This article is part of a series on the history of the zombie movie. Read the first part here: Zombies on Film: The Early Days of the Undead
Following in the footsteps of modern horror, which was experiencing a shift from an obsession with the Gothic to an interest in the depravity of the contemporary, by 1960 the zombie genre had altered drastically. It had begun to cut its ties with the Caribbean, encouraged by the cynicism of 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie, and the apocalyptic science fiction of the 50s. Spurred on by fears over Communist brainwashing, a new “unknown” had begun to tighten its grip over Western consciousness, and its name was Science.
Aliens, new technology, nuclear power; suddenly (and thankfully), Western fears over Voodoo were left behind and replaced with narratives that focused on the horrors within the home. No longer was the zombie an exotic curiosity, something to be observed from a suitable distance whilst safe in the knowledge that Western science would protect and conquer. The zombie was now you, and I, and our families, and our neighbours. It was the prospect of losing one’s own personality and history in the face of that technological advancement, the roots of which had protected us for so long.
In 1966, writer Peter Bryan and director John Gilling brought to British screens their hammer horror title The Plague of the Zombies. Still holding on by that last thread to the monster’s association with Voodoo, the story follows Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrell) and his attempts to foil the evil plans of a village squire who is surreptitiously killing and re-animating his villagers, only to have them work as slaves in his tin mine. Moody Squire Hamilton (John Carson) performs villainous Voodoo ceremonies in order to seize control over his chosen corpses, and it would seem on first glance that the film plays into the very same pattern of mysticism belonging to zombie tales of previous decades. However, what is original about this little remembered title is its complete eschewing of exotic locations and characters. Set in sleepy Cornwall, the story is entirely focused on the disintegration of the peaceful British village unit, with Hamilton, respected by his peasantry, abusing his position of authority. The “family” of the village is destroyed and violated, and the destruction takes place from within, not from without. There is no Darby Jones or Bela Lugosi to act as that central, racial Otherness; the “Other” is someone familiar, someone close.
Above: John Carson as the evil Squire Hamilton; and Jacqueline Pearce as Alice, awaking as a zombie (both Plague of the Zombies )
Many other films from this period also focused on the horror of confronting the transformation of family and friends. The Last Man on Earth (1964) directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, stars Vincent Price as the last survivor of an apocalyptic plague that has wiped out humanity and transformed everyone into bloodthirsty vampires. At certain points in the film, Robert Morgan (Price) must encounter familiar faces from his past (his old work colleague, his wife), people he once knew who are now mutated. In order to survive, he must separate who these people were from who they are now. Flashbacks are interspersed into the narrative to strengthen this feeling of displacement as loved ones become nothing more than obstacles to be disposed of. It’s true that the monsters of the story are not zombies in the truest sense of the word, but they resemble more closely the ghouls from Dawn of the Dead than they do Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the influence of the original book (written by Richard Matheson) on George A. Romero’s debut is well documented.
It’s safe to say that by 1968 the preoccupations of horror were far removed from those of the 30s and 40s. The door was opening for hard-hitting narratives that disturbed traditions and blurred the lines between Us and Them, between dark fantasy and grim reality, and it was into this cinematic landscape that stepped one of the most significant zombie movies of all time. Night of the Living Dead is often cited as the Godfather of the modern zombie, and it’s no surprise considering that it is responsible for establishing, what is now, one of the most integral aspects of the zombie on film: an insatiable desire for human flesh. In Romero’s foray into black and white B-movie horror, he inadvertently laid the foundations for an entire genre of film, which up until now was lacking in any distinct history. His “ghouls” as he called them, were flesh-hungry and unrelenting, and, although slow, threatened annihilation in numbers. They chewed on entrails, bit the heads off bugs, and dined on scorched corpses, ushering in a new body horror that infamously (or perhaps famously?) had audiences throwing up and fainting. However, the key to Night of the Living Dead’s success is arguably in its scathing depiction of his humans, rather than its zombies. Set in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, the story surrounds a misfit group of characters, all hiding out in the hopes of evading an-ever growing zombie force outside. No one quite knows what’s going on. The TV news is watched with baited breath as reports emerge of assassins, of cults, and of cannibalism. Everyone is scared, and no one gets along.
Above: A zombie shields its face; Harry Cooper (Producer of the film Karl Hardman) argues as Barbra (Judith O’Dea) sits in a daze (both Night of the Living Dead )
It’s this last point which is most important, as it is the incessant bickering between the survivors which ultimately leads to everyone’s downfall. Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry Cooper (played by Producer Karl Hardman) are at each other’s throats throughout, arguing over the strength of the fortifications, the safety of the basement, the weapons, the food, and the women. Whilst the ghouls lingering in the darkness shuffle ever closer to the boarded windows of the house, inside the men argue over the strength of said boards, instead of working together to get everyone to safety. Eventually, the instability of their sanctuary proves fatal, and their makeshift family unit disintegrates, allowing the threat to enter and devour all. The living provide a lot of the horror here (there are physical fights, beatings, insults, moments of extreme selfishness and cowardice), and this motif would be expanded upon in Romero’s follow up film Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Through television footage and radio broadcasts, Romero cleverly undermines the strength of the American authority figure, proving the uselessness of news presenters as they go between various “plans of action”, ordering the public first to “stay indoors”, and then to leave and find the nearest medical centre for refuge. Rather than holding the people together at this time of crisis, these reports confuse and further aggravate the situation, and one questions whether reaching one of the so-called refuges would have solved anything, had anyone made it that far. Harking back, in a sense, to the knowledge/confusion binary of films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943), where the unknowable and the unexplainable are grappled with up until the last moment, Night of the Living Dead plays on its government’s ineffectiveness. At the end of the film, everyone is dead.
Above: Ben (Duane Jones) and Tom (Keith Wayne) watch the TV news report; a gruesome zombie (both Night of the Living Dead )
Romero would go on to complete a series of six zombie movies, with his original trilogy being by far the best of the bunch. Whether he knew it at the time or not, he had created with Night of the Living Dead a new breed of zombie, a living-dead “ghoul” that was severed from Voodoo entirely. This monster turned its face away from colonial anxiety and the exotic, and slogged slowly but surely into the forefront of Western consciousness. It represented many things to many people; it was an expression of fear in the face of subjugation, of the Otherness inside all of us, of that strange appetite and greed for something which is forever out of reach. Technology, capitalism, and modernity became words synonymous with paranoia and fear, and the zombie profited from this. It was the perfect companion to a world falling under the spell of consumerism; a gruesome, nihilistic lump of animated meat, forever marching on, which could not be explained away, and which could not be stopped.
Keep checking Screenmuse for the next installments of Zombies on Film.