There is an oft used line from Monty Python...the only wield it when it is clear they have no real ending in mind for a skit. Usually delivered by the late Graham Chapman..."Stop it! That's just silly." Horror needed that reminder as the Eighties spun out of control.
If all that is wanted form a zombie horror film are a few good scares and some gruesome effects woven into a terrifying story of one possible apocalypse, look no further than the series of remakes based on the original Romero trilogy. If a bit of low-brow camp mixed in with formula, and a dash of full-frontal nudity is desired, then the oft-confused Return of the Living Dead series of movies will satisfy. For good old-fashioned horror that keeps its audience on the edge of its seat peeking through splayed fingers, there is the 28 Days Later films. Last but not least, for the bookwork there are a plethora of novels, novellas, graphic-novels, and anthologies.
Night of the Living Dead was re-made by protégée and effect legend, Tom Savini in 1990. The film remained true to its predecessor in many ways and satisfied those who could not appreciate the noir of black-and-white, but would not tolerate a colorized film. Most notably, the shambling zombies creeping in on the protagonists like the tide offered a feeling of a certain and methodical doom.
Savini focused on the strength of his talent with effects while producing a more “politically correct” story. Barbara was no longer a damsel in distress. Instead, she was portrayed as a fierce survivor by Patricia Tallman. Lacking the degree of racial tension between Ben and Harry Cooper, all of the individuals seeking refuge in the farm house fight amongst themselves. It is Barbara’s tough, no-nonsense attitude that provides the glue. There are subtle twists and changes to the climax, but Savini stays off the soapbox and produces nothing more than a monster movie.
Danny Boyle brought his British art house horror film to the United States in June of 2003 after considerable critical acclaim. There are numerous and obvious nods to Romero, but the Alex Garland story is its own entity. It is in 28 Days Later that the zombies, or, as they are referred to in this film, ‘infected’, are sprinters. In fact, when casting extras, Boyle sought out English Football and track stars to ensure speed. It should be noted that many Romero fans supported and gave positive reviews of the Boyle film. The actual divisiveness surrounding the sprinting zombie came when Snyder utilized them in his remake.
In March of 2004, Zack Snyder released the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Throughout his film, Snyder “tips his hat” to Romero. In addition, he sought to win over fans of the original films by inserting gems that die-hard fans alone would appreciate. There were cameos by original members of the 1978 film; Scott Reiniger, Tom Savini and Ken Foree. Each had spotlight scenes with dialog and Foree was even cast as a television minister where he repeated his “When there is no more room in Hell...” (Dawn 1978 and 2004) line. A mall provided the central setting for a group of survivors. That is where the similarity ended. The movie was an entirely different story from the original. Snyder’s most glaring difference would be the use of “sprinting zombies”. While seemingly small, the use of the fast moving or sprinting zombie is a source of much debate in the horror community. Very few fans of this particular monster have no opinion on the subject. The Snyder film, while polarizing, was actually riding the wave of zombie fiction popularity ushered in by the entirely new and different franchise: 28 Days Later.
Speed is not the first issue that had disrupted and divided the zombie community. In 1985, as the third movie in the Romero saga, Day of the Dead, limped into a limited release as an independent film, another zombie franchise was seeing wide commercial release. Return of the Living Dead was seen as nothing short of an insult and defacing of the Romero name by a vast majority of purists. This film would strip the zombie of his ability to frighten. Even more appalling, it would create an off-shoot in the mythos that has—some believe wrongfully so—managed to survive for over two decades: the zombie as a TALKING brain-eater. Either aspect alone is a corruption, the combination of the two is abhorrent to the fans of Romero’s creation.
When Baby Godzilla was brought to the screen, Godzilla stopped being a terrible monster bent on ruin. He became a bit ordinary. In fact, he served as Japan’s savior from the likes of Ghidra ad Mecha-Godzilla in future installments.
Likewise, when a zombie takes time off from wreaking carnage to get on a police radio and say “send more cops!” (Return), there is a laugh factor that has been irrevocable introduced. The Return of the Living Dead franchise has transformed a monster capable of instilling fear into a buffoon. The zombie was taking a cue from the Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors version of Freddy Krueger and zipping off one-liners. Had it billed itself as a comedy, Return of the Living Dead could be forgiven. However, by being billed as horror, the film was fostering the illegitimization of the zombie as a monster.
The other damaging effect of this new franchise is one that lingers today and has even affected some of the purists. “Brains!” (Return). With that one word uttered by a newly animated corpse, a peculiar conundrum, was caused in the worlds of zombie lore. Since the universally accepted manner in which to dispatch a zombie is a brain injury, and the contagion was spread via bite, how could a now brainless corpse rise and join the horde? The Romero-zombie was not capable of speech, nor was it a discerning eater. In fact, it was the scenes involving individuals having their insides torn out as they screamed in agony that made death-by-zombie so terrifying.
Where the Romero franchise (remakes included) as well as the Boyle film(s) maintained their mythos—a headshot was the only way to stop the zombie—the “Return” movies changed from title to title. In the first movie, headshots, dismemberment and bludgeoning would all prove useless and only cremation would suffice. In one scene, a cadaver has re-animated. It is decided that the classic head injury method be used to dispatch the creature. A pick is driven through the zombies head; yet it continues to struggle. One character exclaims, “Well, it worked in the movie!” Another replies, “You mean the movie lied?!” (Return). The movies in this franchise were merely parodies full of gore for gore’s sake. They didn’t scare so much as cause the viewer to cringe.
The zombies had been made more human. The one thing that truly made them monsters had been diluted and weakened. People were no longer afraid of some rubber-masked creature from a dark lagoon. Radioactive giants or mysterious beasts from strange lands could not scare us. The news on television was full of much worse: Charles Manson, Jeffery Dahmer, Jim Jones, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Columbine High School, and Mohammad Atta. Just as the movies were showing us...WE had become the monster.