From the beginning of cinema until 45 years ago, zombie movies took place in Haiti, or on some nameless Caribbean isle. And masters of The Dark Arts, like Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, used Voodoo as Mind Control to enslave the living as well as the dead. Then in 1968 George Romero grafted characteristics from the Vampire mythos onto the Zombie genre, broke about a half dozen cinematic taboos, and created Night of the Living Dead.
The vampire, as personified by Lugosi in Dracula, was an undead creature who continued its existence by drinking the blood of the living. Bela could drain a victim at one sitting or he'd take a sip from the heroine over a couple of nights to eventually turn her into his vampire bride. Dracula was a malevolent creature who fed off of the living but compared to the Zombies born in the late 60's ... he was downright civilized about it.
Zombies, as envisioned by George Romero, tear you apart and eat you alive. There are no seductive vampiric overtures. They just grab you, bite your face off, and rip you to pieces. Right in front of the camera. No discreet cutaway shots. Tom Savini's make-up wizardry allowed Romero's camera to stare unblinkingly at shocking images of gore infused ultra-violence. If a zombie only bit you, by the next day the infection would kill, and shortly thereafter you would join the shambling hordes. The only defense against a Romero zombie is to shoot it in the head. And again, because of Savini's make-up effects, the camera caught the black blood and brain matter blasting out in all directions.
What elevated Night of the Living Dead, and the rest of Romero's zombie films, was the socio-political commentary completely missing from the gore-porn cranked out by his imitators. In Dawn of the Dead, survivors take refuge in a mega-shopping mall, a relatively new development on America's landscape in 1978. Yes it's a flesh-eating zombie movie. But at the same time it examined the literal soullessness of a consumer-based society.
In 2005 Romero wrote and directed Land of the Dead. The review by Jason Buchanan at allmovie.com said everything I was going to say so I'll just cut and paste it here:
"In Land of the Dead, the zombies whose numbers had been slowly but steadily growing ... now dominate the streets of most American cities, while urban skyscrapers have been taken over by surviving humans, usually greed-addled opportunists who allow the living to stay in their fortified compounds for a price. Guarding the buildings are ... mercenaries who have learned to do battle with the zombies, making use of powerful weapons to gain advantage. But as the zombie civilization grows, the creatures have begun to slowly evolve, with their dormant thought processes beginning to awaken, and as unrest begins to ferment among the mercenaries and the entrepreneurs who pay them, the ghouls may have found a way to defeat the last stronghold of humanity."
" ... George A. Romero's latest entry is a thinking man's gut-muncher that is clearly the work of a filmmaker with much on his mind -- and the courage to let his rotting flesh-eaters sink their teeth into larger issues often too tender to be approached in a straightforward manner."
So am I going to go out on a rotting limb and say 2005's Land of the Dead presaged the Occupy Movement in 2011? Yes I Am and unashamedly so. If I were to come up with a criticism of George Romero's movies (which is easy or difficult to do depending on your blood 'n guts threshold), I'd say that social commentary sometimes requires a gentle tap of a tack hammer, the slam of a gavel, or every so often a smash with a sledgehammer. I think George picks up the sledgehammer more often than not. But then again ... criticizing a flesh-eating zombie flick for its lack of subtlety is just plain silly.
So yeah ... I've been -- for lack of a better word -- a fan of the genre for 45 years, and have seen waaaaaay too many absolutely terrible low budget -- no budget -- movies. Who could forget the Norwegian Zombie Thriller Dead Snow? I wish I could. Anyone who could slog through that steaming pile of Nordic nonsense would certainly stand in line to see Brad Pitt's 200 million dollar World War Z in 3D.
Actor/Producer Pitt made a $200 million dollar zombie movie but he didn't make a flesh-eating zombie movie. World War Z's zombies aren't the lurching zombies of the past that you could escape by walking a little faster. No ... these are the "Speed Zombies" first introduced in 2002 in the movie 28 Days Later. These undead are Olympic level sprinters. They bite. And that's all we really get to see at the beginning of the film. The bite of a zombie kills and turns the victim into a zombie in under 15 seconds. And then the new zombie races off to find someone else to bite. In a series of fairly impressive set pieces we see thousands and thousands and thousands of zombies mindlessly racing after uninfected humans. It's like watching a world-wide riot. World War Z is filled with computer-generated spectacle ... not characters.
And World War Z is constrained by its huge budget in an entirely different way from how Romero was constrained by his more modest budgets. When you spend $200 million producing a movie you need at least $500 million dollars worth of audience to make your money back. You can't afford to alienate anyone. Keep the blood -- and more importantly -- the ideas off the screen. Keep the action sequences coming one after the other, blow out the cash on spectacular special effects, and wrap it up with our hero saving the day. Are all summer action epics doomed to be brainless, bloated, mega-million dollar extravaganzas? It seems so.
I prefer the "thinking man's gut-muncher," Land of the Dead. It cost $15 million and grossed $40 million. Romero couldn't produce an epic zombie movie, but he could afford to say what he wanted to say. And his zombies aren't ... um ... tastefully portrayed. Romero movies literally, figuratively, and unapologetically, go for the jugular. Or any other body part that's handy.
In the Romero movies the zombies have won because of their sheer numbers. The dead outnumber the living. The remaining humans live a desperate bleak existence in a post-apocalyptic world where everything is hard because survival is hard. Survivors band together and attempt to save themselves ... without losing their humanity. Success is not certain, nor even probable. But the survivors continue the struggle for a better world regardless.
So I'm not fooling around when I say George A. Romero's flesh-eating zombie films are a perfect metaphor for our strange and terrible Modern Times. And I'm definitely not kidding when I say the only differences between zombies and devotees of Rush Limbaugh and FoxNews are diet and hygiene.