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Toward a Unified Theory of Zombie Movies

From the moment they first rose from the dead on-screen in the 1930s to Zack Snyder’s ‘Army of the Dead,’ zombies have been a go-to vehicle for deeper messages

Ringer illustration

There’s a certain poetry in knowing that the first zombie movie was presided over by a vampire—undead icons have to stick together. In 1932’s White Zombie, then–reigning king of screen horror Bela Lugosi plays a lethal voodoo master with the all-time-great name of Murder Legendre. Holed up in a sugarcane mill in Haiti, Monsieur Legendre rules over a community of magically reanimated corpses who dutifully carry out his bidding, which includes a few former rivals he’s kept around as trophies-slash-cautionary-tales. Their servile fate ironically embodies the concept of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”: They couldn’t, and they did.

The corpses “work faithfully, and are not concerned with long hours,” explains Legendre to one disbelieving guest, gesturing toward White Zombie’s true source of terror. The film’s script is drawn largely from William Seabrook’s 1929 novel, The Magic Island, which fictionalized the writer’s visit to Port-au-Prince in the waning days of America’s occupation of Haiti and popularized the figure of the zombie-as-hulking-automaton—a racially coded archetype inviting Western pity, revulsion, and fear. White Zombie doesn’t hold up as a classic (unless you’re Rob Zombie), but what endures is its underlying parable of exploitation, which posits slavery as a fate worse than death: Even after you check out, you can never really clock out.

That same dread courses through Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 masterpiece I Walked With a Zombie, which uses a similar Caribbean setting to restage a creepy version of Jane Eyre. “She makes a beautiful zombie, doesn’t she?” asks the town doctor of sleepwalking Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), who glides through the streets at night in the grip of a voodoo curse. As the avatar of a white family riven by sibling rivalry, adultery, alcoholism, and tragedy, she’s as much a victim as a figure of fear. The same goes for the enslaved Carrefour (Darby Jones), whose first appearance in a screen-filling close-up is one of the scariest and most powerful moments in horror movie history; staring out at us from behind blind eyes, he’s at once uncanny and unknowable, powerful and powerless.

The spirit of Tourneur is alive and well thanks to a few directors who understand the zombie movie’s melancholy, political potential. Last year, French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello evoked I Walked With a Zombie in parts of Zombi Child, about a teenage girl’s reckoning with her family’s Haitian roots. Bonello’s film is tender, emotional, and thoughtful. Those are not words you’d use for Army of the Dead, but even as it mashes up war, heist, and action tropes (plus a MacGruber-style team-building montage), Zack Snyder’s latest bows to the zombie genre’s subtext of alienated labor. Seventeen years after using Johnny Cash to hot-wire his Dawn of the Dead redux into something authentically apocalyptic, Snyder remains the master of the pop-montage credit sequence; Army of the Dead peaks early (and dizzyingly high) during a self-contained set piece scored, naturally, to “Viva Las Vegas,” which in three minutes transforms the city’s glittering landmarks—and service economy—into a series of grotesque, absurdist tableaux. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights in neon, with pasties, tassels, and a free shrimp cocktail. In a series of languorously speed-ramping shots, we see casino dealers, Elvis impersonators, and showgirls transformed into carnivorous monsters and taking it out on terrified tourists.

By effectively remaking Escape From New York in Sin City—reimagining America’s gambling capital as a walled-off stronghold that’s more or less seceded from the country and been targeted for destruction from above by thermonuclear weapons—Snyder engineers a witty riff on the old saying “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” And yet the smartest thing about Army of the Dead is that it doesn’t really try to be smart: Besides being a zombie movie in form, it’s also a zombie movie in spirit, lurching from trope to gory trope without much on its mind at all. (It also deploys the Cranberries’ “Zombie” in an attempt to secure the all-time literal-needle-drop championship belt.)

“I watched ‘Army of the Dead,’” tweeted Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima over the weekend. “[It] entertained me by turning my head into a zombie, not to scare me, not to make me laugh, not to make a metaphor for society.”

For years, I’ve been joking that an important moment in the history of genre cinema will come when some clever young filmmaker tells a group of journalists at a press conference that her film examining some socially relevant real-life subject—a documentary on housing shortages, perhaps, or a meditation on dwindling environmental resources—is actually an allegory for, like, zombies, man. Scholar Jeffrey Cohen writes that “like all monsters, zombies are metaphors.” Of all the gifts that genre godfather George A. Romero bestowed on us with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead—a movie as creepy, indefatigable, and overwhelming as the zombies infesting its narrative—the most pernicious is the idea that all zombie movies are metaphorical: that a shambling, undifferentiated mass of humanity can stand in symbolically for any and all topical maladies.

Certainly, Night of the Living Dead channeled certain late-’60s anxieties, using its images of mutilation and dismemberment to stand in for the news footage of Vietnam that network television stations weren’t permitted to broadcast, and pointedly rallying its characters around Duane Jones’s stoic African American protagonist. (Another persuasive angle: all those zombie congregants as a corollary to Richard Nixon’s silent majority.) On the ground, though, things were more matter of fact: “We just shot it the way things would be if the dead returned to life,” Romero said in 1972. In truth, Romero, whose previous credit had been a segment for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which the star got a tonsillectomy, owed conceptual debts to plenty of sources, including the creepy EC comics of the 1950s, which featured plenty of reanimated bodies, and numerous Cold War–era science-fiction movies featuring some form of zombification as a plot point. While Don Siegel’s 1956 hit Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not technically a zombie movie, the concept of everyday Americans transformed against their will into placid predators—“reborn into an untroubled world,” in the words of one extraterrestrial cipher—carried undercurrents of the mythos.

Similarly, despite Night of the Living Dead’s see-it-if-you-dare reputation—which connected more deeply with a youth audience than the gentrified chills of Roman Polanski’s A-list Rosemary’s Baby in the same year—Romero wasn’t even that far out in terms of gore. The film’s bloodletting was easily outstripped at home and abroad by directors experimenting with deep-red palettes, but its documentary drab black-and-white cinematography was essential to its impact. What makes Night of the Living Dead great is its access to a raw-boned, elemental terror that, with a mix of skill, luck, and timing, transformed meager production values into unexpected but potent guarantors of authenticity. Because the opening scene of two lovers suddenly menaced in a graveyard by a zombie looked so amateurish—like some roving, freelance camera crew’s hastily discarded footage—it seemed that much more uncannily real.

Which is why, with a few key exceptions—like the collected works of Italian maestro Lucio Fulci, with their florid, outrageous stylization and fetishistic fixation on ocular trauma—a sense of realism and relatability serves as zombie cinema’s thickest piece of connective tissue. In lieu of the seductive expressionism of the vampire film or the surreal excesses of Lovecraftian extra-dimensional horror, the zombie movie typically draws power from plausibility. Take Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a movie heralded as an heir to Romero’s Dead series, which was on hiatus in the early days of the new millennium. In Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Romero had smartly de-emphasized the why of his zombie outbreaks to focus on the physics (and metaphysics) of human survival: how the end of the world would bring out the best and worst in the human condition (and, in Dawn of the Dead, how the search for comfort, security, and stability in the face of social breakdown means getting the gang together and hitting the mall).

Still, Romero’s classics at least pay lip service to the likelihood of nuclear radiation as the reason for the undead uprising. Boyle’s film, scripted by Alex Garland, substitutes a lab-based contagion colloquially known as the “Rage Virus,” which turns the infected into spasmodic, aggressive cannibals, a switch that reflected shifting global anxieties about potential impending pandemics. (28 Days Later opened a year before SARS.)

The symptoms of the Rage Virus—red eyes and fast-twitch athleticism—aligned the film’s zombies with their video-game contemporaries in the Resident Evil series. These creatures were swifter and more streamlined than Romero’s schlubby, mouldering extras; their speed and agility was nicely in line with Boyle’s 21st-century digital aesthetic. The image of coma patient Cillian Murphy spelunking through a totally emptied-out London in his hospital gown evokes the lone hero of Richard Matheson’s last-man-on-Earth novel I Am Legend, but it’s also got the blurry, unforgiving look of camcorder vérité.

In 2007, Spanish filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza took those textures and ran with them through the harrowing, near-real-time mockumentary REC, set largely inside a Barcelona apartment complex whose residents keep succumbing to a condition halfway between rabies and demonic possession. A master class in slow-burning exposition punctuated by a few genuinely startling jump scares, REC has been sequelized and remade in English (as Quarantine) but not quite equalled as a found-footage zombie film; even Romero’s own Diary of the Dead, released in the same year, feels poky and labored by comparison.

The other big zombie-movie breakthrough of the 2000s was, of course, Edgar Wright’s overtly parodic, Romero-worshipping Shaun of the Dead, which threaded its realistic textures in a different way: through the wry, consistent acknowledgment of a workaday boredom located on the same axis of UK-based cringe comedy as The Office. The key joke of Wright’s film is that, as it begins, Simon Pegg’s Shaun has already succumbed to a comfortable numbness all but indistinguishable from zombification; he stumbles through the dawn of the dead nursing a hangover so bad he doesn’t even notice when he steps into a pile of guts. Once he realizes what’s going on, however, he shifts into the same kind of genre-savvy self-awareness as the slasher movie aficionados in Scream; where Boyle had tried in 28 Days Later to reinstate terror and desperation in the zombie movie, Wright opts for seen-it-all-before satire.

Billed as the first ever “rom-zom-com,” Shaun of the Dead’s trickle-down effect resulted in a cycle of carefully annotated movies not nearly as clever as their inspiration (or even as clever as their makers would want to believe). There were more (and more substantial) laughs to be found in the visually witty installments of Resident Evil than out-and-out comedies like Warm Bodies (what if Romeo and Juliet, but zombies?), Fido (what if zombies, but pets?), and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (what if Jane Austen never stopped rolling in her grave?). The biggest hits of this group were Marc Forster’s World War Z, a disappointingly conventional adaptation of Max Brooks’s formally sophisticated novel, which takes the form of a detailed, digressive oral history of a zombie pandemic. The film underwent multiple rewrites and reshoots, sacrificing the book’s complexity in favor of chunky CGI. Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, meanwhile, tweaked the Shaun formula away from middle-aged malaise to young-adult awkwardness and hit the casting jackpot with pre-superstardom Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone, whose deadpan performances bolster the movie’s weirdly glib, mean-spirited tone; as for the much-beloved cameo by Bill Murray playing a survivalist version of himself, it’s funny (he really is legend), but five cute minutes don’t make a classic.

Murray’s other recent genre spoof made a lot less money than Zombieland and took more film-critical headshots. The dismal reception for Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 The Dead Don’t Die suggested a misaligned art-house mash-up by a filmmaker whose aim is usually true. But it was not: As in his vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch was couching an earnest fable about aging and obsolescence in postmodern garb, and the aside that Adam Driver’s small-town cop has somehow already read the film’s script, with its downer ending, is an effective but unsettling bit of fourth-wall breaking by an old pro. It casts a pall over the sketch-comic interludes to come, and codes The Dead Don’t Die as something better than its reputation: a faux midnight movie about a civilization helplessly running out the clock on the future.

For an even more ferocious variation on the small-town outbreak story line, there’s Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s 2020 breakout Blood Quantum, whose ’80s setting and head-spattering makeup effects create one frame of reference while its evocation of indigenous Canadian history and resistance serves as another. The title refers to Canadian and U.S. laws that measure Native American heritage as a matter of fractions; the twist that the film’s indigenous characters are immune to a zombie plague affecting the surrounding white French Canadian settler population is potently politicized, reconfiguring a culture’s forced vulnerability as a source of strength.

Barnaby’s setting of a reservation transformed into a fortified compound on whose walls somebody has scrawled “if they’re white, they bite” owes something to Mad Max, and Barnaby’s combination of passion and savvy resonates more than Snyder’s easy sarcasm regarding Las Vegas—the difference between a filmmaker trying to inhabit his material and one who’s just passing through. “It’s a free country,” observes one of Army of the Dead’s suicide-squad stalwarts ruefully, to which a comrade responds, “Actually, it’s not America anymore, which probably makes it freer.” The line lands with a thud. Snyder can do exploding heads with the best of them, but as long as zombie movies are at least partially about blowing minds, he’s got a ways to go.