While any idea can get old, it seems like the zombie concept has some built-in defense mechanisms. Let’s look at what keeps zombie movies fresh!
When George A. Romero made Dawn of the Dead in 1978, flesh-eating zombies were still a new kind of movie monster. There weren’t that many zombie films between Dawn and Night of the Living Dead. In fact, before Romero came along, there weren’t nearly as many movies about society collapsing in general.
Now, I don’t want to overstate Romero’s influence on film, or even on horror, but he was definitely one of the big dogs. It’s a little strange saying that, too, because his films were mostly for the “underdogs.” They were also independent productions — meaning not centered much on the whims, interests and concerns of high-powered executives, or even the general population. They were made for horror fans, by horror fans, and it still shows.
Zombie Fatigue vs. Other Aged Concepts
Years later, zombies are a much more common pop culture phenomenon, to the extent that some people actually feel zombie fatigue. It’s a silly phenomenon, but there’s a rough equivalent for all genres of film. When a type of film or character over-saturates the market, it can wear thin. For example, this arguably made Freddy Krueger lose his luster over the years. Quite simply, some people were tired of seeing Freddy everywhere in the ’80s, so he largely went away for a while, and still hasn’t fully come back.
Still, I think zombies remain fresher than some other monsters for unique reasons. It seems they never really got caught up in the trappings of “retro” fatigue. The premise of being overrun by horrible, flesh-eating ghouls has a staying power. Another benefit, of course, is that zombies are more of a collective force than a character. Sure, you can have individually memorable zombies, but they’ll never be the whole thing.
There’s also plenty of diversity among zombies. As a very basic example, you can have city zombies or country ones. They can be men, women, children, sometimes even animals (Zombeavers, anyone?). They can be fought by National Guardsmen (as in the beginning of Dawn of the Dead) or by random pedestrians. They are, in a sense, a great equalizer. Also, most people can become them. They are sort of a democratic movie monster, if I may use that word loosely.
What I like about a Romero movie is that, when fit hits the shan, no one is totally spared. It really reminds me of natural disasters. No matter how well-prepared you think you are, or high high you are up the social ladder, there’s always something threatening to pull you down. That, to me, is the essence of horror, and one of the best themes in the original Dawn of the Dead.
While much is made of the critique of shopping culture in the film, it can be broken down even simpler. The idea that we are safe anywhere, from anything, is ultimately nonsense. The comforts of home and shopping convenience mean nothing when you’ve lost it all! The idea of starting over has its own folly, too, as tragedy will always have a finality. That is, after all, what makes it tragedy. A zombie, therefore, represents inevitable death nipping at our heels.
Some zombie films are done better than others, and maybe some aspects are a little tired and overdone. However, much like the creatures themselves, this genre will continue re-animating and mutating into other, more diverse forms. Quite simply, it’s a genre that refuses to die, and that may be for the best. I only hope people get creative with it, or else the fatigue will overrun us all, devouring our brains and turning us into mindless, pathetic creatures. That job is better left to super hero movies and the latest Disney-Pixar monstrosities.
What are your thoughts on zombie staying power? Let us know in the comments!