It sure seems like our culture has had a morbid fascination with roaming hordes of the mindless undead forever, but our love of zombie movies only extends back about 50 years or so.
Regardless, zombie cinema is essentially what created a cultural phenomenon, and it all started with one movie.
George A. Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead” is almost entirely responsible for everything zombie-related that has been made since then. It was not the first zombie movie, but its incredibly profitable run in horror cinemas and drive-in theaters proved the genre could be financially viable.
It also more or less established the modern vision of a zombie: an unintelligent, shambling re-animated corpse with an insatiable hunger for living humans. It’s no exaggeration to say that, without “Night of the Living Dead,” things like “The Walking Dead” and “Left 4 Dead” would not exist.
One of the finest hallmarks of horror cinema is its ability to milk so much out of a concept that people wonder why they ever liked it to begin with, and zombies were already a tired trope not even a decade after the release of Romero’s classic. There were something like a million zombie movies coming out every year (that’s a rough estimate), and the genre was relegated to trashy grindhouse theaters in the 1970’s.
The 1980’s did see a bit of resurgence for our undead friends, with the “Evil Dead” trilogy toying with the concept of more intelligent evil spirits possessing bodies instead of the typical stupid zombies. Romero also returned with 1985’s “Return of the Living Dead,” an incredibly popular entry in his long series that’s known for its comedy as much as its undead gore.
After a bit of a dormant period in the 1990’s, the zombie genre reanimated again in the 2000’s, and it has stayed popular ever since. There were movies based on video games, such as the miserable “House of the Dead” and the somewhat acceptable “Resident Evil.” There was also 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” (a remake of a 1978 Romero film), which dealt with hordes of zombies in a shopping mall, a pretty obvious metaphor for consumer culture. That remake basically launched the career of director Zack Snyder, who most recently directed “Man of Steel.”
The past decade has also been good for parodies of zombie cinema, with the most notable being 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s a wonderfully funny send-up of zombie cinema that launched the mainstream careers of actor Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright. 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods” isn’t strictly a zombie movie, but it prominently features zombies as it successfully celebrates and parodies the entire horror genre. Both of these movies are highly recommended.
With the success of “The Walking Dead” on television, the genre is probably as popular right now as it’s ever been. However, its history suggests that, even if it goes away for a few years, it will always rise from its grave.