Zombies: What’s with all the dead faces?

Have you ever really sat down and thought about this? Why there’s an entire film genre dedicated to zombies? In honor of Zombieland coming out this week, I could have tried putting together a Top 10 of zombie movies, but I’m going to be honest – I haven’t seen ten of them. I can think of at least five or six (which are mostly recent) so I imagine at some point I’ll probably get there – I do have plans to watch the classics (Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead) – but that doesn’t answer the question of why zombies have a niche in the film industry.

I mean, really. They’re stupid, disgusting, unrelenting and they travel in large groups; it’s like watching a gang of fifth grade boys attack people. I can understand the vampire craze (and a musing on that is certainly in the works); at least they’re intelligent, immortal and generally kinda sexy, but zombies?

I’m sure there is a good deal of history and a handful of essays out there explaining this phenomenon or that I could go ask George A. Romero who has been cranking out these films for more than 40 years now, but I figured I’d take a stab at it myself.

Personally, I’m a fan of zombie comedy. Mentally slow, disgusting but persistent mother fuckers make for some really good creative kills and subsequent laughs. I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and I have to say the comedic twist on this horror genre seems to work for me. That’s why I’ve given Zombieland a chance.

But that’s me getting excited for a good laugh, not to see those horribly disfigured blemished creatures oozing blood and black pus from their orifices for two hours. I suppose to get the real answer, I’d need to have seen the classics of the genre, but to truly understand its explosion, I think we all know where to look.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video.

I mean, it’s still considered the No. 1 greatest music video of all time and why? Zombies. Zombies creeping up from out of nowhere, walking jarringly in rhythm to the holy grail of ‘80s synth pop beats. In their ragged clothing and fabulous make up they taught us dance moves that broke generation barriers and brought races together in harmony under the letters MTV.

In “Thriller,” zombies earned their stay in Western culture. They could have faded away into the filth from whence they came, but they rode to the top upon the shoulders of the King of Pop. And then they didn’t stop.

Modern equivalent: let’s say, I don’t know, Beyonce made the most baller music video of all time – and it featured Hello, Kitty and friends. That’s right, those little Japanese animals from the turn of the Millennium with the over-sized eyes doing some sweet dance moves to an anthem of single women’s empowerment. We’d all be like “well, I guess it’s been awhile, but Hello, Kitty – hellz yeah!” Then, when it went up for best video at the VMAs and Taylor Swift stole it from her, this time no one would hate on Kanye if he did it again.

Next thing you know Pixar would seal the rights to a Hello, Kitty movie in 3D, a massive relaunch of the toys and assorted stationary would hit shelves and then twenty years later we’d be like “why the **** is there still Hello, Kitty stuff being made?” And then we’d remember it was Beyonce and we’d think well, Hello, Kitty’s earned it.

Ok, promise that’s the last you’ll ever read of Hello, Kitty on my blog – I hope. Point is, suddenly zombies were more than just cult horror movie icons. We saw their pop culture potential, even their comedic potential and somehow they were saved. Now, if an emerging filmmaker has a good idea of how to reinvent zombies or vampires, he or she can break through because we’re never tired of them apparently.

Then there’s the second and somewhat less extreme option: budget concerns. Nowadays, to make a movie involving something that isn’t a human or a zombie requires a large CGI effects budget. Your average Joe Filmmaker can’t go out and create a non-human creature without extensive make-up or CGI. He can, however, convince his friends to tear up some old clothes, cover their faces in generic make-up and walk down the street like they’ve got thorny sticks lodged in their rectums.

Hands down, a zombie is the cheapest iconic bad guy out there and you don’t have to pay to acquire the rights to use it. Like vampires or generic aliens, no one owns the concept of zombie. We’re talking about a nationally recognized concept (they’re decomposing living dead, they turn you into a zombie if they bite you and they moan because they can’t speak) for FREE. If you pitch a movie or a book to a producer/publisher with an original creation no one’s heard of, it’s tough to get accepted. But mention “zombies” and well, everyone knows what those are and they’ve made a pretty penny in the past. Project is go.

Zombies are the cheapest branch on the tree of non-copyrighted monsters. That makes them great for filmmakers. All it takes is some creative make-up artists and you have zombies. These guys are like the sea monkeys of the movie world. All it took was a couple big hits and we’ll never see the end of them.


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