Who knew vampires and zombies were ever going to become so popular?
Without going in too deep, there’s Twilight, the Annual Zombie Walk, TV series like True Blood and The Walking Dead, the addictive Plants vs Zombies game, not to mention the gimmicky Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Gone are the archetypal vampires of Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, or Max Schreck: the vampire via Anne Rice, and most recently, Stephanie Meyer, has become a romantic figure – an escapist fantasy for women of the dark and mysterious stranger who whisks them away into a forbidden world, keeping them safe from the harsh realities of this one.
As for zombies, they are no longer the mean and threatening graveyard crawlers they once were, but have become instead, nice and familiar like a not-too-distant relative on the family tree. In the wake of the GFC (a kind of apocalypse in itself) the term “zombie” has been co-opted to describe everything from zombie markets to zombie banks. It has also been used by journalists to describe creating new nouns by cannibalising old verbs.
Okay, so what’s my point, you might ask? Zombies and vampires have become too mainstream?
Cool, I should just get over it!
But what is there left for us to be afraid of, when everything about horror has been co-opted for the sake of social commentary? The problem is that in a post-scientific world, so many of our fears have become highly abstract: rather than worrying about getting savaged by wild animals, or wiped out by the black plague, we are mostly worried about things like losing our place in society; becoming poor; being alone; being left-behind; growing old; existential fears best left to art movie directors to explore.
However, the evolution of horror as a genre has always been to look at the world, and think, “Okay, what am I afraid of?” Or, “What is frightening about the situation I am in? Can I make it more frightening?”
Richard Matheson, who wrote everything from war stories to Westerns, reinvigorated the horror genre after going to see a vampire film in a Brooklyn cinema in the mid-fifties. He came out of the cinema, thinking to himself, “If one vampire is scary, imagine what a whole world full of them would be like?”
He would go home and turn this idea into one of the top genre books of the twentieth century, the 1956 classic, I Am Legend.
This ground-breaking book with its ultra-modern “last-man-on-Earth” scenario, would not only influence Stephen King, but also filmmaker George A. Romero, who would come to write a short story that he would refer to as “Anubis” (after the Egyptian god of the afterlife), about the breakdown of American society, when corpses start coming back to life and attacking the living, forming the basis of Night of the Living Dead.
Although Romero and the other filmmakers involved in the project, would not refer to their creatures as “zombies,” but “flesh-eating ghouls,” this was definitely the beginning of all that leg-dragging and head-lolling we have become so familiar with over the last fifty years.
There are a few good reasons why anyone would want to make a horror film; they are a great outlet for creative people with a dark and personal vision who can muster up the courage and technical ability to translate their ideas into film.
Don Coscarelli, who made Phantasm in the late seventies has spoken in interviews about how much of the plot came to him in a dream. Talking to Todd Doogan of the Digital Bits website, Coscarelli said: “I was in my teens, and what I can remember had mainly to do with my fleeing down endlessly long marble corridors, pursued by a chrome sphere intent on penetrating my skull with a wicked needle. There was a quite futuristic “sphere dispenser” out of which the orbs would emerge and begin chase. As far as I can remember, the spheres never caught up with me.”
Others like Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon had a love of the cosmic horror stories of author H. P. Lovecraft. Although his eighties films Re-Animator and From Beyond were only very loosely based on Lovecraft (there was no talking head in the original Herbert West: Reanimator) Gordon still made his mark as a horror director, introducing a whole new generation to this important American writer.
Another good reason is that horror films are also cheap to make: they don’t need big name actors, or expensive sets like other genre films, science fiction and fantasy; they have a captive audience – thrill-seeking teenage males and their dragged-along girlfriends; and they usually do reasonably well in the box-office. They are often seen as a way of making a quick buck, or as a stepping stone to greater things (the Weinsteins made The Burning on the success of slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th). Even those who we would consider to be the “great” directors of horror were initially talked into it. Both George Romero and Sam Raimi (who directed The Evil Dead) were advised to make a horror film by people in the industry, the wisdom being that as first time directors they would find it easier to get their film picked up and distributed – even though their main interests lay somewhere else (Romero was a big fan of drama, and Raimi, slapstick comedy).
However, the nature of the genre, with its reliance on graphic violence, and its openness to commercial exploitation, is historically a large part of the reason why it has often been made a scapegoat when things go wrong in society. Sometimes for good reason: although not a horror film, Stephen King was horrified to discover that a teenager planning a school massacre was found to have a copy of his novel Rage (about the same topic) in his locker, prompting King and his publisher to withdraw it from sale.
But sometimes the criticism has been unfair: Romero and the Image Ten group who worked with him, were publicly shredded by the film critic Roger Ebert (who was only 24 at the time) for the gruesome scenes of Night of the Living Dead, even though the fault of what Ebert was most unhappy with – that the film had been shown to children as a Saturday afternoon matinee session – lay with the distributor for not properly advising cinema owners, and the cinema owners for not properly scheduling it (they only needed to have a look at the naked woman on the lobby poster to know that it wasn’t suitable for children!).¹
Even with a proper ratings system in place by the 1980s, John Carpenter was still called a “pornographer of violence” for the special effects of The Thing; and a young Sam Raimi was dragged off to a UK court to answer obscenity charges for The Evil Dead, for which the charges were later dropped.
But this low-opinion of horror has also meant that thoughtful and well-meaning directors like Romero have been able to fly under the radar with what would otherwise be considered controversial ideas. It wasn’t until the French began to look at Night of the Living Dead that its other qualities began to emerge: here was an independently made film that had cast an African-American as its lead, the most sane and rational character of the story; and although he was to be killed off at the end of the film, this was without a doubt, a landmark in American filmmaking.²
Despite these public skirmishes, horror, at the end of the day, has always occupied a pretty small niche. It may have had some incredible high points like the Universal monster movies of the thirties and the Stephen King-led siege of the late seventies, early eighties; but really, when you scratch the surface and look behind it, there are only a few lasting names, and very few people who have dedicated their lives to it – to writing about it critically, and supporting it through publishing.
When literary people have turned their attention to it and tried to do something within the genre, they’ve always seemed to miss the point. Horror is one of those things that is a mood and an emotion, and usually a preoccupation with someone who has chosen to write in that particular field. H. P. Lovecraft understood this of Edgar Allan Poe, when Lovecraft wrote in his Supernatural Horror in Literature that Poe “saw clearly that all phases of life and thought are equally eligible as subject matter for the artist, and being inclined by temperament to strangeness and gloom, [he] decided to be the interpreter of those powerful feelings.”
Horror might seem to be something “less-than-literary”, but it is impossible to just alight on it, and create something of lasting value, without first caring about it in some way.
But for the general public, there are good reasons why they still enjoy horror films, and in particular, zombies. Everybody of a certain age is nostalgic about films like Return of the Living Dead that they had watched as teenagers at parties – for others, it might be the whole Saturday morning Thriller experience of trying to nail that zombie arm sway in one of the great film clips of last century. Either way, it’s nice to watch a horror film that taps into some part of your childhood, and this was a large part of the success of Shaun of the Dead.
But the problem now with zombies in particular, is that they have been devalued through overuse, and rather than satirising elements of society, like they once did, they are now only capable of sending up themselves and the clichés of the genre; and a monster losing its fearsomeness is as bad as the Mona Lisa losing her smile.
But this seems to be the fate and curse of all monsters: it happened to the original Universal Studio monsters – Frankie, Count Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man, when in the 1960s, American TV networks, searching for cheap content, snapped up all these original films from the thirties to repackage and show them as the Saturday Night “Creature Feature.” Fortunately for the parents of the kids watching these movies, the old world settings of Transylvanian castles, black and white monsters, and gypsy curses seemed a bit too silly to be frightening, and in its place, a kind of warmth and nostalgia built up around the monsters in the form of model-kits and later seventies cartoons like Scooby Doo and Groovy Goolies.
This hasn’t quite happened to zombies yet, but it is on the way. They are still popular: – if anything, there has been more TV series and films about them in the last ten years than at any other time; but without anyone really innovating or subverting the mythology in any great way (including Romero himself), outside of a few minor tweaks.
And maybe this has become an impossible task, anyway, with all the variations – friendly zombies, Nazi zombies, zombie animals, zombies that run, slow-poke zombies, zombies that ask for brains, zombies that don’t – having been explored.
Because lets face it, they’ve been through the mill – from poor, spell-bound slaves laboring in Haitian fields, to the harbingers of an all out apocalypse. Maybe its time that their spell be broken, and they be released from their fright duties, so they can finally have that well-deserved rest they’ve been hankering for.
1. Coincidentally, the modern rating system that we are familiar with today came out a month after Night of the Living Dead was released. Romero has acknowledging in interviews that had his film come out after the introduction of the rating system, Night of the Living Dead might not have attained the success that it did.
2. The French have always been an ally to the offbeat side of American culture. They were the first to appreciate the literary talents of Edgar Allan Poe, and the first to formally recognise the artistic value of “film noir” movies, coining the term for it.