George A Romero is almost universally recognised as the “inventor” of the modern zombie. First in a little film called Night of the Living Dead. Far more important than the zombie itself in the film is its depiction of society. The people in the house represent a slice of American society, and ultimately that society is defeated not by the zombies, but by itself. Bad decisions and weakness claim everyone. Zombies are not in and of themselves interesting in that first outing, they merely apply pressure to the characters.
In Day of the Dead, Romero started to change that. The main plotline is absolutely about people, but there is a substantial B-plot about the monsters themselves, which culminates in Land of the Dead, a film about post-life.
Richard Mathis, of I Am Legend, regarded Zombies as his creation, though they’re called “vampires” in the book, but three years before, John Wyndham had written Day of the Triffids, which is the definitive template for the Zombie story structure. What Zombies do that Triffids don’t is almost entirely existential.
Thinking about Zombies this way positions them as much an implied story architecture as a story trope. They are a metonymy, “zombie” for “dangerous and constrained situations”. The films that work best for me have always used zombies to tell us something about ourselves, rather than something about zombies. Fundamentally, who cares about the walking dead, when the living are so much more interesting? I’ve commented before that the first half of the film I Am Legend works for me because it is about Dr Robert Neville (not) coming to terms with the end of the world. Once zombies enter the picture, it becomes about them, and I don’t find that interesting.
One of the Media Studies students is writing her thesis on The Walking Dead, and her argument is that the idea of life/unlife is a construction of the living to justify genocide- that the zombies are more like recruiters than destroyers. What I like about this construction, this argument, is that it tackles the existential threat that the zombies pose directly. It looks at the difference between a Triffid and a Zombie, and it looks at a Zombie as a thing in itself, rather than simply as a used-to-be-human. The Walking Dead is a good source for this argument because it deals with this very issue explicitly inside the fiction, albeit with incoherent results.
My theory is that the emphasis on the Zombies themselves is a response primarily to the existential dread they create. That dread is overlooked in most discussions I have about Zombies. It’s the reason that the survivors leave the mall in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and it’s the reason that Major West’s soldiers are willing to kidnap and rape Selena and Hannah. Instead of exploring the meaning of that dread, “solving” the zombie problem tries to obviate it. The ending of I Am Legend is the ultimate cop-out. Will Smith’s Robert Neville solves “the problem”, but he doesn’t have to live with the consequences, he doesn’t have to face up to what really drives him, which is survivor’s guilt – a version of the dread. Death lets him off the hook.
Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead, evade this dread by re-humanizing the undead, making life just a stage you pass through to get to eternal life, as a zombie. Romero looked into the abyss with Dawn of the Dead, but in all the rest, he blinked at the crucial moment.
So that is a general overview, a high-level schematic, of the field of play – next we’ll look at where World War Z slotted in, and how well it did it.