Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Birth Of Zombies: Part 1

Almost since full-length motion pictures stated being made, stories about zombies have been used to scarify audiences. The recent success of films like "World War Z" and television shows like "The Walking Dead" indicate that there's still a lot of life in the smoldering sub-genre.

But like all good movie monsters, zombies have had to change with the times to continue to get audiences to plunk down their hard earned dollars.  Just as vampires morphed from the smooth Hungarian Bela Lugosi in the 1930s to the rat-like, hissing fiend in Tobe Hooper's "Salem's Lot" to the night club raving bloodsuckers in "Blade," zombies too have a long history of change.

And it's perhaps no coincidence that, like vampire films, the beginning of Hollywood's love affair with zombies also featured Bela Lugosi. "White Zombie" started production in 1932, shortly after "Dracula" became a monster hit for Universal (literally saving the studio from bankruptcy), and was also shot at Universal.  

Monsters would soon be big business, and the producers were trying to cash in with a genre flick that stared the now world-famous Lugosi. While "White Zombie" would not match the financial success of "Dracula," it did create the template for zombie movies for the next 36 years. Dozens of voodoo-zombie films would crawl into cinemas over the next three and a half decades, all following the "rules" set up in "White Zombie."

Ironically, perhaps the only movie during this period to stray outside of the lines was Ed Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space," in which aliens begin raising the dead to create an undead army. Called by many the worst movie of all time, perhaps it's no wonder no other film makers followed Mr. Wood's path (at least until EGE's own "Living Dead World," which features an ancient alien doomsday device that morphs the living into undead super-beasts).  In any case, elements of voodoo, drums and pseudo-death could be found in every zombie movie up to 1966. That's when the legendary Hammer studio released "Plague of Zombies."

"Plague of Zombies" would essentially be the last of the voodoo zombies flicks. Classy (and in color), the film featured all the typical set pieces established way back in 1932 -- drums, an evil voodoo priest, hypnotized victims, Gothic in tone -- yet there was one difference.  In "Plague of Zombies," the dead actually seem to rise at the command of the voodoo priest, a seemingly simple yet vastly important change.

And that's of course because two years later George A. Romero would release the grand-daddy of all modern zombie films, "Night of the Living Dead."  It would forever destroy the voodoo archetype of a zombie, replacing it with something a million times scarier.   And again, as in "White Zombie," vampires hovered off stage helping get this new monster off the ground. That's because Romero had wanted to make a movie out of the now uber-famous "I Am Legend" novella by Richard Mattheson. But Romero couldn't do that, in part because Vincent Price had recently starred in an Italian-made version of the book in 1964 called "Last Man on Earth."

So Romero came up with the notion of "ghouls" instead of vampires (interestingly enough, Night of the Living Dead" doesn't use the term zombie once), creatures that were entirely dead before being reanimated by some unknown means into flesh eating monsters. Like many great ideas, Romero's invention was born out of necessity, and in hindsight seems a simple one, yet not only had he invented an entire sub-genre of horror films, he also changed the way virtually all horror movies would be made from thereon.

Romero proved that you did not need a make-up wizard like Jack Pierce, or an actor willing to torture his body into gruesome shapes such Lon Chaney Sr. did.  Romero proved that one need not have exotic locations, lavish sets and color film to excite an audience.

No, here was an idea that revolutionized horror -- a monster from your backyard, from right down the street; a monster that was your very own mother (or daughter). This was vampirism on a monstrously grand, yet brutally simple scale. This was vampirism trimmed of all Gothic romance and set, not in far off deserted castles, but in every morgue and hospital in America. The transformations took not weeks of attention from a exotic count, but happened within minutes of death.

The triple whammy of a new type of monster that rapidly spreads out like a disease through every suburb in America shot in documentary black and white electrified audiences from the very first showing. Everything from "The Exorcist" to "The Blair Witch Project" (not to mention all the zombie films since) owe something to Romero's grim bit of movie making genius. So great has been its affect, that the film is now preserved in the National Film Registry, right along with "Gone With the Wind" and "Star Wars."  And of course, no one would ever look at zombies the same way again.

Not bad for a movie with such a low budget they used chocolate syrup for blood.

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