Zombies and vampires, zombies and vampires -- sure, we're entering Dias de los Muertos, but the undead are crawling all over popular culture these nights. "Twilight" to "Tru-Blood," "Zombieland" to "Fox News," the undead are back with a vengeance. But, of course, they've been around for a long, long time. Matt Zoller Seitz takes a bite out of the cinematic zombie corpus with his latest video essay, "Zombies 101." He begins, (un-)naturally, with George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), flashes back to Jacques Tourneur's voodoo-themed "I Walked With a Zombie," and moves forward through the Romero "Living Dead" pictures to 21st century remakes and variations -- "Shaun of the Dead" (2004), "28 Days Later" (2002), "28 Weeks Later" (2007)...
Ever since director George A. Romero released his 1968 shocker "Night of the Living Dead"--which reimagined zombies, the dark magic-entranced slaves of voodoo folklore, as shambling fiends that crave warm flesh and can only be offed with a head shot--the zombie genre has displaced the western as cinema's most popular and durable morality play... [Its] deeper resonance lies in its portrait of ordinary people struggling to survive in extreme circumstances.
Ultimately zombie films aren't about the zombies, which have no conscious mind and therefore no personality. They're a collective menace--rotting emblems of plague, catastrophe, war, and other world-upending events.
And, of course, the most terrifying thing about zombies is that they were us, and we could easily become them. (This is also at the root of the attraction-repulsion people feel toward vampires: everlasting life, but what kind of "life" if it involves a steady diet of human platelets and plasma?) The unearthly pod people of movies like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956 and 1978) are blood kin to zombies in that they resemble people we know, but are not. Like the dead, the undead are physically there, but drained of their human essence. Cold and cold-blooded, they embody only appetite -- but they don't feed to stay "alive" (because they aren't), they feed only to consume and convert. They might be members of Super Adventure Club or some other cult, or maybe they're just... sick, but they're definitely not feeling like themselves. Then again, maybe they're just investment bankers.
In David Cronenberg's 1975 "They Came from Within / Shivers," the infected/afflicted are pure appetite, bloodthirsty and libidinous. In John Carpenter's 1988 "They Live!" they are, in the writer-director's words, "Republicans from outer space," sporting expensive accessories and brainwashing the docile populace with invisible propaganda to make them more submissive to authority. But they're not human -- they can only mimic human behavior like sociopaths do. Until they revert to their monstrous true selves.
What do you think? Why have zombies and vampires are found such a ravenous audience in the last few years?
UPDATE: Edgar Wright likes it, too!
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