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October 24, 2013

'Walking Dead' demonstrates soaring popularity of zombies

By Travis Raymond

“The Walking Dead” returned to Sunday nights on AMC with the premier of its fourth season Oct. 13.  When the show left off earlier this year, Rick and the gang had just managed to pull a fast one and repel the nefarious Governor and his small army from taking the prison.  In a display of mercy, the innocent survivors of Woodbury were then absorbed into the prison.

The first of this season’s 16 episodes found the characters safe and living an idealic life in relative security.  Mundane duties and tasks at the prison occupy much of the crew’s attention and screen time, such as farming, story time for the children, and using improvised bludgeoning weapons to clear zombies from the perimeter fence.

Unfortunately, fence clearing calls for views of zombies framed up against chain link, creating the kind of tight, well-lit shots where CGI gore doesn’t quite hold up in high definition.  Despite some of the shortcomings of digital technology, zombies are nevertheless shambling right through prime time.  The show’s sponsors must be ecstatic.  Audiences get short breaks from viewing cannibalism to hear sales pitches for everything from sandwiches to computer software.  Zombies await audiences online.  Zombies await players on their video game consoles. 

It is a brave new world, but things weren’t always this way.  The zombie mythos originated in West Africa around legends of Vodun ritual practices.  African slaves then brought the legend with them across the Atlantic to Haiti.  The word zombie would be introduced into English by the occultist and Vodun researcher William Seabrook, a bona fide cannibal. 

The concept would bubble up into a growing public perception when authors like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft explored the dangers of reanimated dead in fiction.  Bela Lugosi played the first zombie ever seen in 1932 in the film “White Zombie.”  The harsh bleakness of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and Vincent Price’s performance in the novel’s film adaptation “The Last Man on Earth” would provide George A. Romero with the last piece of the puzzle, the loneliness and isolation to create the modern zombie horror.

In 1968, Romero cobbled together enough funds and sympathetic actors to create one of the most successful independent films of all time, “Night of the Living Dead.”  The film that birthed a new genre of horror was a modest affair to say the least.  Part of the film’s budget consisted of entrails donated by a butcher.

Backlash against the film was swift and immense as the subject matter and graphic content proved too much too soon for many reviewers and audiences.  Regardless, the film was lauded for the critiques it leveled at the social turbulence of the 1960s.

Romero created a monster and he would feed it again numerous times, with his most note-worthy submissions coming in 1978 and 1985.  Zombies tramped all over consumerism in 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead” before moving on to the military industrial complex in 1985’s “Day of the Dead.”

Many directors of that time period, American and foreign, would take up and experiment with Romero’s trope.  Emerging head and shoulders above the pack was the acclaimed Italian director Lucio Fulci.  Fulci’s 1979 genre classic “Zombie” is the only zombie film to depict the Twin Towers.

The 90s saw a relative lull in zombie fervor despite Tom Savini’s updated remake of “Night of the Living Dead” in 1990.  Roger Ebert gave the film one star out of four.

Around the time of the millennium, times would change again.  By the late 90s the Resident Evil video game franchise, with zombies as their staple adversary, began to build surging momentum that it retains today. 

But after 9/11, nothing would ever be the same.

“The popularity of zombies seems to come out when there are concerns about collapse of social order,” said sociology Professor James Chriss.  “I think the metaphor is pretty ripe for today, especially since 2001 with the terrorist attacks.”

The deluge of zombie films since 2001 coincides with Professor Chriss’ assertion.  Danny Boyle turned a lot of heads with 2002’s “28 Days Later.”  Boyle would go on to extend his juxtaposition of military collateral damage laid over the zombie genre in 2007 with his involvement in “28 Weeks Later.”  Simon Pegg and Walter Wright put themselves on the map in 2004 with the witty and well-received “Shaun of the Dead.”  Zack Snyder directed an updated remake of “Dawn of the Dead” in 2004.  Even Romero himself, shirking his previous notion of a trilogy, would make his return to zombie filmmaking with “Land of the Dead” in 2004.

Restricted by ever shrinking budgets, Romero would fade from the public eye as his subsequent zombie offerings, “Diary of the Dead” in 2007 and “Survival of the Dead” in 2009, reached fewer and fewer audiences.

But Romero’s work was done.  Arguments can be made for earlier, but zombies reached critical mass in pop culture no later than when Max Brooks’ “World War Z” reached the New York Times Best Seller list in 2011.  Written as a comprehensive history of a fictional world war against zombies, reviews for “World War Z” compared it favorably to H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”

After the success of zombies in film and literature, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security exploited the genre to promote real training exercises and disaster planning procedures in radical new forms of edutainment, blending fiction with reality.

“This is reflective of a post modern blurring of boundaries that is going on where old-fashioned cozy notions of modernist distinctions between x and y are fading whether it’s public or private, good and evil, friend and enemy – it’s all blurring,” Professor Chriss said.

Sensing the attraction of the newly rediscovered phobia, Paramount Studios and Plan B Entertainment secured the film rights to “World War Z” in 2006, before it would reach the best seller’s list and a full three months before the novel would even be published. 

The film’s writing credits are divided among no less than four people, with an additional credit to the novel’s author.  Multiple re-writes to the script during shooting made the film disjointed and unclear.  The film’s production proved so difficult that the planned sequel was cancelled.  But then it made money.

A lot of money.  Shot in RealD 3D with an estimated budget of $190 million and a full marketing push, “World War Z” is easily the highest budgeted and most commercially successful zombie film to date.  The film grossed over $530 million worldwide. 

After studying horror genres and trends for years, Professor Chriss is not surprised by the latest resurgence of the zombie genre in film and video game markets.

“Millennials are probably dark and brooding in comparison to previous generations and are not excited about prospects for the future, especially with collapsing job markets.

“Even the existential angst regarding questions that religion used to have frontline on, now we’re moving into a much more secular, post-theological world,” Professor Chriss said.  “That provides an opening for some aspects of the otherworldly such as the zombie mythos.”

Audiences can tap into their existential angst every week now that “The Walking Dead” is back on the air.  Based on a series of graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn, the first season of “The Walking Dead” appeared on AMC in 2010.  The show’s audience has grown with each following season and reached its peak audience with 16.1 million people tuning in to watch the fourth season premier.  AMC announced that a spin-off of the series can be expected in 2015.

Due to the differences between the formats of television and film, audiences can vicariously experience social chaos through the show’s characters in new ways.  Limits on scope like time constraints made zombies exclusively into monsters in film.  The episodic format of “The Walking Dead” domesticates the zombies somewhat and reduces them at times to moving obstacles, a problem to be solved, or a shifting backdrop. 

With zombies pushed into the background, “The Walking Dead” can explore the core subject matter that has been at the heart of the zombie genre all along: human interaction.  Not only the human interaction, but its subsequent aftereffects, whether they be survival, death, bravery, cowardice, compassion, regret and all that follows.