The Zombie Appeal, part 6: Reaganing.

16 Nov

Part 6: Reaganing.

The boom boom go go cocaine fueled vulture capitalism privatize slash and burn no government 1980s shifted away from the slow-moving zombie—which had little to do with the boom bust paradigm—and turned toward two particular horror tropes: the young street tough and the vampire[1].

The blood-sucking, vaguely European, old-moneyed vampire was the perfect villain for the years of Reaganomics. Remember, this was the decade when Anne Rice hit it big. The only thing more frightening than Gordon Gecko was the creeping socialism of the Old World. Some of the movies were pretty good, too, including Fright Night and Near Dark. (The trend that picked up speed in the 1990s, another decade of filthy lucre and money money money. Blade, which isn’t a great movie, tapped into this by having the vampires be the super-rich, eating poor people. At one point Stephen Dorff says, “These people are our food!”)

Chris Sarandon as the vampire next door.

And the young? They’ve always been a tribe apart, but as movies catered to youth culture—disposable income combined with plenty of free time—teenagers became drivers, and targets, of popular culture. Children of the Corn gets it, at least in the first ten minutes, how terrifying the young can be. The street gangs that rove the eighties films are too numerous to mention. Garish costumed ruffians traversed an urban wasteland of burned out cinder buildings covered in graffiti. These movies had a profound impact on me and many other suburban children. Tucked into my enclave in Pensacola, I was convinced that, after ten minutes inside the city limits, a gang of scoundrels would mug me, beat me up, sodomize me a little, and then take photos. I’m not kidding.

Another movie that ushered in the end of my childhood.

Horror shifted away from terror towards camp. Hopelessness was passé; we wanted our monsters to wink into the camera. They weren’t there to threaten us. There was a push for re-occuring horror characters, usually in a sly mode. They were scary, but often not really menacing: Freddy Kreuger, Jason, Chucky. Horror lost something in the eighties, a seriousness that was replaced with often unfunny—and now dated—satire[2].

Ghosts were around, most notably in Poltergeist and the Amityville Horror, but they receded a bit due to the material concerns of Reagan’s decade. They would remain absent for much of the 1990s, returning with a vengeance in the oughts, mostly due to a blast of Japanese Buddhist-techno-occultic-weirdness.

There were three notable zombie movies. The first was Night of the Creeps, a tiny little horror-comedy gem. Aliens in the form of slithery slugs shoot into people’s mouths and turn them into zombies.

Return of the Living Dead is a sequel, of sorts, to Night, only without Romero’s involvement. He shared the creation of the concept with Dan O’Bannon, who looked to cash in[3]. The movie is a nifty black comedy with a killer counterculture soundtrack, but it watches like an abomination to fans of the original. Gone is the hopelessness, the terror, replaced by slapstick morbidity. The zombies have green faces and wander around mumbling, “Brains! Brains!” It plays like a hipper Gremlins, backed by punk rock tunes. It isn’t bad at all, it’s just sort of weird.

A far cry from its predecessor: strippers, bikers, cemetery walkers, zombies as hambone slapstick players.

Romero returned to his wheelhouse with his third zombie movie, released at the same time. Day of the Dead is a strong movie, but also problematic. The story takes place in an underground military industrial complex—I’m making my way back to The Walking Dead, so remember this point—with some of the last earthlings still alive. The military are running things. There’s a scientist experimenting with humanizing a zombie and, to his delight and the chagrin of his fellow bunkermates, it’s working. The zombie is like a puppy. He can make noises, he can understand basic things, but he’s temperamental and has no understanding of his place in the world. There are some touching scenes. Romero teases out the notion that the zombies could be retrained as human beings, if only the scientist could have enough time.

He doesn’t. The inevitable happens. In-fighting, the anxiety of the constant threat of invasion, and finally human betrayal. The last twenty minutes are a harrowing journey through dimly lit subterranean hallways, the last humans being pursued by a gaggle of zombies. The tonal issues don’t mesh, but the movie mostly works anyway. Romero has never been accused of subtlety, but compared to Return, his zombie movie was a delicate exercise in mood and style. Return crushed, Day tanked, and Romero moved on.

A zombie hearing music and slowly regaining his humanity. Too bad the real humans have lost too much of theirs.

The nineties, even more concerned with material pleasures and the ruthless pursuit of possessions moved on, too. Zombies weren’t sexy. They weren’t unpredictable. They were too damn depressing. The Clinton years with the computer boom and the internet explosion would greet a new phantom for the movie-going public: the serial killer.


[1] Lost Boys was prescient in this regard, wedding the myth of vampirism to the sleep-all-day punk rock youth culture. Brilliant.

[2] John Carpenter offered a corrective to this nonsense with a string of very fine horror movies, including Christine, The Fog, and the underrated Prince of Darkness.

[3] In all fairness, Romero had become a marquis name while O’Bannon had languished, despite both contributing to the original film.

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