Ever since the release of Victor Halperin’s 1932 horror classic White Zombie, we’ve been fascinated by the genre.
But while audiences gasped in delight as an evil voodoo master, played by lauded Count Dracula actor Bela Lugosi, transformed a young woman into a ‘zombie’, film reviewers of the time were truly horrified.
Mainstream journalists just didn’t get it, and it didn’t help that the film was inspired by controversial book The Magic Island, written by occultist, explorer and cannibal William Seabrook.
Reviewers at early screenings dismissed White Zombie as “ridiculous” while a Catholic journal of opinion ordained it was “interesting only in measure of its complete failure”.
So why did this genre not only survive the test of time but thrive, spawning multimillion-dollar franchises and legions of worldwide fans?
In the lead up to the release of The Dead Don’t Die (September 26) and Zombieland 2 (October 17), we talk with Yolanda Ramke, writer and director of Australian zombie film Cargo, about the genre’s bloody evolution.
The allure of the undead
While there’s no doubt the silent era-style acting in White Zombie let it down, today it is lauded as an example of an early director’s courage and ambition.
Writers and directors of zombie films who followed may have put more emphasis on the undead as reanimated corpses or virally infected humans, but the idea that zombies were mindless creatures driven by basic impulses has endured.
In the 87 years since Halperin’s film, there have been more zombie films than you could throw a vial of T-Virus at.
The zombie genre is so infectious that it has cross-contaminated other genres too.
No longer confined to horror (28 Days Later) you can find zombies in action films (Resident Evil franchise and World War Z), comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), romance (Warm Bodies) and even period dramas (Pride + Prejudice + Zombies).
The classics set the ground rules
With due respect to White Zombie, the benchmark for modern zombie films was set by George A. Romero and his 1968 cult classic The Night of the Living Dead.
Even though the term ‘zombie’ was common by the 1980s, most follow Romero’s lead and never use the word in their films.
Ramke and Ben Howling didn’t even consider using it when writing their short film, Cargo, which they made into a full-length feature in 2017 starring Martin Freeman and Susie Porter.
“That self-awareness works beautifully when comedy is a part of the alchemy of the storytelling, like in Shaun of the Dead, but because our film has a dramatic tone, it … would have pulled the audience out of the story and dissipated the tension we were trying to sustain,” Ramke said.
“It would be a very interesting experiment to see whether a dramatic zombie film could sell us on its characters using the z-word.”
A love that never dies
Pop culture experts say our love for zombie films is less about entertainment and more about how they throw current social issues into the spotlight – just as Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead was a social commentary about the rampant consumerism of the late 1970s and the horrors of the Vietnam War.
“The zombie genre has sustained itself for so long because, by their very nature, ‘zombies’ as a movie monster are so malleable,” Ramke said.
“They are mindless, shuffling hordes with no real personality, and so they offer the perfect blank canvas for each generation to project their own unique collective fears onto – nuclear war, consumerism, cultural oppression, climate change, fracking … you name it.”
Ramke believes amid all the blood, gore and darkness, zombie films can give viewers hope for a brighter future, whereby they can imagine themselves surviving an apocalypse and rebuilding society in a way that is “more just, more equal, more fair”.
“Given how powerless we often feel in this harrowing political climate, who wouldn’t want to feel that they could have more control over their future, and the futures of those they love, even if it’s just for a couple of hours?” she asked.
Why do zombies keep keeping on?
Surely we should be sick of the endless reincarnations of the same idea, right?
Zombieland, World War Z and Warm Bodies have raked in more than $1.1 billion combined, while the Resident Evil franchise has brought in a whopping $1.76 billion since 2002.
Ramke said our love for zombie films could also be fuelled by our desire to feel connected to one another in more tangible, meaningful ways.
“Our own world is so dark right now that what zombie stories show us is that no matter how f—-d up things get, humans are resilient and we’re at our best when we work together,” Ramke said.
“If we can do that in a viral apocalypse with flesh-chomping creatures closing in on us, then maybe we can get our act together and unite to put a stop to this global insanity for real?
“It’s a nice idea anyway.”
We think Halperin would approve.