Panic on the Streets of London
The zombies are back in town. In fact they probably feel at home by now. 28 Weeks Later is the third major British zombie movie in five years - with Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later before that, this is fast becoming a local specialty - like gastropubs and Richard Branson cameos. The Undead have never had it so good.
Admittedly there are those who question whether the 28s are really zombie movies at all. This argument can get more than a little geeky and pedantic, but it boils down to the complaint that the blood-thirsty maniacs terrorizing the streets in Danny Boyle's film are infected with a peculiar viral strain ('rage') that has nothing to do with zombification per se… though frankly, few Hollywood zombies would pass muster in Haiti, where zombification is on the statute books and may be designated murder 'after the person has been buried, no matter what result follows'.
Some people complain that George Romeo's zombies are too slow to be scary, but strictly speaking, a real, 'live' zombie in the voodoo tradition probably isn't going to be tearing at your flesh, it's more like a somnambulant slave, ready to do its master's bidding after being semi-paralyzed with a dose of tetrodotoxin (all you need is a Puffer fish, voodoo fans). For this kind of authentic zombie action, let me recommend the 1943 Val Lewton classic I Walked With a Zombie and leave it at that.
It's worth remembering that when Romero reinvented the horror movie in 1968, he didn't call his shockingly grim masterpiece 'Night of the Zombies', but Night of the Living Dead. The zombie tag came later - in Romero's film, the living have better things to do than debate nomenclature (mostly they're just 'those things'). It's this kind of realism that made the film stand out. In conventional horror movies the threat would be contained by appropriately heroic action. In Night of the Living Dead mankind does seem to have the upper hand by the end. But only after all the characters we care about have been infected, cannibalized or shot.
By the time of Romero's Dawn of the Dead it's obvious that we're all doomed, the zombies are everywhere. As Simon (Shaun of the Dead) Pegg put it: 'Zombies are death itself and they come slowly, but they will get you in the end.'
Romero was part of a new underground culture of graphically violent horror films that began to surface in the late 60s and early 70s. Nowhere is the human body more abused than in zombie movies, with their emphasis on decomposing flesh, cannibalism, severed limbs and brain damage.
'It's absolutely clear looking at those [earlier zombie] films, they came out of nuclear paranoia. It's not that people will die, it's the fear and uncertainty of what radiation will do to the survivors,' Danny Boyle said in 2002.
If you've seen Peter Watkins' The War Game, a horrific documentary about nuclear war, you'll know what Boyle is talking about: in the 1950s school kids were taught to take cover under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack, and when it came to imagining the effects of radiation the movies came up with giant ants (Them). Ten years later people were a lot clearer about the real dangers.
Boyle went on to suggest that while nuclear weapons are still with us, that paranoia is not the same: 'You can't make a zombie film today,' he claimed. '28 Days Later is not a film about monsters, it's a film about us.'
I'm not sure that distinction holds up. A film about the apartheid between rich and poor, Romero's Land of the Dead seemed perfectly contemporary to me, but all zombie movies, including Boyle's and Shaun of the Dead play off our fear of imminent extinction: apocalypse very soon. In keeping with our own accelerated lifestyles the undead sprint like jackrabbits in 28 Days Later, and the rage epidemic taps into contemporary fears around bacterial weapons, terrorism and environmental contagion, but for the survivors it's still an us-against-them scenario with the odds heavily stacked towards the doom-mongers.
If anything, it's easier to identify with Romero's pathetic, shuffling zombies, especially in the underrated later films like Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, where the human survivors tend to be brutal and the walkers generally get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Watching Romero's films, we're always reminded that zombies or no zombies, the rest of us have a natural propensity for tearing each other apart. But the most biting observation surely comes in Shaun of the Dead: the idea that most of us are half undead already, and maybe we like it that way.
THE ZOMBIE LIST
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
Day of the Dead
Land of the Dead
Shaun of the Dead
28 Days Later
Return of the Living Dead
I Walked With a Zombie
Night of the Comet
The Serpent and the Rainbow
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