The Evolution of the Zombie Film

Zombie films have been produced for almost one hundred years, but it wasn’t until 1968 that the low budgeted film Night of the Living Dead changed the scope of zombie films for modern audiences. The representation of the zombie in current cinema has transitioned from the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead to a more recent film like World War Z forty-five years later. The characteristics of zombies in these two films reveal a shift in the animation of the zombie and how it has culturally been changed to adjust for the more blockbuster inclined cinema goers of today. The human element of the zombie films show the necessity for human survival requires equality, however, a democracy between survivors usually produces an antagonist. By comparing the political situations of the time with each movie, it becomes apparent why Night of the Living Dead is set solely in a house, while World War Z is a zombie film that evolved with the times to take audiences across the globe. Night of the Living Dead created the modern zombie film with a minuscule budget whereas today it has become a profitable blockbuster genre where millions are spent to profit on the latest wave of zombie films. Zombie films are known for their disturbing and shock value endings since Night of the Living Dead, but in the prospects of hope for the future, the zombie outbreak is seen to be overcome with the protagonist surviving and having a happy ending.

Zombies were more characteristic to the human form and still functioned with some human capabilities, such as opening door handles in Night of the Living Dead. Their movements were also slurred and slow to allow for dramatic tension. The zombies can be outrun so the drama can unfold unexpectedly as the idle waiting places the audience at ease before a jump scare reintroduces the horror elements. This effect is utilised well in the scene where the woman is running from the cemetery until she comes across the house where she begins to feel slightly at ease before the zombies appear again. The zombies eat the flesh of the living, however, they are fearful of fire. The origin story depicts that the zombies are reanimated from radiation retrieved from space, although this plot element appears to vanish from any other source material containing zombies as a new age of technology can present this finding as complete science fiction. The zombies only seem to be localised to parts of the United States. Comparatively, World War Z presents zombies as creatures. They are seen to turn from human to zombie in a matter of seconds and the longer they are among the undead, the more their skin shows signs of deterioration and the less human they become. This frightening zombie creature in World War Z is made more so by the supernatural speed and strength they are given to make them work in sync for the common goal of flesh. These zombies work in unison with each other like ants, using each other as a ladder, to climb obstacles from walls to the comic height of a helicopter. The zombies in this recent film are frightening, especially frightening because of their speed and there is nowhere safe; not on land, air or sea, these zombies can tackle anything. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead were never really vocal, while in World War Z they are seen clicking and experiencing quick twitching in their head as they pace. The end of World War Z offers a cure by the discovery that zombies will not pursue those infected with a terminal virus or disease. Overall, zombies have been culturally slow and ineffective in their means to target man, now the tired formulas are being referenced as something from the past as the zombie rulebook is being rewritten for the next wave of zombie films. Zombies are without any real tension in a narrative without having the human element to work with.

The human element of every zombie movie is essential for grounding the story in a world close to this one. The main antagonists in these films are the people who clash with others over leadership qualities in a time of despair while the outside world is in ruins. The leading man in Night of the Living Dead is a simple man, an average man who was experiencing the zombie invasion just like everybody else. This gives the audience someone to be drawn to, and by being a black man in 1968 he was an unlikely hero, but that is as far as it goes. Racial qualities were an issue of considerable debate during the sixties with figures like Martin Luther King taking a stand, however by having a black hero who is not discriminated by other characters and treated not only as an equal and instead a leader, we see a common good around everyone working together to fight this supernatural force. His humbleness is seen as he reveals his initial encounter with the zombies through exposition when he drove through a mass of them, and they were unlike human beings. World War Z, on the other hand, has a protagonist who is a seasoned veteran and is efficient in dealing with the tactics associated with warfare combat. Brad Pitt’s character aside from his talents is an everyman, he is a father and a husband whose life is lived for them, and this is why he chooses to go into the danger. Pitt’s character is propositioned by the army to investigate the cause of the zombie outbreak for his family’s safety in return, and it is made clear that he is the only one who can do it. His character is clearly motivated to survive for his family, while the main character from Night of the Living Dead is motivated for surviving the night. The main antagonist in Night of the Living Dead was a father like Pitt’s character trying to protect his family and his actions worked against their survival as his love for his daughter became an end to him when she turned. As the antagonist diligently works to protect his family, his actions from our point of view show him to be clearly blinded by reason, and his actions are not so far from the protagonist in World War Z, but we are given more insight through his perspective to see why he wants to become a globetrotter against impossible odds. There is another layer to the protagonist in these zombie films, and it is by having the right political allegory to stand against.

Zombie films are a political allegory for the world at large. The zombie element is indeed a fictional element, although it is tactically feeding on a subconscious fear of the world heading for decay by the social constructs that are built around us. Night of the Living Dead seems to be playing on the safety of the American Dream and turning it into the American Nightmare by showing the audience how the security of a house can be an illusion. The zombies being undead also alludes to how a feeling of unrest can be stirred back up from ones past and cannot stay buried. They are a reflection of us at an animalistic level programmed to survive by eating. These zombies are a visual reminder of our mortality and show that we are just flesh and bone while the bodies in death become empty vessels. World War Z looks past the consumerism side of the American dream and creates a nightmarish vision of this world in chaos and how close to chaos the world actually is. Basically, World War Z is the allegory for the epidemic, yearly news stories flash over the screen informing the viewer of a new airborne virus that has been discovered and could potentially sweep across the globe taking the lives of many. By using the zombie film as an allegory for a virus, the viewer is given a physical embodiment of something that cannot be seen and something that will ultimately reach out for you and change your own disposition to that of the virus carrier.  Night of the Living Dead in 1968 proved to be a viable allegory of the failing American Dream, while in 2013 the zombie is an allegory for fear of a global epidemic. These allegories go from simple to complex as the budget changes dramatically between the two films.

Night of the Living Dead was one of the first low budget hits that revitalised horror films as a profitable venture after the studio films like the Universal Monster movies were run into the ground and became campy. Night of the Living Dead worked against the studio system and took a cast of unknowns to the spotlight and produced what is now a classic if not the quintessential zombie film. The film was shot on the cheap and managed to make its flaws manageable by presenting the film stylistically in black and white, this gave a feeling of realism to the makeup effects of the zombies, and a throwback to the black and white news broadcasts of the time.  Due to the majority of the film taking place in one house, most shots are close up on the characters faces to bring an intimacy to the few characters the film provides. These close up shots allow for the house to still feel fresh after an hour because the set is bland and borderline empty. While Night of the Living Dead is a low budget film, World War Z is the most expensive zombie film ever made, and one of the most expensive films ever produced with an estimated budget of one hundred and ninety million dollars. World War Z was subjected to a number of reshoots that had the film reshoot their whole third act, so the film was blown way over budget. Night of the Living Dead was made with a budget of one hundred thousand and grossed thirty million, so it made three hundred times its production budget and was a less risky move over studio influence, as World War Z only made back double its production costs. The increasing budgets show how much the zombie genre has been inflated to make a return on. There is also the case of The Night of the Living Dead being an R rated film by the classification board, which decreases the chances of being seen by most of the public and to further its appeal, it is a pure horror film. Since 1968 the horror genre has changed in the blockbuster film so they can have as many people as possible see the film. To do this they blend the genre with another genre to grab two different audiences, so World War Z can be sold as a horror film or as an action film, and it is successfully equal parts both. This means that common horror traits like nudity and gore are typically disregarded to meet rating boards in World War Z. World War Z used computer-generated imagery (CGI) to create spectacularly different zombies that can move faster than any living organism. Is it more effective than the live action people playing zombies in Night of the Living Dead? No, but this generation of cinema-goers is spoilt with the evolution of the zombie on the screen so they must be more convinced of reasons to be scared. The zombies feel more real inside the film as crucial locations around the world show the same thing happening throughout and as an audience member we must regard this apocalypse as the end all of civilisation, and that reaches everyone, leaving all audiences terrified by the scenario. Style over substance shows the ending to be memorable in both films irrelevant to the budget.

Night of the Living Dead had an ending that was memorable for being so unexpected and the audience at the time was initially unsure of how to handle it as Roger Ebert recounts of an audience, “There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying.” (1969). There is something to be said about an ending of a film that can affect a viewer long after the film stops rolling. The ending of World War Z changes the typical ending of the zombie horror film. It gives the world a sense of hope whereas Night of the Living Dead and subsequent films like Dawn of the Dead show that the salvation they think they find is only irony. This irony will lead to their death, either by themselves or another unforeseen circumstance, which became a staple of the zombie film after the success of Night of the Living Dead. Not only are the people usually the antagonist in the zombie films, but there is always a tendency to explain the fault of the government or the army in bringing about the zombie invasion. World War Z doesn’t give up why the outbreak happened, and this gives the zombie film more longevity by not giving a science fiction theory that will become a low or campy point of the film when later years will render the plot weak. However, aside from the space radiation theory in Night of the Living Dead, you have the timeless zombie film that feels as if it could be set at any point in time, and because of this, it will outstay World War Z. World War Z has shaken up the zombie film formula for at least the next generation of zombie films.

The modern zombie film has developed over the last half a century to entertain and frighten new audiences as the technology, and social commentary has changed with it. After having deconstructed the Night of the Living Dead and World War Z, it can be observed that the zombie film has persevered to continue the mythology surrounding zombies and make new ones in the process. What started off as a simple spin on the dead being reanimated has influenced generations of new filmmakers to redefine the capabilities and the cosmetic look of the zombie to capture terror in the 21st century. The human element has always been the key to shaping these events by positioning the protagonist and the human antagonist counterpart in a battle for leadership as their ranks are stripped, and they are left with their own personal motivations. The political allegory for Night of the Living Dead simply and effectively reshaped the American Dream and later World War Z pushed the boundaries to include a crisis fitting of the world’s fears. Budgets influenced Night of the living dead to do more with the space and setting of 1968, while studio influence effectively split the horror genre to become an action film as well so more audiences would see the star-powered film World War Z. The shock value of the zombie film ending may have run its course from the beginnings of Night of the Living Dead as a more positive approach was the climax of World War Z. Zombie films have not changed much in regards to formula, but culturally the genre has been forced to see changes to keep it fresh, and the genre will continue to work if it can find a common thread with the world today rather than the world of yesterday.

Robert Ring


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Robert Ring

Follow me at There I talk about MOVIES, TV, and GAMES!

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