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Before George A. Romero’s cult status, and with it the cult status of the great zombie film, was defined by the classic, genre changing movie Night of the Living Dead, Hollywood had seen only a smattering of early concept zombie flicks. So far removed, both aesthetically and tonally, from what we’d consider the norm in today’s age of The Walking Dead that we’ve lost touch with the origins and evolution of the sub-genre. It’s become so ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist that your average zombie viewer probably couldn’t even tell you what Night of the Living Dead was.
Much the same as Game of Thrones turned the fantasy genre on its head, or how true crime used to be hidden away on Channel 5 until a certain Stephen Avery came along, The Walking Dead has taken the genre to new places but the evolution to this stage shouldn’t be resigned to the history books or University essays.
To celebrate the release of Dead Rising: Endgame this Halloween we’ve taken a look at how the zombie genre has evolved, been tinkered with and explored over the years from Romero’s seminal work right on through to 2016’s sleeper zombie hit The Girl with all the Gifts.
*For the sake of argument all of the below movies feature ‘zombies’, not ‘infected’*
Night of the Living Dead/Return of the Living Dead The influence of Night of the Living Dead can be seen in almost every single zombie property since 1968. It established all of the essential tropes and inspired possibly one of the greatest sequels of all time in Return of the Living Dead. It may not have come from Romero but ROTLD has arguably been more influential on the development of the sub-genre largely because it introduced intelligent zombies and notably zombies that wanted one thing and one thing only, “Braaaaains”.
Braindead (AKA Dead Alive) Peter Jackson’s ultra-violent zombie comedy was hard enough to comprehend upon its release in 1992 let alone since The Lord of the Rings but it’s out there and brings something unique to the zombie table. The Sumatran Rat-Monkey, the carrier of the virus that turns humans into flesh eating zombies, is weird enough as it is but when you delve a little deeper into its origins we’re told in the prologue that this fictitious beast comes from Skull Island. As far as I’m aware, this is the first case of franchise cross-over to grace the zombie universe but I sure hope it’s not the last. Perhaps we’ll see them in next year’s Kong: Skull Island?
28 Days Later Running zombies*. 28 Days Later turned irrational fear into full on nightmare. The slow movers, the walkers and crawlers, the toe draggers and the bow-legged, the clawing groaners and the silent corner types all carry their own kind of threat, a threat that by 2002 had become kind of redundant. But make them run and you’ve got a whole new threat to contend with (a threat since thoroughly exploited in video game franchise Left 4 Dead and of course Dead Rising). Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic tale of humanity’s survival evolved the genre to a state where nobody is safe anymore. Zombies in movies have the ability to break character and this made 28 Days Later and future zombie films incredibly tense...
*(see introduction for gripes about calling them ‘zombies’)
Shaun of the Dead ...although, not everyone got the memo. In the same way Danny Boyle explored the limitations of the genre to bring something entirely new to the zombie audience Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg sat down and penned what is considered one of the greatest zombie movies ever made. Shaun of the Dead maintains all of the familiar tropes founded by Romero and co. in NOTLD, and even directly references those movies with the use of radio and television broadcasts as an exposition tool. But for all its humour, parody and endlessly quotable script the one thing that stands out *SPOILER* is the domestication of Ed in the closing scenes.
Of course, there are countless zombie films to choose from that all bring something unique to the genre no matter how small or seemingly trivial at the time. But where these chosen few have explored and expanded upon the zombie film so the genre will evolve for the better.
Dead Rising: Endgame is now out on both DVD and Blu-ray and brings with it a government conspiracy that could be the downfall of humanity.
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