The Birth of the Zombie Genre
Of all the horror characters zombies are undoubtedly my favourite. There's something about a slow shambling zombie hungry for human brains that brings a smile to my face. There have been some great zombie films over the years and they are a unique threat in horror films. They remind us of the creeping inevitably of death and zombie films are often about the struggle for survival in the face of ever increasing odds.
George A. Romero created the modern zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead. Although he had obviously borrowed elements from films like The Last Man on Earth the zombies he created, staggering cadavers in various states of decay all driven by a desire to eat human flesh, captured the public imagination and led to the birth of a whole genre of horror. Before Romero zombies were linked to Voodoo and supposed to be brought back from the dead and controlled by sorcerers. Romero modernised the idea, leaving it a mystery as to why the dead re-animated and allowing any corpse to return to life regardless of how long they had been dead.
The first zombies struggled to move, their limbs stiff from rigor mortis and parts of their bodies rotted away. They were also relatively easy to deal with if encountered alone, apart from the odd sneaky zombie who would hide in a cupboard or tip toe up on an unsuspecting victim. In numbers zombies became an overwhelming and inevitable tide of death.
There were loads of releases in the years after Night of the Living Dead, including Romero's own sequels, which adopted his creations and remained faithful to the basic idea. Some films chose to make the zombies thirst for brains rather than any human flesh, like the Return of the Living Dead series and over time zombies became faster and more visceral in their film depictions. Usually people point to 28 Days Later as responsible for the fast zombie phenomenon, though it wasn't the first film to do it and strictly speaking they are infected rather than zombies, but commercially speaking it was obviously the success of that film that led more recent zombie flicks to plump for speedy undead.
While there have been various types of zombie portrayed on screen with various levels of intelligence and ability one thing that has stuck as a hard and fast rule is the way you kill a zombie. Destroy the brain, shoot them in the head, bash it in with a hammer, however you do it the only way to stop a zombie is to destroy the brain and they are generally impervious to other types of damage.
The birth of the zombie genre was an important development in the horror world, not only because it introduced our favourite moronically shuffling corpses but also because it heralded a new age for gore. Night of the Living Dead was one of the first films to dispense with the tried and tested cut away technique where violence was portrayed as a shadow on the wall or a camera cut and a scream. Horror films were now entering the age of the special effect with spectacular visceral blood and guts galore. Here was a new way to make audiences scream in terror.
The advent of the zombie also signalled a death knell for the old stalwarts of horror. Finally film makers could break free of the classic horror characters. Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman had dominated for long enough the genre needed a fresh threat and it was to dig its way out of the grave in style.
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