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Nights of the Celluloid Dead

A History of the Zombie Film

Part One: The First Steps of the Walking Dead

by Robert Hood

First published in Bloodsongs#4, 1995; ed. Steve Proposch.

1. There's Life in the Old Corpse Yet

Cinematic animated corpses have been a source of fascination ever since the earliest days of film. Though less prolific in literature than their unliving cousin, the vampire, zombies and other walking (and frequently murderous) dead have provided some of the most potent visual imagery in horror film history. Continually resurrected, re-imagined and re-invented through the decades, zombies still maintain a respectable presence, as witness the multitude of living dead films released in the last few years, many of them sequels. These include: Braindead; Return of the Living Dead 3; Army of Darkness: Evil Dead 3; Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday; Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence; Pet Semetary Two; The Crow, and the zombie comedies Weekend at Bernie's 2; Ed and His Dead Mother; and Death Becomes Her. All in all that's a lot of activity -- for dead people.

One of the fascinating things about this sub-genre is that it has attracted filmmakers of enormous talent and has produced works of considerable originality, while at the same time there is a fair number of cheap, nasty, badly-made films that were spawned in the aftershock of the 'classics'. Some of them are so inept, they are almost impossible to sit through. You haven't seen a bad film until you've seen The Curse of the Screaming Dead! Even that oft-quoted pinnacle of bad film-making, Wood's classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, is about zombies. Aspiring filmmakers, who can always scrape together a bit of enthusiasm and enough money for a few dozen bottles of ketchup and some old sheep entrails, seem drawn to make one. After all, Romero was a novice when he created the influential Night of the Living Dead. It was made on a shoestring, and shot at weekends when the actors were available. "If he can do it," the weird guy with the camera and the jar of intestines says, "I can do it too, can't I?" Most often, of course, the answer is no.

Generically, the underlying meaning of the zombie film must, as a matter of course, be concerned with mortality. Individual themes are diverse; there is little consistency in explanations made of zombie origin, sex is not a major element throughout, and the zombies' choice of victim seems remarkably egalitarian in terms of social class, gender and political prediliction. Yet, where the vampire film might be said to have a dark sexual undercurrent, the 'slasher' film to express a cynical misogynistic malice, and the classic 1950s giant creature film to epitomise nuclear age paranoia, particular attitudes to physical (and spiritual) mortality inform the semantics of the zombie film: death and how society deals with it -- not surprisingly, since zombies are, by definition, dead. That the dead are depicted as mimicking life by refusing (or being forbidden) to lie still must inevitably reflect on attitudes to mortality in the makers and viewers of such films. We shall examine this thematic undercurrent as we proceed.

What counts as a zombie film then? I intend to define the sub-genre widely, to include not simply the acknowledged living dead epics of Romero and Lucio Fulci, but other films that feature the living dead in a less obvious guise -- for example, 'ghost'-vengeance films where the ghost is depicted as corporeal rather than ethereal. The living dead are first and foremost corpses that continue to move around -- against all reason, manipulated by an outside will or self-driven. They are not manifestations of ectoplasmic fury; they are not undead spirits. Flesh is basic to the concept, albeit decayed. Overall, there is considerable emphasis in zombie films on flesh and blood -- rotting bodies and their attendant maggots, as well as the still-warm gore resulting from savage, often cannibalistic attacks upon the living.

It is perhaps worth noting, however, that traditional 'ghosts' -- as they appear in English ballads and folktales and the Norse mythology the ballads draw on -- are often corporeal. Worms and rotting flesh and the coffin in which the cadaver was buried feature prominently in these tales of lost life, lost love and vengeance. The ballads may tell stories about ghosts, but the ghosts are corpses -- they are dead, they rot, they come from the grave, they walk around. Here's an example from a Danish song, Svend Dyring:

Out from their chest she stretch'd her bones,
And rent her way through earth and stones.


She reach'd her husband's courtyard gate,
And there her eldest daughter sate.

"O daughter mine, why so in tears?
How fare my other little dears?"

"No mother at all art thou of mine,
Thou'rt not like her, though fair and fine;

"My mother's cheeks were white and red,
But thine are pale, and like the dead."

"And how should I be white and red,
So long, my child, as I've been dead?"


Whenever hound was heard to bark,
They thought the dead walk'd in the dark.

Whenever hound was heard to howl.
They thought they saw a corpse's cowl.

It is in this tradition that the nature of the modern zombie lies -- despite the fact that the 'zombie' itself is very much a product of those voodoo practices most often associated with Haiti (the word itself coming from the West African 'zumbi' meaning 'fetish'). The trappings of voodoo very rarely occur in zombie movies these days, however; the modern zombie (so-called) is a revenant, an animated corpse, but rarely needs the stimulus of Baron Samedi to get itself moving.

One brand of walking dead that I do not intend to talk about much is the Mummy. Technically speaking, of course, the film mummy is an animated corpse -- but the tradition that developed from Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932) through the Hammer films of the fifties and sixties is different from that of the 'zombie' tradition. It would require another article to deal adequately with mummies and I have chosen to leave them out. Interestingly Anne Rice's novel The Mummy, Or Ramses the Damned combines the mummy tradition with some of the qualities of the living dead tradition, especially in its depiction of the resurrection of Cleopatra's corpse.

But that's another story.

2. Voodoo Zombies

Like all magic, voodoo is about control, and the essence of the voodoo-created zombie is that he/she is a slave. Soul captured by the bokor, or voodoo sorcerer, the victim 'dies' and becomes a mindless automaton, incapable of remembering the past, unable to recognise loved ones and doomed to a life of miserable toil under the will of the zombie master. The term 'zombie' only came into general use in 1929, after the publication of William B. Seabrook's The Magic Island. In this book, Seabrook recounts his experiences on Haiti, including much discussion of the walking dead. He describes the first 'zombie' he came across in this way:

"The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression."
This is a good description of the zombies that appear in the first zombie movie, Victor Halperin's White Zombie, made in 1932 and featuring that emergent horror drawcard, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi plays the zombie master Murder Legendre, whose shuffling, mindless zombie slaves work his mill and intimidate those who oppose him. The story begins when the lovely Madeline comes to 'the West Indies' to marry her fiance. All goes well, and the wedding is set to take place, but Madeline is desired by a local landowner, played by Robert Frazer, who hopes that Legendre's evil powers can transfer Madeline's love to himself, and to this end administers Legendre's zombie potion on a rose, 'killing' the woman he desires. Madeline's fiance, after a period of drunken mourning, is guided by a missionary to Legendre's gothic castle, where all three suitors contend for Madeline's soul. Finally the landowner, himself turning into a zombie owing to Legendre's treachery, tosses the sorcerer over the parapets onto the jagged rocks below, before following him into final death. Legendre's departure causes the zombies to collapse, while love restores Madeline to her former self.

While it is true that the film suffers from a slightly anachronistic feel, an almost fairytale simplicity, with awkward lapses caused by some poor acting and by the insertion of occasional stock horror effects, in the end these things don't seem to matter much. Its strength lies in its visual qualities, an expressionist super-reality which is reminiscent of Carl Dreyer's classic Vampyr (1931), and in its use of sound to underscore emotions and unsettle the viewer. The best scenes, such as the one in which Frazer comes to Legendre in his mill, where zombies work incessantly to turn the Metropolis-like machinery and the groaning of the wheels provides an unnerving background to discussion over the fate of Madeline's soul, are chilling and skillfully constructed. The black-and-white photography and angled shots, often placing the players behind or against foreground structures or the shuffling legs of the living dead, help to create many potent moments.

If the mill scene provides an image of industrial exploitation ("They work faithfully and are not worried about long hours", says Legendre), the central story of Madeline and her 'suitors' can function as a metaphor for the dehumanisation caused by lust. Madeline's physical beauty remains once she is 'dead', but the landowner who orchestrated her death in order to win her quickly realises that devoid of will she is merely an empty shell. Though he has gained her body, he has in reality lost the better part of her, perhaps destroyed it. Here, and in its grim and often sensual imagery, is where the film's simple qualities work best. Taken as the dark fairytale that it is, White Zombie is a satisfying film and its 'old-fashioned' aspects become part of its appeal.

In the early years of Hollywood, zombies were generally atmospheric rather than fearsome, and animated by voodoo. As in White Zombie, there was a controller, a sorcerer, one who uses magic and arcane ritual to resurrect and animate the dead, which then go off in pursuit of the master's nefarious business interests or passions. Later the controller took other forms -- usually becoming a scientist once scientific paranoia hit the western world. But in whatever form, the evil is focused in a Machiavellian figure, reflecting perhaps the cult of the 'horror star' as personified by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Such evil 'focus' externalised the destructive forces in humanity and at the same time made the sources of fear more vulnerable to social control. Such figures could, after all, be beaten.

Halperin followed up White Zombie in 1936 with Revolt of the Zombies, in which Dean Jagger turns Cambodian soldiers into mindless slaves with a quasi-magic potion, until, led to see the error of his ways by love, he kills himself -- thus breaking the spell. There is also King of the Zombies (1941), where the setting becomes World War 2, and the zombie master turns into a scientist. These films are largely of historic interest.

Then, in 1943, Jacques Tourneur, perhaps better known for his Cat People and Curse of the Demon, made a lyrical exploration of zombiedom under the title I Walked with a Zombie, a film which must be ranked as one of only three or so pre-Night of the Living Dead classics. A nurse (Frances Dee) comes to the West Indies to look after a plantation owner's wife, eventually realising that the woman has been turned into a zombie. But that's not all she uncovers. The zombified wife, an expressionless white phantom, becomes a powerful image of emotional emptiness, as the jealousy and bitterness that lies in the past is slowly revealed. The central journey of the nurse and the wife to a voodoo ceremony, in hope of some cure, is an acknowledged masterpiece of the cinema -- Tourneur orchestrates sound and movement, darkness and light, the looming presence of a zombie guardian and the climactic voodoo ceremony in a way that is both frightening and profound.

I Walked With a Zombie is an intelligent and evocative essay into the use of the zombie as a symbol of the past haunting the present -- an emotional barrenness and a guilt that will not lie still. From the early sequence in which Tom Conway (as the husband) seeks to destroy Dee's romantic innocence with the words "There is no beauty--only death and decay", to the final revelations of love and hate, the film exerts a gentle if irresistible influence over the viewer which has not been replicated elsewhere in the zombie sub-genre.

Voodoo turned up regularly over the next few decades, at least in the titles, even if voodoo elements in the actual storylines are thin. For example, in Voodoo Man (1944), Lugosi keeps his living dead wife going by doing nasty things to innocent victims, while Voodoo Woman (1957) has a mad scientist turning a woman into an unliving monster to do his bidding. In 1974, there was a Voodoo Girl, also known as Sugar Hill, which involved a woman taking revenge against the Mob using an assortment of zombies raised from their graves. Voodoo Dawn (1989), also known as Strange Turf, saw a couple of young men visiting a Louisiana bayou in search of their friend, only to find that he has been turned into a zombie.

There was a smattering of zombie movies over the 1950s, though the formula changed once the Bomb brought science to the forefront of evil prime movers. Many of the living dead come from outer space now (as in the 1952 serial Zombies of the Stratosphere or Cahn's Invisible Invaders) or are the creations of science (Creature With the Atom Brain, The Gamma People, Voodoo Woman). In Brain Eaters (1958), for example, creatures from the centre of the Earth attach themselves to human brains and hence turn victims into mindless automatons. Such space-age zombies are no longer energised by voodoo nonsense; scientific goobletegook is what gets them up and running. The scientist, or the cold alien intelligence, is the zombie master. The trend continued into the sixties. There was also a minor diversion into historical zombiedom at this time, as in Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and War of the Zombies (1963), which was set in ancient Rome, but the zombies are peripheral.

In the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, made on a miniscule budget and with a complete absence of artistic sense, aliens invade Earth by animating human corpses as a vanguard army. But that's not the most revealing part of the story. The story behind the story goes like this: director/producer Wood had acquired a few moments of Bela Lugosi on film, just before the actor died, and, in order to construct the film from that snippet, Wood hired his chiropractor (who looked nothing like Lugosi) as a replacement and had him run around for the rest of the picture with his cowl covering his face. Plan 9 is generally held to be amusing because of its unintentional humour, thereby transcending 'badness'. I find it simply pathetic and would wish that Lugosi's 'last' film had been something more than pitiful.

Though after 1968 Romero's Night of the Living Dead inspired a new type of animated dead, until then, and even after, voodoo zombies managed to get an occasional look in. Hammer Films' excursion into the world of the living dead was John Gilling's effective Plague of the Zombies (1966). Here Cornwall has become the centre of a voodoo cult, as the local aristocrat creates zombies to work in his tin mine. At least one scene can be considered classic and has been much copied -- zombies clawing their way up out of the graveyard soil. The film's political agenda too gives it an unusual interest.

At about this time, the living dead found themselves somewhat liberated from restrictions to the depiction of violence and gore by the example of films such as the 'drive-in' gorefests pioneered by Herschell Gordon Lewis, and by changes to governing mores partially orchestrated by Hammer themselves. Gore is present in the awful Astro-Zombies (1967) too, though it's pretty mild when compared to what was to come. John Carradine is the zombie master in this turkey, revitalising corpses as super-human agents to aid him in his bloody experiments. Once again, the rationale is pseudo-scientific. 1975's The Ghoul, however, reverts to oriental mysticism. Directed by Freddie Francis, it tells of a gauntly tragic Peter Cushing, who hides his violent, flesh-eating son -- zombified into a sort of Indian variant of the basic Haitian model -- in the attic, from whence he emerges at times to kill visitors to the isolated manor. The rationale behind the existence of this particular zombie is unclear and in the end the 'ghoul' is shot (and not in the head), making one think that he wasn't dead at all, just cannibalistic. But it's not a bad film, if rather stilted, and has some effectively chilling moments. John Hurt is interesting as Cushing's loony gardener.

Night of the Sorcerers (1973) was directed by Amando de Ossorio, a Spanish maker of horror films already well-known for a series of stylish living dead tales featuring resurrected Knights Templar. This one, however, is typical low-grade dross. Darkly indistinct on video, it follows the fortunes of two men and three model-like women (frequently appearing in various stages of undress), who are exploring the African jungle in order to record, on film, the habits of animals in danger of extinction. Ironically, of course, it is the explorers who are most in danger of extinction, as they inadvertantly become involved in voodoo rituals, and find themselves being killed off one by one by panther women and zombie sorcerers. The trappings of voodoo are present, but are rather token, being impressionistic rather than detailed. The film as a whole is fairly inept, made as a quickie to cash in on the market.

The Child (1977), also known as Zombie Child, has none of the ritual elements of voodooism, but it belongs here because it is so much about control. Directed by Robert Voskanian, it is the story of a little girl whose existential bitterness is so great that she has become the centre of a troupe of rotting, but animated, corpses. These zombies arise from a nearby cemetery, where her dead mother lies buried. Perhaps the girl has caused the corpses to rise, perhaps not -- the film never makes this clear. What is clear is that the zombies are her 'friends' and they 'do favours' for her. These favours fulfil her own hatred for those she perceives as being responsible for her mother's death, or who attempt to thwart her in some way. So even her new governess, though innocent of any real connection with the events of the past, is threatened because she tries to take over the dead mother's role. The zombies set about strangling, gouging and mutilating in scenes that often achieve an effective eeriness and violence. It all ends with the governess and the child's brother trapped in a work shed while the zombies claw their way in, á la Night of the Living Dead. The governess survives because she kills the girl with an axe -- by mistake, thinking her to be one of the zombies. It's not a bad film (especially if you ignore the janglingly insistent music soundtrack).

Another variant on the voodoo controller, this one otherworldly, is found in Phantasm (1979). Released in Australia as The Never Dead, Phantasm and its sequel (1988) depict the doings of a mysterious mortician known as the 'Tall Man', who, we finally learn, steals corpses (or kills people off to obtain them), compresses them into stumpy dwarfs so they can withstand dense gravitational fields, revivifies them and sends them off to work as slaves on another planet. It is a strange premise and produces a strange and eccentric movie, replete with dank and chilly mortuary corridors, a flying metal ball that drills its way into victims' skulls, and an interdimensional portal leading to other worlds. There's no talk of voodoo or zombies, but that's what they are just the same.

Dead and Buried (1981) also gives an interesting spin to the concept of the 'voodoo' master. An effective and at times horrific film, it concerns the exploits of a mad small-town mortician, Mr Dobbs, whose ability to 'remake' the corpses handed into his care extends beyond mere pre-burial make-up to actual re-animation. His dead must destroy others as traumatically as possible -- so that Dobbs' cosmetic efforts are challenged and because only violent death can give him the power to raise the dead. Pictorial self-consciousness is important too: the zombies have an unsettling penchant for photographing their victims' agonies. Dobbs watches flickering images of death -- and listens to nostalgic music on his gramophone -- as he weaves his magic. The pictures flashing on the walls of his morgue act as a sort of fetish. Throughout Dobbs' 'magic' is given an air of science, but there is much talk of voodoo too, which requires that the heart of the zombie be removed and kept in a safe place. However, as in other 'voodoo' zombie films, real voodoo content is almost non-existent in Dead and Buried, though the principle of centralised control is fundamental. It should be noted, nevertheless, that the evil controller remains unchallenged at the end of this film -- it being the cynical eighties. He becomes one of his own creations and offers the hero a final, devastating revelation.

The zombie master depicted in The Dead Pit (1989) is a mad scientist too -- or mad doctor, to be more precise -- but he dies in the first scene. From there on in, he is a supernatural presence, though a demonic ghost rather than a zombie. The living dead of The Dead Pit are his many experimental victims, who were mutilated and tossed in a pit beneath the hospital where he worked. When the psychologically unstable heroine arrives on the scene, suffering from amnesia, the doctor is released from his sleep and the dead follow, heading off on a classic rampage through the hospital corridors and the surrounding countryside. This is a good, fun, zombie film, with many excellent scenes, generally taut direction and a slightly off-beat storyline. I particularly like the moment when the hero and heroine, narrowly escaping from the zombie-ridden hospital, make it out to the parking lot, only to find that the zombies have disabled the cars. "They sure are smart, for dead people," the hero says. Essentially, the film's inspiration comes from Romero and Fulci, so there's lots of zombies and lots of gore.

In most voodoo zombie movies, the voodoo content is atmospheric rather than detailed, or, as in The Dead Pit, the zombie master is a scientist of some kind. In the same year as The Dead Pit, however, director Wes Craven, better known for such dream horrors of Nightmare on Elm Street, released The Serpent and the Rainbow, perhaps the most effectively detailed examination of the voodoo mythos that the zombie genre has produced, at least since I Walked With A Zombie. Based on an autobiographical book by Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow looks like it was well researched. The backgrounds are authentic (it was filmed in Haiti) and the basic zombie plot-line is effectively interwoven with political intrigue and local militarism. The story concerns an anthropologist who has come to Haiti in order to identify the powder used by bokors to create zombies, as this chemical might prove to be of great medical (and financial) benefit. What results is a deadly cat-and-mouse game played between the chief protagonist and a local military tyrant, who is a bokor and uses his powers to make slaves of his enemies or to destroy them. The film effectively blurs the line between reality and hallucination, in much the same way as Nightmare on Elm Street undermines the distinction between the waking world and the dream world of Freddie Krueger. Some critics are less than impressed by the film's perceived decline into SFX mayhem, but to me it seems a perfectly appropriate climax, especially as the reality/hallucination interface has been explored throughout and Craven never lets the final supernatural conflict become unequivocably 'real'.

Despite Craven's efforts, the mythos of voodoo, replete with the bokor and his scientific descendents, has become a secondary strain -- relegated in 1992 to Weekend at Bernie's 2, where the incompetent voodoo activation of Bernie's corpse (which allows him to walk only when music is playing) is necessary so that the corpse can lead protagonists and villains alike to the millions he had misappropriated in life. Generally, however, the focus on individual evil control has been minimised in recent times, diminishing along with it the notion of the animated dead as robot-slaves. Even in films like The Dead Pit, where there is a 'zombie master', the dead are not so much under his control as an expression of his originating evil, now functioning as an independent menace. The classic post-Night of the Living Dead zombie represents something more nihilistic and inevitable than the classic voodoo zombie, perhaps more metaphorically relevant to current views of the human condition. These modern representatives of spiritual death are less easily dealt with because they are part of a wider, spiritual malaise.

3. Romero's Living Dead

In 1968, with the troubled release of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, everything changed. Suddenly not only were the living dead dangerous, but the films in which they appeared were imbued with a modern apocalyptic despair that struck a powerful cord in the hearts of audiences everywhere. Romero, in fact, inspired two waves of zombie films -- one following Night of the Living Dead and another more frenzied one after the release of Dawn of the Dead in 1979. Day of the Dead (1985), the third in his living dead trilogy, was the icing on the gravestone.

Night of the Living Dead (1968), filmed cheaply and on fairly poor black-and-white stock, is one of the great horror films of all time: scary, claustrophobic, innovative and metaphorically potent. It tells the story of a group of people who are trapped in an isolated house when the dead suddenly refuse to lie still and become hungry for living flesh. The film flaunts expectation throughout -- the blonde heroine becomes almost catatonic early on and stays that way for the rest of the picture; the strong, sympathetically drawn hero is black; he makes all the right moves but heroism does not bring success or survival in this world, and in the end he is killed pointlessly and ironically; a sick child dies and then turns on her grieving mother with a cement trowel; a young all-American couple are burnt to death when their truck explodes; they are then eaten by the cannibalistic dead. No satisfactory explanation is offered as to why the dead are walking about and feeding on the living -- except for desperate theories expounded by experts on TV, who put the blame on radiation fallout from an abortive rocket launch. This latter explanation is blithely accepted by most film commentators, but to me it has always seemed more like a rationalisation made by the ailing society within the film, than Romero's rationale for events. No, like the inexplicable avian attacks in Hitchcock's The Birds, the zombie plague in Night simply happens and represents a breakdown in the accepted order of things -- the outer representation of modern man's empty spirit. The end of Night , though superficially giving humanity an uneasy control, offers no real hope. Groups of redneck vigilantes are the representatives of order -- and they shoot the hero thinking him one of the dead, without the slightest recognition of the heroic struggle he has gone through and without remorse. As the credits roll, his body is thrown onto a fire and burnt, and the rednecks party on.

Romero reprised Night in 1979, with a much bigger budget and much acquired expertise. Dawn of the Dead continues the mythos of Night, though none of the characters from the earlier film appear (yeah, I know they're all dead, but that never stops anyone, especially in this genre). In Dawn, the zombie problem is a step further advanced, the living dead having grown in number and being engaged in reducing human organisation to chaos. Four people escape from the city in a helicopter, finally landing on the roof of a huge shopping mall. They take refuge in this mall, seeing it as a well-stocked fortress, which can be sealed off relatively easily. Unfortunately the complex is full of zombies (which gravitate there because the shopping centre was such an important place for them when they were alive), but this problem can be solved through a process of extermination. What follows is a dazzling combination of satire, adventure and horror, which veers seamlessly through those modes in a unique display of brilliant make-up effects (by Tom Savini) and adroit direction. It is by turns horrific, funny, gory, poignant and suspenseful. It works so well because the characters are well-conceived and the underlying metaphor is so perfectly realised.

Hope is only marginally more in evidence than in Night. Some of the characters escape in the end, though what they are escaping to is hardly a cause for optimism. In Dawn, however, the best explanation (though it is a non-explanation) for the 'living dead' phenomenon is given: "When there's no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth." There it is in a nutshell -- it makes poetic sense but there's nothing we can do about it. Meaning now can only come through the struggle to remain human (and all that that means), not through the possibility of success.

Occasionally these zombies of Romero's -- and some of those that followed in their wake -- are referred to as 'ghouls', a name suggested by their cannibalistic tendencies. But in folklore, ghouls weren't dead bodies themselves. They were evil spirits (or possessed individuals) that ate the flesh of the dead, generally robbing graves to do so. Romero's creatures are the ones who are dead, and they eat the living. In fact, they don't even eat each other; it is only living flesh that attracts them. Why the dead are so hungry for living flesh is, of course, anybody's guess. Certainly it is not for food in the normal sense. They are dead and cannot digest what they eat. As a slightly potty researcher illustrates (gruesomely) in Day of the Dead, the dead do not need to eat -- they reach for live flesh even when they have no mouth or gullet, even when their stomachs have been removed. The impulse is part of their very fibre -- a spiritual craving. They are dead, and death wants to consume life. It is an image of insatiable nihilism that is hard to resist.

In fact, in Day of the Dead, the only resistance proves to be simple, albeit doomed, flight. Set in a hastily set up scientific establishment, guarded now by a barely controllable military remnant, Day charts the failure of conventional effort to provide answers to the zombie dilemma. Experimentation to find the cause of the phenomenon -- and a way to 'control' the dead -- becomes a foolish indulgence, though it succeeds in evoking a display of purposeful and emotive revenge on the part of one of the living dead, 'Bub'. In fact, by the end of the film, it is the human activity throughout -- scientific, military and interpersonal -- which is seen by the viewer to be most clearly an expression of evil. The zombies' bloody cannibalism is no more immoral than the vicious impulses of a hungry lion, or the ravages of a tornado. It is the living people who still have the capacity for evil.

Finally, there is only one choice: the three surviving characters escape in a helicopter and find temporary refuge -- from killer corpses and the need to maintain civilisation -- on a tropical beach. One of them still keeps a calendar record of time passing -- that's all that is left of human society. It is a bleak but logical end to the series, and for me (though not for most of the critics) Day brings Night to a masterful conclusion, as well as being an excellent film in its own right.

The influence of Romero's trilogy on horror movies in general and the zombie sub-genre in particular was profound. It changed many of our expectations as to what films can, or even should, do, and it gave renewed life to the walking dead. From here on in, random violence and other evidence of a universe out of sympathy with, or indifferent to, humanity tend to dominate the horror film, as they have horror literature in general. Such themes as the nightmarish alienation of our familiar world, impersonal violence and the futility of social struggle lie at the heart of modern horror. Romero's role in this changing perspective is debatable, of course, but he is there riding the first wave, and popularised the changes in a distinctive way. More certain is his influence over the image of the zombie which now dominates the zombie film. From here on, zombies will tend to be hungrier, bloodier and more primal. Romero's images of white-faced or partially decomposed bodies staggering apocalyptically out of the night, intent on cannibalistic mayhem, provided a template for film-makers -- and, as technical aspects of SFX make-up improved, the images became more extreme, zombies appearing more and more death-like and decomposed. In the end, even bits of zombies -- arms, heads and, in the case of Jackson's Braindead, stomach and intestines -- are able to maintain a 'life' of their own. This is the human body -- our material being -- engaging in an act of sheer rebellion.

In 1990, make-up artist for Dawn and Day, Tom Savini, directed a re-make version of Night of the Living Dead from Romero's own script. Inevitably, of course, the film has been strongly criticised -- but such criticism is somewhat unfair, I think. The new version is remarkably effective, restrained in terms of gore and technically superior to most other zombie films. At least in its first half it remains faithful to the original, compressing the earlier film and then expanding from that point. Romero and Savini work some interesting changes throughout; the famous first meeting with a zombie in the graveyard, for example, is neatly turned upon the viewer to undermine expectation. Overall, the film is well made and effective -- given the difficulties of re-making such a passionately regarded classic -- and if the first version didn't exist, I think the 1990 version would have been warmly greeted. Of course, since the first film does exist, this argument is somewhat spurious. Nevertheless I feel that the re-make is worthy of a sympathetic viewing. The divergent last third of the film ably strengthens the theme that is so strong in Romero's 'Living Dead' sequence -- "they are us".


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