The American zombie movie was born in October 1968 with the release of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and it’s a measure of how subversive that film and its sequels truly were that zombies only became palatable to the major studios in 2004, when a kid named Zack Snyder stripped Dawn of the Dead of its original class-conscious, anti-consumerist premise–inverted it, even, by making a zombie movie that pandered to the shopping-mall multiplex crowd rather than ripping into it. Given its success, it’s hard to believe it has taken almost another ten years for the sub-genre to be completely transformed by a Hollywood establishment that’s turned so timid and equivocal in its thrill-seeking ways that it begrudges even the zombies their killing sport. Yes, somebody somewhere decided that what zombies really need, more than forty years on, is a redemption story. Director Jonathan Levine doesn’t put a stake through the heart of the sub-genre, quite, but he does something that might be worse. With Warm Bodies, he’s made the first middle-aged zombie film.
The third feature film by the brothers Howard and Jon Ford is an unabashed throwback — fan service for horror buffs who long for the glory days of George Romero zombies. The dilapidated shamblers of The Dead dominate a post-apocalyptic African landscape ravaged first by war and again by a walking dead (of unspecified origin, natch) whose population is slowly overwhelming its still-living counterparts. Avoiding their bite is a full-time job for an American engineer (Ron Freeman) who was the sole survivor of a failed evacuation attempt that left him stranded on the barren West African countryside. Having liberated an old pickup truck, he connects with an African sergeant (Ghanaian actor Prince David Osei) who’s trudging toward a fortified military base where he believes his young son is living as a refugee from the dead. The two men forge an alliance and press northward together, conserving food, water and ammo as they head toward an uncertain salvation.
Whatever else you might say about George Romero, it’s hard to accuse the guy of just repeating himself. After making his reputation as progenitor of the zombie movie in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, a bleak, Vietnam-era American nightmare, he upped the ante in 1978 with the blatantly satirical Dawn of the Dead, a critique of consumer culture that shifted easily between slapstick farce and the grimmest of horror-movie imagery. His 1985 follow-up, Day of the Dead, was hobbled by budgetary problems, but it offered an ambitious and ultimately depressing perspective on the Reagan-era military-industrial complex.
It’s so dreadful, in fact, that I may be underrating it in at least one respect: Zombie Strippers! actually gives the early-1980s sci-fi porn flick Café Flesh a run for its money as the most joyless, nigh despairing movie about sexual arousal in film history.
Vengeance of the Zombies is reviewed as part of a Blu-ray double feature:
If there’s a better music cue in Euro-horror history than the syncopated percussion that plays in weird accompaniment as the first beautiful, pale zombie rises from her grave in slo-mo in the pre-credits sequence, I have yet to hear it.
Image nicked from Tim Lucas’s excellent Video Watchblog entry on Night of the Werewolf.
It’s surely convenience, or just
coincidence–rather than any nods to quality or pent-up demand–that these are the first two Euro-horror titles to arrive in high definition on
Blu-ray Disc. This double-feature package from BCI and Deimos
entertainment pairs two films starring the well-loved (and prolific)
Spanish horror actor Paul Naschy. Vengeance of the Zombies (La
Rebelion de las Muertas, 1972) is a potboiler from cult director Leon
Klimovsky involving a charismatic Indian cult leader (Naschy), his
less-attractive brother (also Naschy), and a beautiful redhead (Romy)
from a cursed English family. And Night of the Werewolf (La Retorno
del Hombre Lobo, 1980) is a genre mash-up directed by Naschy
in which he stars as the wolfman Waldemar Daninsky and faces off against a
bevy of vampire women led by Elizabeth Bathory herself. (Scroll way down to read about some problems with these discs.)
After too many years away from the
camera, George Romero, in his advanced years, is enjoying a vigorous
second wind. It’s Romero, of course, who defined the contemporary
zombie movie (even though he still insists that he wasn’t aware, at
the time, that his I Am Legend-inspired Night of the Living Dead had
anything to do with zombies), and as zombie movies have grown ever
more commercial and crass, it’s Romero’s legacy — exemplified in the
great Dawn of the Dead and culminating in 1985’s Day of the Dead —
that they’ve been systematically departing from. Romero proved he
still had some stuff with Land of the Dead, in 2005, which dramatized
issues of class in the U.S. against a backdrop that was simultaneous heavily
suggestive of the Iraq War. It was the biggest budget he had ever
worked with, and to some degree the new, ultra-low-budget Diary of
the Dead represents his retreat from Hollywood sensibilities.
The opening sequence of 28 Weeks Later — call it an opening salvo — is utterly ferocious. Proceedings start quietly, but this is a sequel to the apocalyptic 28 Days Later, and, as in any zombie movie, peace is only the prelude to a storm of blood and viscera. It starts with a woman trying to cook a meal, in the dark, as photographic evidence of the world that used to exist distracts her from the task. She’s part of a cobbled-together family living in a cottage, isolated, in the London countryside. Though the house is dark, it’s daylight outside — the windows have been tightly boarded against the sunshine and the possibility of unwanted visitors.