I mentioned this earlier and want to examine it in more detail. As good as it was, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has done more to limit the zombie genre than any other movie or book I can think of.
Here’s why that’s not a good thing.
Prior to this zombies were never about eating people. And they sure as heck were never about eating brains. But here’s the problem with Romero’s film. It took what was once a genre filled with mystique and made it into splatter-chomp. And now that it’s splatter-chomp there was nowhere else for it go go except over-hyped splatter-chomp cum Apocalypse. Served with brains on the side. And it wasn’t long before the genre slid into slapstick and parody. Now we have zombies no one can take seriously a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
That’s what faces us today.
It’s too bad, really, because zombies had so much going for them prior to Romero’s film. Take Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie which I reviewed. That was an awesome film. So was Val Lewton’s uber-supreme I Walked with a Zombie which uses Jane Eyre as source material.
These movies and others like them portrayed zombies for what they were supposed to be: living people (and sometimes dead, you couldn’t always tell) transformed into the unliving. Usually to serve as slaves or to make them pay for some horrible crime. But there was always something poignant about the zombie and its plight in these movies. There’s nothing poignant about the modern flesh eating zombie. He’s one-dimensional.
Yes, yes, I’m a zombie snob. That’s already been established.
Now, zombies didn’t start off that way. I concede that. Romero’s film was both horrifying and artistic with a steady dose of nihilism. He was making a deep statement about the world he saw and he just happened to use zombies to get his artistic point across. But lesser filmmakers, and writers, only saw the cannibalism and ran with that single idea.
Now we’re left with zombies eating brains and there’s nowhere else for them to go. It’s a literary cul-de-sac in my opinion.
Hey, maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But isn’t it also cool to examine the deep mystery, the Gothic imagery combined with Caribbean mysticism of zombiedom, rather than turning zombies into simple-minded fast food consumers?
Zombies as they are now portrayed are no longer frightening or horrific. They’re gross. But they’re not scary.
So in my opinion the zombie genre is in bad straits. I hope someone comes along and reboots it with an eye toward reviving its mystical past. If they can reboot Star Trek and Spider-Man they should be able to reboot this. Anyway, I hope so, ‘cuz I kinda like zombies. The old time zombies. The mystical zombies. The scary zombies.
So. Until this happens, where can you go to read good, memorable zombie stories that are old school? Look no further than Marvel’s Tales of the Zombie. This was a black and white comic published in the Seventies and it still rocks. It’s what zombies used to be about. It’s sexy and violent and Simon Garth, the zombie in question, is definitely old school. The only carp I have is it’s written in second person, a forced literary affectation I have always despised because it calls too much attention to itself. But the stunning artwork and layered characterization overcomes that limitation.