The Zombie Appeal, part 5: Return of the King.

15 Nov

5. Return of the King.

The 1970s were a grand, rollicking time for zombies. The undead quickly came to represent a decay in the social order. Our cities were crumbling; crime rates were soaring. The first taste of severe ecological disaster—wrought by the day to day living of the world’s people—was bitter and foul. Gas lines. Food shortages. Riots. Weird leather outfits. Nuclear armageddon. Disco.

The stuff of nightmares.

We were living in a movie all along . . . and that movie was Soylent Green.

There was a notion that the American experiment had failed and failed utterly. Hoodlums and street toughs and blank-faced murderers were inheriting the earth. (Take a look at the plethora of vigilante movies that came out during the period; people really believed that the governing institutions had failed.) The police were powerless. The politicians were corrupt. The bureaucrats were running things. There wasn’t enough money, food, water or land. The downward spiral was inescapable. Drought, or a new ice age, or mushrooms clouds on the horizon? The ways to the end were numerous.

The zombie film got at this notion of precipitous decline. The world was so messed up that the dead were walking around and feasting on the living. Plenty of directors took a stab at the genre, but the crown prince was elsewhere.

The concept immigrated to the Europe. Fulci, an Italian horror director, took the concept and ran with it in a number of strange movies, including Zombie, which is a great bad movie. There’s a scene, just to give you a taste, of a zombie fighting a shark out in the ocean. It’s gory, inspired, and quite stupid.

I wasn’t making it up: zombie versus shark.

Domestically, Bob Clark made two zombie movies, Deathdream, an adaptation of “The Monkey’s Paw”; and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, one of the greatest titles in the history of movies. (The movie does not live up to the title, although Robert and I amused ourselves endlessly with this one when we were in high school. And the movie has its charm.) There are others, but none compare favorably to the original.

Children really shouldn’t play with dead things.

Romero bopped around for a few years, making a number of movies of mixed quality—The Crazies is pretty good, Season of the Witch isn’t terrible, and Martin is a genuinely disturbing, if overrated, film—before returning to the zombie form. But it was worth the wait. He found a backer in Italian horror director Dario Argento, who gave him total creative control with the American version of the film. (Argento would retain the right to re-edit the film for the European market. And as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m no great fan of Argento, but for this decision alone he should be allowed into the pearly gates.)

Dawn of the Dead picks up a few days after Night ends. The entire scaffold of civilization, the news media and social and political structures, is collapsing. Four survivors flee in a helicopter and make a life for themselves in a giant shopping mall. They master the zombies and try to create a new world. They spend their time frolicking in their newfound, but worthless, wealth. They aren’t happy, but they busy themselves with worthless tasks to pass the time, and fool themselves into thinking they’ve begun a new society.

The shoppers all look a little strange. . .

They haven’t. Internal dissensions fester, and soon other humans come along and ruin everything. The mall isn’t a safe haven at all; it’s hell. The four survivors just don’t know yet it.

With Dawn, Romero moved the concept into steeper political territory, and mined it for humor, greater horror, and a kind of hopelessness inherent in the human condition. It’s an existential movie par excellence, a terrifying journey into the darkest aspects of consumerism. Consumerism strips us of our souls, our minds, leaving husks of soulless flesh. It gnaws at our ability to experience contentment. It erodes our ability to understand our own needs.

The larger budget allows for some terrifying crowd scenes, where thousands of zombies mill about parking lots and highways. The scale of the thing is overwhelming. It’s a doomed, disturbed vision of the human condition. Yet it’s thrilling and fun to watch. No small feat.

There’s something so sad about zombies milling about a parking lot.

I didn’t see Dawn until I was in college. It was never on network television and unavailable at the video stores in Pensacola. I watched it with Robert, my horror movie partner in crime, and we were mesmerized. Neither of us knew it was a sequel. Times were different; with no Internet you had to either subscribe to movie magazines or stumble upon the good stuff. Good stuff it was. After finishing it, I went outside. It was after midnight. The moon was a sliver in a cloudless sky. The neighborhood seemed hostile and alien. I blinked my eyes and for a minute saw a thousand zombies on those suburban streets. The movie wormed its way into my subconscious and didn’t let go.

One of the creepiest zombies in Dawn. I had nightmares about him.

Romero never let go of the zombies, returning over and over to his original creation. In the subsequent movies, of varying quality, the zombies become more and more human—they’re almost like newborn babies, only with rotting flesh—and the humans become more and more monstrous.

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