eating, disease-ridden greatness, but it would be a return to the zom-com that saw it happen. Shaun of the Dead (2004) is actually, technically, a zom-rom-com; a romantic movie that just happens to have a zombie apocalypse going on around it. Just as Boyle gave the sub-genre an intelligent horror makeover writer-director Edgar Wright gave the zom-com it’s most intelligent re-imagining. Rather than going for the corny angle like most zombie comedies before it Shaun… goes for a more British style of humour and manages to keep the horror element scary as well. What this movie showed us is that it’s possible to make zombie’s funny without having to parody them like previous zom-coms. What also worked well in Shaun of the Dead is the numerous nerdy pop culture references that were thrown in by its fan-boy writers Simon Pegg and, the aforementioned, Edgar Wright which brought in further appeal for a niche audience but the success of the film shows us that what was previously only popular among acne-ridden teenage recluses now appealed to a much wider audience. Many films have since tried to recreate a similar formula as found in Shaun… with varying degrees of success but many more people are now open to watch similar stuff.

I am Legend 5Skipping forward a couple more years and we have another notable zombie achievement in 2007 with Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. The film took an emotional angle with Smith’s character being left to survive on his own after the apocalypse. While the movie is often criticised for its CG zombies I Am Legend is overall a well written and acted drama which opened zombie movies up to an even larger audience. Its success could be credited to the star power of Smith at the time but it would be unfair to judge it solely on that because this movie managed to create a much more dramatic platform for the zombie movie while the horror element takes a back seat. It was the first big blockbuster zombie flick to have a huge-name star at its helm and it was a success which has led to further growth in the area where big studios are now a lot more open to fund movies like that feature a zombie takeover.

2007 also showed us that the appeal for indie zombie movies was growing, alongside it’s blockbuster appeal, with sleeper hit Rec. It’s unusual for any foreign-language movie to become as big a hit as this Spanish found footage horror. But it cleverly combined the frantic terror found in The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity and recreated the tense feel of them both by creating a fully believable and terrifying story which sees a news reporter quarantined inside an infected block of flats and left to fend for herself against its diseased residents. The film quickly garnered a US remake in Quarantine (2008) but the original Spanish version still manages to captivate English speaking audiences with its unique grittiness making it a much scarier affair than its glossy American counterpart. The zom-com also had a foreign language hit of its own with the Norwegian Dead Snow (2009) a movie about Nazi zombies which caught the eye of just about every movie fan out there. With great visuals, a quirky premise and more than it’s fair share of blood and guts Dead Snow marks another landmark for the genre as it showed yet again that English speaking audiences will go out of their way for a good zombie flick no matter the tone. What people were hungry for was the undead, and they were willing to go out of their viewing comfort zone to get it.

Now the sub-genre has become a sure fire box office hit and the studios have been churning them out at a consistent rate. Titles with bigger budgets are now released on a regular basis and are aimed at all audience. World War Z  is perhaps the biggest movie in the sub genre to come out since I Am Legend and it shows that the widespread appeal hasn’t depleted in any way since then. The aim for the film was to make it suitable for a younger audience and, therefore, scraped a PG-13 rating in the US (although the movie ended up being rated 15 here in the UK) by cutting out the gore and most of the horror that we are used to seeing. While the movie doesn’t fully deliver on it’s promise and for the most part it’s a tense, taut action thriller that slips into horror more often than it seemed to promise, it’s box office figures are nothing to be snuffed at. Its been made clear that the intention is to make this into a new action franchise with the end of the movie hinting at a much more military based sequel that could see the genre diversify further into action/adventure. Let’s hope they can do a better job than the Resident Evil guys.

While looking through the biggest zombie hits of all time its hard not to fall in love with the dribbly, bloodthirsty, braindead creatures. They have been the source of some of the most interesting cinema in any genre and continue to be a thrilling foe on the big screen despite having been stretched in every direction and made to fit every purpose. It also goes to show the growing interest of audiences who are generally becoming more willing to watch unusual movies that in the past they would have shied away from. Foreign language movies becoming hits can only be a good thing for the industry, and it’s clear that zombies have become a universal tool to drag in movie-goers all over the world. It’s a genre that performs best when its made on a low budget with inexperienced film makers having paved the way for the careers of some of the biggest names in film which makes it one of the most unique devices in the industry. Maybe having it produced on a mass scale by large Hollywood production companies is killing the fun a little bit but one things for sure and that’s that zombies have become one of the most compelling cinema creations and I’m sure they will continue to bring about an influx of classic movies. Long may they stagger on.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I am currently a Creative and Media Writing student at the Univerisity of Portsmouth. I'm a huge movie fan particularly of low-budget British cinema and the abstract.

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14 Comments

  1. No mention of Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters?! Zombies’ versatility makes them the perfect vehicle for just about any social metaphor. Having said that I think they should be left to rot for a while. Any more insipid Zombie movies and fans will end up clawing their own guts out to avoid them.

    • Jonny Brown

      I must admit I’ve never seen that title, shall I take it as a recommendation? Perhaps you’re right about leaving them for a while but the way things are going I can’t see them dropping off for a long time.

  2. Sophie Wise

    Undeniably zombies have transcended into the mainstream with recent productions such as The Walking Dead, a GiffGaff commercial and as you say, World War Z. However I think there will forever be a cult zombie fan community, the ‘true’ lovers of the undead that dedicate time and passion to the zombie legacy from which modern productions draw their inspirations from. Another interesting point here is now that zombies are integrated into the mainstream, other paratexutal activity has surfaced such as zombie walks which are arguably the new markers of the ‘true’ fans..

    • Jonny Brown

      Yeah those zombie apocalypse experience places are popping up all over the place at the moment, am tempted to give one a go myself

  3. Kevin Wong

    Great article, I’m going to be doing a similar article later this week about the underlying societal reasons why we’re seeing a massive resurgence of zombie fiction. I’ll be sure to link and reference you in it!

  4. Marlon Shingles

    Unusual these days to see a relatively non-violent zombie film like World War Z, however its nice that the genre can become more accessible to all audiences.

    • Jonny Brown

      Yeah it’s nice to see a genre grow, although I think World War Z could have done a slightly better job on that front because although the gore was taken out the violence was still there, just off screen.

  5. Nellie

    Zombie flicks have overall never appealed to me, despite being a fan of horror. However, I still watch a few and have been pretty impressed with some of the diversity within it these past few years in particular.

    I Am Legend was the first zombie film that I had particularly enjoyed in a while, before that… probably only Braindead (I absolutely love it!! It’s one of my favourite films, sadly or not).

    Nice to read about some of the history of it though. Think I might give World War Z a try too!

  6. Liz Watkins

    I am intrigued by the new Nazi-Zombie sub-genre that is emerging. Most I have seen are actually pretty good because they mix in a nice dose of humor (intentionally). But, I guess, what could be funnier or scarier than Nazi-zombies?

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