Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Evolution of the Zombie (And Why That’s a Good Thing)




I’m a zombie fan. I’m a big freaking zombie fan. What I’m not is a fan of the mythical set of “rules” that so many demand that all storytellers adhere to in order to have “real” zombies in their works. Certainly one should follow a basic template to keep the zombie a recognizable thing in their stories, but no one should restrict themselves to the exact rules of another storyteller when dealing with fictional creatures. Not only does that often not serve the story that one wishes to tell, but it’s typically a path that leads to stagnation, boredom, and blandness in just about any genre.


Much to the surprise of many who don’t know me as well as my close friends do, I’m actually a bigger geek for vampires and werewolves than I am for zombies. However, zombies are the thing I tend to be working the most with or spending the most time around of late. I throw that out there not simply as an odd aside, but rather as a possible explanation as to why I tend to blow off the arguments of many who seem to demand the stagnation of the zombie rather than cheering for the evolution of the zombie. We have seen a huge evolution in both the werewolf and the vampire in the last century of their popular culture and onscreen depictions, and the onscreen depictions that gave them their place in pop culture were huge evolutionary leaps for the creatures compared to their traditional depictions.

Originally the traditional werewolves were basically either people who turned completely into wolves or just people who wore the skins of wolves while believing themselves to in fact be wolves.  It wasn’t until 1935’s Werewolf of London that we got the first pop culture werewolf that was a hybrid mix of man and wolf standing on two legs. By 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, not even a full 50 years later, the werewolf of popular culture had become more wolf-like in appearance, mannerisms, and in the number of feet (returning to four) on the ground. The Howling gave us the two legged variety at the same time, but the while the form remained more animalistic, the mind retained a greater degree of human intelligence.  In the three decades since, we’ve kept that general look of the werewolf more or less intact in pop culture even as we’ve played around with other aspects of the mythology.


Vampires have had an even more stunningly radical evolution in some ways. A number of ancient legends have vampires in them that in truth bear more resemblance to some modern zombies than to the modern vampire of pop culture. Vampires were, in some stories, nothing more than mindless things that rose from their graves at night, feeding on the living before returning to their graves. Some were even quite monstrous in appearance with Nosferatu’s depiction of a vampire in 1922 actually being very close to some of the older myths. By 1931, Hollywood’s Dracula was already giving us a revised and more romantic version of the vampire that also sported both powers and vulnerabilities that were not associated with many vampires of legend.

Hammer would give us a Dracula that combined the darkly romantic elements established by Hollywood with Christopher Lee’s ability to exude the presence of an apex predator amongst his prey. This gave us both a more terrifying vampire in the more human mold, but, strangely, as more than a few female fans would later attest, it created a more sexy vampire for many. Vampires would mostly stagnate for a while after that. Many portrayals of the creature become stuck in that mold. We were thankfully treated to the occasional breaks from that here and there with films like Near Dark and its nomadic family of brutal vampires. If you’ve ever seen it, you know it certainly didn’t play by the romantic vampire’s rules, and the results were very entertaining results. Lost Boys came along and gave us an MTV generation of vampire, complete with glittering, rock star blood.

By the late 90s, we were seeing the rise of the teen romance vampire with things like Buffy. That evolution went to the extreme years later when we saw Twilight hit the mainstream, but we’ve also seen the opposite of that due to backlash from the hardcore fans who clamored for the vampire as monster as seen in things like 30 Days of Night. What we also saw during this period was the evolution of the vampire’s death. What was likely a cheap storytelling device to do away with having heroes trying to explain mountains of bodies all over town fast became the spectacular, FX enhanced norm for a vampire’s catching a stake in the chest. No longer did we need to carry out elaborate death and burial rituals to properly dispose of the vampire’s body. Now we had vampires that burst into flame and turned into clouds of ash in death, doing their own cleanup and corpse removal work for the tired vampire hunter.

Even the Dhampir has evolved for modern pop culture. The half human, half vampire offspring taken by Romani or others to be raised in the ways of vampire killing has become personified for new generations in creations like Blade.

Now, again, while we have gotten things like Twilight out of the evolution of these creatures of the night, we’ve also gotten some nice additions to the lore that have been both horrifying and badass. If you, like me, can’t stand, say, Twilight’s additions to the lore, Twilight doesn’t erase what came before it or what has also come along during its pop culture reign. It certainly doesn’t eliminate the ability of others to reinvent the image of these creatures yet again when the pendulum swings back towards the hardcore. With any evolution like this, you will get both good and bad things. What you do not get is stagnation.

You also don’t really get permanence. Keep that in mind. It’s actually important when discussing the evolution of any pop culture creation. Pop culture will continue to evolve whatever is placed into it for good or ill. But sometimes that evolution is a returning to the roots rather than a drive forward into new territory.

So what, you’re likely asking by now, has all of that got to do with zombies? Well, it has quite a lot to do with them actually. The template for the modern zombie came into being in 1968 with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Although, both Plan 9 from Outer Space and Invisible Invaders may have influenced that template more than they get credit for in modern zombie fan circles. Do note that I say “template” though, and not the modern zombie itself. There’s a reason for that.


Romero has over the years been very open about two things with regards to his undead creation. The first thing that he’s been open about is that they weren’t exactly his. Romero has long stated that he was doing a riff on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. He just wanted something other than Matheson’s vampire-like creatures for his film, so he decided to replace them with ghouls instead.

Note that word there. They were ghouls, not zombies. That’s the second thing. For Romero, zombies were the mindless, still living voodoo slaves from films like White Zombie. He never intended for them to be zombies, and he never named them as such in Night of the Living Dead. It was the genre press that actually christened them “zombies” over time, not the film’s creator. They weren’t zombies, they were never intended to be zombies, and, even better, they did things that didn’t follow the “rules” that many today claim must govern zombies.

As a matter of fact, if you go back and watch NotLD closely, you’ll find that the zombies of Night, and even the zombies of Dawn for that matter, do quite a few things that most zombie purists would consider to be very much unzombie-like. For one thing, many of them are not very slow and lumbering. The very first zombie we see in Night of the Living Dead jogs at a pretty good pace. The original Dawn even gave us two zombies that could run and jump.

Night also gave us zombies with some basic problem solving abilities. Our first zombie in Night has Barbra trapped in a car, but he can’t get to her. He pounds furiously (and rather quickly) on the window trying to get at her. Finally, after figuring out that pounding on the glass with his hand won’t do the trick, he steps back, reevaluates, looks around, spots a nice sized rock, picks it up, and uses it like a tool to smash through the glass. The reanimated child in the basement looks at her much larger mother, picks up a trowel, and uses it as a tool, as a weapon, to stab her mother to death. As a matter of fact, zombies using tools, sticks to strike with and rocks to hurl at light sources, is seen throughout Night of the Living Dead. Zombies even know how to use ladders in the Romero universe, or else they would never have been able to get up on the roof at the end of Dawn of the Dead.

The modern zombie, even the modern Romero Zombie for that matter, wasn’t created with Night of the Living Dead. What was created was the template for the modern zombie. That template said that the dead will rise for some known or unknown reason, the dead, in the grand tradition of the ravenous dead of myth and legend, will seek to feed on the flesh of the living, and that head shots are your golden ticket to zombie slaying. However, even the headshot rule wasn’t followed 100% by every film in the 1970s and 1980s. But the basic template for what we consider the modern zombie was absolutely laid down with NotLD.

From there, different creators have gone in slightly different directions with the evolution of the zombie. Even Romero has both evolved and devolved his zombies over the decades. By Land of the Dead, the zombies were becoming us again. By Survival of the Dead, they had become a sad punch line that mimicked life. 1974’s Sugar Hill cashed in on the zombie craze by going back to the voodoo roots while transplanting the action to the then modern setting of urban New Orleans. Some stories, such as 1985’s Return of the Living Dead and 1988’s Zombie 3, gave us extreme evolutions with zombies that ran faster than most humans could, could leap around with greater than human ability, and possessed both higher intelligence and speech. Return also gave us almost indestructible zombies that didn’t play by the headshot rule. It also introduced us to the iconic “Brains!” bit that so many seem to associate with all zombies.


The 1990’s zombie stories gave us mostly retreads of what we saw in the 1980s. Whether on the screen or on the printed page, zombies for the most part saw little real evolution, and were seen with almost as little interest by many outside of the hardcore fandom. Probably the greatest creative sins by the people creating zombie fiction during that period that helped to create such disinterest by the mainstream of fandom were brought about by those people and many others not understanding what a zombie really is.

A lot of people seemed to believe that so long as you had a horde of creatures that were back from the dead, slow, lumbering, brick stupid, craving flesh, and that died when you shot them between the eyes, you had a great zombie story. Unfortunately for many of us who sat through some of these films or read those stories, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. Zombies are often used best when they’re the catalyst for the story, not the story itself. In some of the better stories, they’re not even the true source of the horror.

The dawning of the 2000s gave the genre a much needed kick in the ass. We had two films come along that, while not technically zombie films, gave things a very big jolt. 2002 jumpstarted things when Resident Evil hit theaters. 2003 (or 2002 if you depending on if you count overseas release or not) seriously upped the ante when 28 Days Later convinced everyone that the zombie genre was ripe for a comeback. But it was probably 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake that, whether you loved it or you hated it, was what really kicked the zombie genre floodgates open once again. 28 Days Later and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead were the one-two punch that showed everyone that there was a whole lot of new life left in the zombie genre. It also, much to the annoyance of the purists, showed that there was ample room for evolution and experimentation on the old template.

The “zombies” of 28 Days Later were actually living beings who were infected by a form of super rabies. Their attacks on their victims were fast and hyper-violent. There was also no time for characters to mourn the loss of friends and comrades or to brace for their inevitable transformation into the undead as the change from friend to foe after exposure to bodily fluids carrying the virus happened in only a matter of seconds.  Also, perhaps most importantly, it reminded potential creators of zombie horror that the films often work best when the biggest monsters in a zombie film, and perhaps the greatest threats to be found by the survivors featured in them, are in fact other humans.


Dawn of the Dead remade the Romero classic with a few modern touches in the execution. The idea of satirizing consumer culture in the remake would have been pointless in 2004, and much of that was left out of the new story. The shopping mall as depicted in the original went from being a relatively rare thing on the American landscape to being something many areas easily have two, three, or four of, the infomercial became a strangely popular staple of the television landscape that has even been able to spawn pop culture stars with reality television shows devoted to them, and we’ve turned the internet into a instant gratification, one-stop shopping tool. The overplayed satire seen in the original Dawn had long ago been surpassed by today’s consumer culture.

In order to find its new center, the remake enlarged the cast and focused on the human interactions as well as giving the characters a few interesting choices to make where wrong moves would impact both the safety of the entire group and the security of their mall sanctuary. They also ratcheted up the threat level of the zombies by following the lead of Return of the Living Dead, the cult favorite foreign zombie films of the 80s and 90s, and the then more recent and popular Resident Evil and 28 Days Later films by making the zombies fast as hell. This last bit also had the effect of driving the zombie purists stark raving bonkers.

The zombie purists came out in force. A large chunk of the people that considered the zombie genre their primary genre of choice absolutely rebelled against the idea of zombies evolving beyond what they saw as the true zombie or the Romero Zombie. Fortunately, they’ve proven to be a minority of the zombie viewers as well as a minority of the people creating the next evolution of zombie stories.

Now, we’ve certainly seen excellent uses of the more Romero styled take on zombies in the last dozen years of this explosion of the genre. Shaun of the Dead was a loving tribute to Romero’s zombies. Romero himself (almost) returned to his old form with Land of the Dead before rebooting his franchise with two films that were met with less than enthusiastic responses. The U.K.’s Zombie Diaries came along to use the more Romero styled zombies with a concept parallel to, but better executed than, Diary of the Dead. 2010 gave us yet another excellent helping of the more Romero styled zombie when the Ford Brothers unleashed The Dead upon horror viewers. And, of course, Robert Kirkman created a fun little comic called The Walking Dead that hit television screens a few years back on AMC to great fanfare and greater ratings.

Plus there was Fido. We cannot leave out Fido.


But we’ve also seen attempts to break the “Romero Rules” mold for the zombie while following the general template, and, more often than not, they’ve been entertaining entries into the genre as well as occasionally managing to be thought provoking.

Deadgirl, [REC], Dead Snow, Rammbock: Berlin Undead, Aaah! Zombies!!, Colin, Warm Bodies, and others have all come out since the latest boom started and added their own twists on the zombie concept. Not every new film or new twist has been great. As a matter of fact there have been some (I’m looking at you Day of the Dead remake) that have been almost universally shunned by genre fans. But the simple fact is that a number of filmmakers have rather successfully evolved the concept of the zombie to suit the needs of their stories for either pure entertainment purposes or for examining aspects of the human nature with results ranging from just good to fantastic.

Besides, to be totally honest, the single greatest criticism of the faster zombies or the smarter zombies is one of the weakest arguments ever thrown out into a fandom debate. You cannot, we are told, have fast zombies because it’s simply unrealistic to have the undead running.

Yeah…

I’ve always found that one to be a little strange. It’s unrealistic for a zombie to be able to run. Now, that whole getting up after death, having functioning eyes, ears, and whatever else even after months of death and reanimation, hunting down the living, and feasting their flesh thing? That’s totally realistic. There’s no issue in accepting that whatsoever. But don’t ask them to believe that a zombie can move faster than a shamble, because then that’s just totally unrealistic.

But if you want the less sarcastic reply to that complaint, I have that one as well. It’s actually in the form of a very simple question though. What was it that raised the dead to begin with?

It’s not really an easy question to answer since relatively few zombie stories establish the exact cause of the zombie outbreak in that story. Even Romero never did that, playing up in the story the idea of radiation before shooting that down one film later. He’s even said in interviews that his ideal cause for the outbreak is the unknown cause, desiring the mystery to remain.

So what caused the zombies to rise? Was their origin mystical in nature? If it was then all bets are off as to what they can and cannot do. Do you want to go with cosmic radiation somehow supercharging dead cells and reanimating the dead? If that was the case, why couldn’t the radiation affect the cells of the muscles in such a way as to allow them greater speed than a slow shuffle? Did the government start it with a super soldier project gone wrong? Well, couldn’t the failed project’s results still partially work, creating an undead monster that retains greater human speed and agility without the failings of succumbing to exhaustion and needing sleep?

The fact of the matter is that pretty much any origin given for a zombie outbreak opens itself up to broad interpretation with regards to the abilities of its zombies. There are very few rationales for a zombie outbreak that do not allow for wiggle room when it comes to evolving a zombie for a specific story. That means that, outside of a basic template, there really is no legitimate reason for any writer to limit their creation to the rules of another writer; especially if their story is ill suited to someone else’s zombie rules. If a writer can create a good story that works for the zombies that you wish to use, then that writer should use their zombies each and every time.

And, frankly, despite the objections of the purists, that’s what should be done. No writer should limit their creations to the strict confines of the rules in another person’s story. That path is the path of stagnation and boredom. That path is the path leading to the slow death of the genre at worst or its collapse back to being a weaker genre at best.

Zombies have evolved. That’s a good thing. It allows different storytellers to tell different stories that are hopefully both entertaining and interesting. It also doesn’t take anything away from the old stories or even the old zombies. Night of the Living Dead will always be considered a classic of the genre, and you will always have good stories being told using the “Romero Zombie” just as you had some surprisingly good stories told with the old voodoo zombie even after Night of the Living Dead introduced us to the undead zombie. 

Will there be bad stories told with the more evolved zombies? Yes, of course they will, but that has nothing to do with the evolution of the zombie and everything to do with bad stories being written. Of course, you can say the same of stories written with the more Romero styled zombies as well. A movie with fast, semi-intelligent, or otherwise different zombies will no more be automatically bad than a film with slow zombies will be good. But, by giving us more options, the evolution of the zombie gives us more opportunities for good stories, entertaining stories, and even thought provoking stories. And that is certainly something that I’m absolutely in favor of.

But, yeah, Brad Pitt's World War Z totally blew.
  


Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

2 comments:

  1. How about I-zombie? What's your take on that.

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  2. I didn't mention it because it premiered after I had this in the can and submitted. I've been a bit busier than usual, so I've only seen the first episode so far. I thought that was solid, but I'm holding my opinion until it gets going and I can see what they do with it over a stretch of episodes.

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