It’s extremely unlikely that there exists a single person on this planet who hasn’t heard the word ‘zombie’ or seen a movie that features the living dead. We can thank (or curse, depending on your stance on the matter) the late, great George A. Romero for turning what was then an obscure subgenre of horror into one of the biggest film categories to ever exist. According to this list on Ranker, there were more than 400 zombie movies being streamed on Amazon Prime and Netflix Instant at the time of writing, and I’m confident there are quite a few missing as well. But, looking through this long list, one would be hard-pressed to find movies that are objectively good. Sure, there are some outliers like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, but the majority is just C-movie schlock that somehow slipped through the cracks and added to the slow yet steady decline of a genre that was already suffering from untimely erosion in terms of raw quality.
Shaun of the Dead was the first movie to signal both the emancipation and death of zombie cinema. Its story beats closely mirror those of other movies in the genre, but unlike them it rarely takes itself seriously. Shaun is a loser and a bit of an idiot. None of that changes throughout the course of the movie. His plan is to quite literally have a pint in his favorite pub and wait for the whole mess to blow over. It’s not elaborate, it’s not heroic, hell, it’s not even reasonable. It gets most members of his group killed, but even that doesn’t make Shaun reconsider. There are dramatic moments, and they work very well because, in the midst of all the madness and hilarity, these rare minutes of somber clarity catch the viewer by surprise. But they’re just that – moments, minutes. The whole movie is just 100 minutes of satirization and dismantling of genre tropes and cliches. It’s almost ironic that Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is cited today as possibly the greatest zombie movie ever created, when its whole point was to show how ridiculous the genre was and how easy it was for someone with actual talent and film making flair to come in and trample all the low-brow efforts that came before.
Then came Zombieland in 2009. While Shaun of the Dead was, like the rest of the movies in the Cornetto trilogy, Edgar Wright’s take on a tired genre, Zombieland seemed more like an effort to reinvigorate this particular dead horse. If I was only allowed but one word with which to describe this movie, that word would ‘fun’. It’s a lighthearted play on action movies in general, but instead of making fun of their relative simplicity, it takes the ridiculousness even further and uses it to create a story that is genuinely amusing. The characters are likable and witty, the dialogue and banter between them is engaging, with some neat reference sprinkled in to reward the more observant fans. Bill Murray’s cameo is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and possibly one of Bill’s best performances to date. The atmosphere switches effortlessly between optimism and melancholy, never lingering too long on either. The editing is crisp (if at some points too heavy-handed and distracting), the action is well shot and rather imaginative, with zombies being killed by all manner of items, such as banjos, pliers and even falling pianos. We’ve seen countless zombie movies try to be cerebral and deep, but none of them succeed because the people behind them have no idea how to achieve anything meaningful. George A. Romero was the first and last to successfully use the zombie as a vehicle for social commentary. The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit TV show, came close to being philosophical at times during its first two seasons, but then Frank Darabont was ousted and the role of director was given to a makeup artist who hasn’t the slightest clue about how to create a coherent, engaging narrative. Zombieland is the anti-thesis to all of this. It is, at its core, a movie that aims to entertain, while still successfully weaving in some more serious elements.
Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland failed to change the genre’s direction. Zombie movies are still fairly common, good ones are still a rare and valuable commodity. Train to Busan is the only recent one I can name off the top of my head, and it isn’t even a Western production.
But there is one movie in particular that has, over the past few years, made me appreciate just how mediocre the genre is, despite the incredible potential that it has. Brad Pitt’s World War Z is a bland, unbalanced and horribly paced mess that shambles its way to the finish line, carried only by Brad’s acting ability and its high budget action sequences that offer some degree of satisfaction. All of this in and of itself is not particularly bad, plenty of movies like this one get released every year and make huge sums at the box office, but what is particularly infuriating about WWZ is that the book this movie is supposed to be based on is one of the best pieces of zombie fiction ever created. It’s a series of interviews with various people from around the world, with occupations ranging from marines on a Chinese nuclear submarine to bodyguards of Hollywood celebrities. All of these people are survivors, meaning they made it through the outbreak of the zombie virus, and they recount their stories to the interviewer, a man working for the UN. The stories reveal the changes that the world went through during the crisis – religious, political, social, environmental, psychological. Does this sound anything like Brad’s movie? Not at all, because all the studio needed was a name that would sound well and make it easier to bank on the zombie craze.
I feel this is a case of ‘I’m not mad, I’m disappointed’. There is an incredible deal of potential not only in zombie movies, but in the apocalyptic genre in general. There’s so much room to explore deep themes, to create immersive and interesting environments a la Mad Max: Fury Road, to introduce the viewer to characters that aren’t your run of the mill Mary Sue or Mary Stu. And I believe there’s still hope for that. With David Fincher directing the sequel to World War Z (which is rumored to be a reboot, rather than a continuation of the first movie’s story) and Zombieland 2 in the works, maybe it’s finally time for the apocalypse to become interesting again.