Zombies: The film genre that won't die

Is the 21st-century zombie a projection of what we fear the pressures of modern life are turning us into?

    'Losing control is what the new wave of zombie movies is all about. Apocalypse is a given' [Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA]
    'Losing control is what the new wave of zombie movies is all about. Apocalypse is a given' [Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA]

    Considering it looked safely buried in the straight-to-video graveyard of the mid-1990s, the revival of the zombie film is a thing to behold: It is the genre that truly won't die.

    Since Danny Boyle disinterred it with the 2002 film, 28 Days Later, it has chewed its way through most tonal incarnations, from straight horror to high blockbuster (World War Z, 2013), to comedy (Zombieland, 2009), to satire (Shaun of the Dead, 2015).

    It has shambled with glorious mindlessness across every border, from Thailand's SARS Wars, to Spain's REC, Cuba's Juan of the Dead, to Egyptian Zombie Gozombie.

    The sheer weight of numbers means that the zombie film genre has completely overrun the cult/mainstream divide: How else to explain nine series and counting of The Walking Dead and other spin-offs? Where vampires preened with lingering 19th-century aristocratic individualism, zombies are the 20th-century proletarian masses given a Halloween makeover.

    Where vampires preened with lingering 19th century aristocratic individualism, zombies are the 20th-century proletarian masses given a Halloween makeover.


    They've thrived when upscaled to the teeming megalopolises of the globalised 21st century, with plenty of contemporary gristle for them to draw on in our unruly times. It seems surprising, after so many, that zombie films are still receiving praise, but this year's South Korean smash, Train to Busan, has dazzled with its intensity and directness.

    The 'fast zombie' - an incarnation of modern anxiety

    Part of the "fast zombie" sub-category, invented by Boyle, the upgrade from the traditional shambling cadavers is in tune with the frenetic pace of interconnected global life, and the manic rage that seems ready to burst at a moment's notice through the surface of our digitised collective consciousness.

    Losing control is what the new wave of zombie movies is all about. Apocalypse is a given - to the point where you can laugh off total collapse of the social order if you're happy living with your undead best friend in the garden shed, as in the coda to Shaun of the Dead.

    What hasn't lost its sting is the anxiety that fills the genre about crossing over to the wrong side of the barricades: from desperate defenders of humanity to the slavering hordes.

    The snarling, sprinting 21st-century zombie is a projection of what we fear the pressures of modern competitive life are turning us into - bestially interchangeable in the race for personal space and resources. Too much time griping on Twitter, or battling for bargains in the Primark sales, and you might start to get that bloodshot stare.

    Consumerist satire was of course present way back in 1978's Dawn of the Dead, the second part of George Romero's zombie trilogy.

    But life has intensified a hundredfold since.

    Hundreds of people dressed as Zombies participate in the ninth edition of the Zombie Parade through the main avenues of Mexico City [Alex Cruz/EPA]

    It's almost a relief once you accept you're part of the brain-dead hordes, or well on your way to being dragged in, why the droll "zomcom" has become the dominant form of the revived zombie oeuvre.

    The camp brain-eating relish that is the zomcom's default mode (see also the forthcoming Alpine permutation Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies) is the gallows humour of our times. But laughter can be a precision weapon, too.

    Shaun of the Dead hilariously suggested that London's pallid commuting hordes were de facto undead.

    At first sight, the decomposing Cuban mob in 2011's Juan of the Dead is mistaken for American-backed dissidents. The film's laidback satire sees the beach-bum hero profit from dispatching them ("Juan of the Dead! We kill your loved ones!") in a touch of black-market free enterprise.

    Zombies in the first round of 1960s and 1970s films were decidedly "other", often with obscure - as in Romero's original Night of the Living Dead - or supernatural origins. Now they're unmistakeably of this world, usually with a pandemic-type explanation that is firmly the protagonist's job to sort out, as in 28 Days Later and World War Z.

    Slipping across to the other side could happen to anyone, anytime is the takeaway message. The line between us and them has never been finer.

    Train to Busan, taking place in the carriages and compartments of an express between Seoul and South Korea's second city, is so successful because it literally draws a floorplan of this divide. These zombies, handily, can't open doors. So the film is mostly structured as a struggle to keep them out of human-occupied carriages, or to penetrate Zombie-class ones to rescue survivors.

    Policing these frontiers and paranoia about infection are paramount in a way that chimes with today's refugee crisis in Europe: If "they" make it past the barriers, then civilisation will collapse.

    That polarising mentality is everywhere now: the Jerusalem sequence in World War Z , as the zombie pile up outside the cordon walls becomes so great that the undead spill over the parapet, is surely explicit political comment.

    In Train to Busan, it's the villainous affluent who are the most ruthless about quarantining measures, and the stockbroker hero who has to learn the error of his selfish ways. That time-honoured, rich-bashing vein of characterisation is a way of avoiding thinking about our own role vis-a-vis those outside the gates, which is another route to braindead conformity.

    Zombie-film aficionados should know that the rot always sets in inside the compound.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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