How Do You Like Your Undead? Slow and Gory or Fast and Bloodless?
by Jason Koenigsberg
Zombie movies have come a long way over the course of cinema. From their original voodoo origins in the Bela Lugosi horror film White Zombie (1932), they were part of the American consciousness. Often relegated to being subpar movie monsters below the likes of vampires, werewolves, and other monstrous creatures, the zombie was around lurking in the back. It was not until George A. Romero’s independent cult classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) that the zombie was really in the foreground of horror movies. Romero basically invented the modern zombie genre which has thrived in recent years. The 21st century has been very king to the undead whether it was fast moving zombies like the infected speeding around an empty London in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003) or the slow meandering walkers on AMC’s The Walking Dead. Zombies are big business in the entertainment world.
It was not always this way. For decades the two main zombie movies horror fans had were the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s phenomenal sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978). Many horror fans considered Dawn superior to the original and the best zombie movie and social commentary in the guise of a horror movie of all time. Romero’s third entry in his of the Dead series was 1985’s Day of the Dead. It was met with apathy by fans and critics alike. Day of the Dead died a short death in theaters in late summer 1985 only playing for a few weeks and in very limited release due to the nature of the graphic violence being released unrated by the independent United Film Distribution Company.
The original plan for Day of the Dead was much bigger and sprawling with a lot of violence taking place outside in various locations. George Romero’s first script had to be scaled down by a lot since no major studio would fund the project if it was going to be released unrated or the dreaded X rating. Instead it ended up going through major changes and what actually made it to the screen was all in an underground salt mine in Florida. Day of the Dead which was planned as a zombie magnum opus was reduced to an even more claustrophobic and less visually interesting setting than the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead and the shopping mall from Dawn of the Dead. Romero directs his movies based on theme, not on script, actors or studio restrictions. Day of the Dead was meant to pick up after the events of his previous two zombie films. Now asking the question, where do we go from here? These characters are scientists, blue collar skilled workers, and military men. The theme for Day of the Dead was living with a crisis and trying to fix something that cannot be fixed. From the way the characters behave in Day you can tell what Romero thought of the current state of US military and government. The social commentary was there and the characters were developed with intricate details that may go unnoticed the first time viewers watch it. He even developed a zombie into being not only a character, but one of the most sympathetic in the film. For those that appreciate Day of the Dead, Bub has a special place in their hearts and with good reason, it is a terrific performance without any dialogue, no easy task, and an unusual relationship for a character of his stature to establish with an audience. This further illustrates how despicable some of the humans are in this film, especially the soldiers.
Day of the Dead delivered what Romero wanted regarding his social themes. He had most of the same crew that worked on Dawn of the Dead back and they upped the ante on set design as much as they could and certainly did not skimp on the gore. Tom Savini and his team were back as the make up artists and make no mistake about it Day of the Dead has the best gore in the Romero zombie series including the three movies he made since that dealt with the undead. In fact, Day of the Dead arguably has the best gore featured in any horror movie ever made. A bold statement, but watching this film especially in certain points you cannot find better practical make up effects of this nature in any movie. Plus, it is very noble of Romero to stick to his guns and turn down more money and an easier financial situation to make the movie he wanted to. Also admirable was how adamant he was against casting well known actors. He always felt they were a distraction to his movies and wanted the audience to be on their toes that any of these actors could die next and at any moment.
In the years since its initial release, time has been very kind to Day of the Dead. Various home video releases on VHS, laserdisc, special edition DVD’s and blu rays have expanded this small films audience into making it a cult classic. George Romero always stated that Day of the Dead was his favorite of his zombie films and because of the internet more horror aficionados agree with him now than they did in 1985. Many still wonder and longed for what could have been had Romero compromised his vision and given the world an R-rated zombie film with big stars, trotting the globe and fighting the undead. Well in 2013 audiences kind of got a glimpse of what that movie could have looked like. One of the biggest actors on the planet Brat Pitt produced and starred in World War Z, as a UN official and family man caught in the middle of an international zombie outbreak. This movie was based on Max Brooks’ book of the same name, but other than the title, the fact there were zombies, and a few scenes taking place where there were stories in the book, World War Z had nothing in common with its source material. Max Brooks even stated that it was a completely different entity than his oral history of mankind reflecting on survival after battling a sudden war with zombies. Brad Pitts character Gerry Lane did not exist and the biggest difference despite the conventional narrative format of the film versus the novels episodic structure, is that the zombies in the movie were fast whereas the zombies in the book were slow.
World War Z the film borrowed heavily from zombie movies of the 21st century like 28 Days Later, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, and the Resident Evil series. It had a budget of $190 million, which was unimaginable prior to this film. Certain Brad Pitts involvement on screen and behind the scenes made that budget balloon to an astronomical number for a zombie movie. It was also a troubled production with director Marc Forster butting heads with producers and screenwriters, various delays, changing release dates, falling behind schedule and unfinished special effects. With all of those problems, the studio was really reluctant to push on and stories from the set sounded like World War Z was going to be a major flop of epic proportions on par with Ishtar (1987) or The Postman (1997). Everything was in line for it to be a disaster. All the pieces where there to make this the flop of the decade.
So a funny thing happened when World War Z was released in June 2013, in the heart of the summer blockbuster season… it was a hit! Not only that but critics and audiences both liked it. Few loved it and it does not have the fanatical fanbase of a George A. Romero zombie film, but it was a success all around and deservingly so for turning what sounded like a hellish production into something that the masses enjoyed as summer blockbuster entertainment. But that is what World War Z was, a summer blockbuster that felt more like an action movie than a zombie horror film. The zombies were fast and plentiful, moving more like a swarm of locusts than individual bodies. They climbed on top of each other like ants to scale walls. They took down helicopters by hoarding on top of each other to being a mountain of CGI debris that was as tall as a skyscraper. These were not the zombies our parents grew up with or even the ones millennials were familiar with from other zombies in pop culture. World War Z was the first time zombies were officially mainstream. These zombies were safe and their arrival was the equivalent of an alien invasion blockbuster, just instead of the enemies being out of this world and coming down on Earth from the sky, they were terrestrial and attacked from the ground up.
The biggest caveat many people had, especially hardcore zombie fanatics was the lock of gore in World War Z. In fact the lack of blood at all. There was violence, but the violence was akin to a Michael Bay Transformers movie. A zombie movie without blood and guts is like a striptease without the nudity, or a western without the cowboy hats, guns, and horses. It certainly is possible and World War Z showed that it could work, but was it a zombie movie in the true sense? Not at all, it was a PG-13 action blockbuster designed to please the masses and was undeniably successful in achieving that. Never before had a zombie film been rated PG-13 and never before had zombies appeared as antagonists in a motion picture that was not horror, or in the case of Shaun of the Dead (2004), a parody of horror.
With World War Z zombies had officially become mainstream. They had become sanitized, bloodless and PG-13. They were safe. That changed the definition of what a zombie was and could be. However, it did answer the question of what might have happened if George Romero caved in and took the millions and millions of dollars on a big budget zombie epic back in 1985. Would Day of the Dead have been the first zombie movie for the masses? The World War Z screenplay took more from Romero’s original Day of the Dead draft than it did the book it was based on. Audiences that wished to see what a compromised Romero vision would look like on the big screen finally got an epic scaled undead picture.
So after all is said and done, the big question is, how do you like your zombies? Neat and tidy like World War Z? Or bloody as hell like Day of the Dead? Safe and unoffensive as many movies are in 2013? Or Disgustingly revolting and controversial like Romero used to make? Faceless and CGI? Or Covered in practical make up and no two zombies looking alike?
Personally, I prefer the Romero zombies. Bloody, disgusting and unique. Day of the Dead featured so many zombies that were unique even though they were only on screen for a few seconds, the clown zombie, the bride, the old tourist guy you see near the beginning that looked like he escaped from an old folks community where Jerry Seinfeld’s parents lived. Even Romero’s other zombies had memorable blink and you may miss them zombies like the main girls brother showing up near the end of Night of the Living Dead, the Hare Krishna zombie from Dawn of the Dead, the Tom Savini, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg cameos in Land of the Dead (2005). His zombies not only were characters, but they HAD character even if it was just for a moment. I will take practical effects any day over computer generated images. They make an indelible mark on the conscious and even though they are obviously not real, the actors covered under the thick layers or gore and make up look real and that makes them more threatening and more memorable.