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Zombie Metaphors: An Incomplete History

By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore Vampires have become sexy, mummies CG, monsters sympathetic, but...

05072007_28weekslater_article.jpgBy Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

Vampires have become sexy, mummies CG, monsters sympathetic, but no horror baddie remains as au courant as the lowly, lurching zombie. The reanimated undead continue to be the indie subject of choice for highbrow horror and lowbrow schlock, in part because they’re the cheapest to whip up — slather some grayish make-up and fake blood on a few extras, and voilà! — but also because they’re the most mutable stand-in for the less tangible things that plague us. It’s this symbolic potential that seems to be behind the recent zombie film resurgence: beside this week’s ’50s conformity spoof “Fido,” there’s festival mockumentary “American Zombie,” which purports to investigate L.A.’s “non-living community”; the brutal and epic sequel “28 Weeks Later”; Glasgow Phillips’ zombie western “Undead or Alive” and others. Below, we take a wander through some of milestones of zombie symbolism.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr.

Widely ridiculed for decades as one of the worst movies ever made (and not entirely without justification, either), Edward D. Wood Jr.’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” made nearly a decade before Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” hides a poignant allegorical critique beneath its pie tin flying saucers and bad Bela Lugosi stand-ins. Wood’s zombies are brought back to life by well-meaning (but also kinda dickish) aliens, who come to Earth with a warning: our constant desire to create bigger and more powerful weapons will eventually result in weapons so dangerous they will threaten the safety of the entire universe. Why the aliens thought that bringing a Swedish professional wrestler back to life in a small Southern California community would somehow alter the course of the military-industrial complex is largely left to the imagination, but that doesn’t change the fact that Wood’s zombies, like so many later ones, come to serve as a symbol of mankind’s self-destructive nature.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero

The seminal zombie movie from the genre’s undisputed master isn’t as explicit in its messages as some its sequels, but its openness makes it even more interesting. In the forty years since its release, George Romero’s no-budget landmark has been discussed as everything from a critique of the Vietnam War to a reaction to the civil rights movement (its hero, an African-American, survives the zombie onslaught only to be murdered by the redneck-ridden cavalry). The text is so rich the interpretations are endless: the last time I saw it, “Night” struck me as an indictment of human indecisiveness — while Rome (or, in this case, rural Pennsylvania) burns, the survivors can’t decide whether to flee or to hide, whether to stay in the living room, or hunker down in the basement. Meanwhile, scientists bicker over whether some space probe from Venus is causing the dead’s reanimation. Like it matters! As that great Serlingian ending proves, we’re all screwed either way.

Dead of Night (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark

Almost a decade before Clark made a mainstream name for himself with “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story,” he turned out this rough but wickedly effective indie horror film equating zombism with Vietnam vet trauma. The Brooks family hasn’t heard from soldier son Andy for long enough that his father and sister suspect the worst; it’s only his devoted mother who keeps the faith with a fervor that borders on madness. Her conviction that her son is alive seems to actually pull him from the grave — he arrives in the dead of night, having hitchhiked to the house, and, given that we witnessed Andy’s death in the jungle before the opening credits, it’s clear nothing good is in store. Andy’s changed — he’s monotone, unresponsive and spends most of his time staring at nothing from a rocking chair on the porch. Oh, and he’s picked up an addiction — he needs injections of fresh blood to keep himself from rotting. Dread builds over the course of the film, but so does a sense of tragedy; everyone is unable to understand that Andy has been (literally, in his case) to hell, and can only respond with frustration that he’s not the same.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Directed by George A. Romero

Ten years and three movies after the success of “Night of the Living Dead,” George Romero refined and expanded his vision of an undead apocalypse. Working with five times his original budget (a still shockingly paltry $500,000), Romero managed to top himself and make one of the best sequels of all time. This “Dead” installment critiques American consumer culture: four refugees from the zombie onslaught stumble on an abandoned shopping mall and lock themselves inside to ride out the storm. At first, the mood is euphoric, as they live out all their wildest shopping spree fantasies. But the fun doesn’t last. Even before their muzak-tinged utopia gets overrun by unruly bikers and hordes of flesh-eaters, they’re as depressed as a lottery winner who realizes his money can’t buy him happiness. There’s no defeating the darkness, but Romero’s uncharacteristically upbeat ending suggests you can escape it, especially if you leave the mall and vow never to return.

[Photos: "28 Weeks Later," Fox Atomic, 2007; "Plan 9 From Outer Space," DCA, 1959; "Night of the Living Dead," Continental Motion Pictures Corporation, 1968; "Dead of Night," Entertainment International Pictures, 1974; "Dawn of the Dead," United Film Distribution Company, 1978]

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