By Lynette Teo
Since the late 1960s, zombie films have become a dominant icon of American popular culture. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) first introduced the “living dead” as grotesque flesh-eating creatures with a distinctly lumbering gait, an image which has come to define the modern zombie in contemporary Western media. Since then, the zombie film has become the subject of cultural and cinematic fascination. Its mainstream popularity is arguably predicated on its mastery of creating a universal conception of the zombie myth, sometimes to the extent of the Hollywood zombie film being perceived as trite or cliche, since this canon of films largely share familiar tropes and narratives from outbreak to contagion.
As the zombie has become so prevalent and influential in the apocalyptic imagination, it is easy to dismiss the genre as gratuitously violent and even banal, offering little insight into socio-political themes. For instance, Hollywood blockbusters like Dawn of the Dead (2004) and World War Z (2013) lend themselves to criticism for rehashing overdone stereotypes about the zombie epidemic and its post-apocalyptic world. Because they fundamentally centre around the struggle for survival in the face of a rapidly metastasizing disease, and often heavily feature violence and gore, it appears difficult for zombie films to distinguish themselves from their counterparts in the genre. The zombie in popular culture is thus easily reduced to a caricature that embodies our fear of the unknown other.
However, the superficial homogeneity of the zombie canon obscures the complexities brought about by the evolution of the genre’s conventions and its role in popular culture over time. The popularity of zombie films in mainstream media has fluctuated through the decades, with revivals in interest significantly overlapping with watersheds in American history. Following a peak in the 1980s, the zombie genre virtually “ground to a halt in the 1990s” (Dendle 178). The turn of the millennium again saw the resurgence in the production of zombie-related mass media, a “zombie renaissance” reflective of the transformative changes in the American socio-political landscape post 9/11.
These shifts in popular reception have inevitably been accompanied by changes in zombie tropes and conventions, though the structural elements of the zombie film have not changed radically. While zombie films still rely on the central narratives of contagion and societal breakdown, significant differences have emerged in the characterisation of the zombie threat and the depiction of characters’ responses to it. Night of the Living Dead, released almost half a decade ago, retells the story of seven individuals who quarantine themselves in a rural farmhouse to escape a rapidly spreading zombie outbreak in America. The film dramatises the impulse towards isolationism and the failures of human cooperation by illustrating the ethical dilemmas that emerge in characters’ quest for survival. The film emphasises the “microcosmic” (Wells 7-8) by depicting the internal decision-making of its individual characters who grapple with their morality. In contrast, World War Z’s plot retells the zombie apocalypse in a globalised dimension, focusing instead on the institutional and scientific responses to the crisis through the persona of the white male protagonist, Gerry Lane. Gerry travels the world seeking for a resolution to an unidentified zombie outbreak, and it is eventually his heroism and his cooperation with American soldiers and scientists which allows for a vaccine to be found, and for normality to be gradually restored. World War Z thus focuses on the “macrocosmic”, with external developments driving the plot on a much larger scale than in Night of the Living Dead.
“The monsters that dominate a particular period offer an insight into the specific fears that characterise the historical moment”Russell J.. Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, Titan Books Ltd., 2014
As the “monsters that dominate a particular period offer an insight into the specific fears that characterise the historical moment” (Russell 228), the changes in the conventions of the zombie film analogise changes in the Western collective unconscious caused by important cultural events. By comparing two prolific zombie films that have enjoyed popular acclaim, Night of the Living Dead and World War Z, I contend that zombie films both reflect and reify fundamental societal fears that are driven by prevailing socio-political realities. The shift in narrative from the tragic struggle of lay people in Night of the Living Date, to the grander narrative of the heroic saviour who saves the world from crisis in World War Z suggests the polysemic nature of the zombie genre. Zombie films employ the fundamental concept of an epidemiological crisis but associate the zombie with varying political and social meanings according to the dominant apocalyptic sentiment of the time, be it war, pandemics or terrorism.
Setting and Cinematography
At first glance, the distinctions between the setting and cinematography of both films are immediately evident. While most of the action in Night of the Living Dead takes place in a nondescript and secluded farmhouse, World War Z narrates Gerry’s journey across borders, from the US, to the Atlantic Ocean, South Korea, Jerusalem and Cardiff, in order to find a cure for the zombie outbreak. Shot in black and white with limited special effects, Night of the Living Dead almost resembles a wartime documentary, emphasised by a reel of gruesome photographs in the film’s end credits. Despite the mythological nature of the zombies that do not correspond to any known reality, the film is conferred a “cultural verisimilitude” (Todorov) through its realistic mode of address, which convinces audiences that the gruesome events of the film could be “true to life”. World War Z similarly attempts to ground its narrative in reality, albeit by making reference to well-known American and international organisations such as the United Nations, US Navy and Camp Humphreys, the largest US overseas military base in South korea. The film opens with a familiar scene of heavy Philadelphia traffic and the arrival of the zombies upends the bustle of busy American metropolitan streets, allowing viewers to imagine how a zombie apocalypse could suddenly disrupt the mundane and ordinary of modern life.
These differences in cinematic style are not merely a product of the improvements in film technology in the span of forty years, but the conscious decision of producers cognisant of what would appeal to viewers of the time. Night of the Living Dead was produced in a climate of strong public censure of American involvement in the Vietnam war. The film prompts viewers to draw parallels between the gory imagery of cannibalistic zombies and the atrocities of Vietnam, and metaphors of war are employed in relation to widespread anxieties about a destructive nuclear attack on the West. In contrast, World War Z, produced within the momentum of accelerating globalisation, highlights the sheer scale of catastrophe and contagion to address fears of spillovers in third-world epidemics to the West. The threat to entire nation-states in World War Z, compared to the localised threat to the seven characters in Night of the Living Dead, can be correlated with the strengthening of American nationalism relative to the divisive post-Vietnam war era.
The Zombie as a Symbol
The characterisation of the zombie and the origin of the zombie pandemic has also undergone significant transformations from Night of the Living Dead to World War Z. In the former, which gave pop culture its first modern zombie, Romero’s zombies are living corpses with an insatiable hunger for human flesh, but are slow-moving and indiscriminately destroy everything in their vicinity. The inferior cognitive and physical capacities of the zombie clearly distinguish it as less than human. Most of the action sequences feature extremely graphic imagery, with the dehumanising and horrific zombie attacks exacerbated by the personal relationships between characters. In a particularly gruesome scene, Karen, upon reanimating as a zombie, feeds on her father’s corpse and stabs another character to death. The threat that the zombie poses to the living characters is thus inextricably linked to deeper fears about the loss of identity as we witness the metamorphosis of characters from humans with agency and intimate relationships with others, to the cannibalistic undead who turn on their loved ones. Thus, the zombie and the zombie virus in Night of the Living Dead are largely symbolic, an ultimate abjection that represents the return to a debased state of humanity rather than fears of advancements in human capability.
Comparatively, the zombies in World War Z are fast moving and exhibit animalistic tendencies more clearly than their counterparts in Night of the Living Dead. For instance, the zombies are able to climb atop of one another to form a “wall” of zombies and are capable of scaling walls with ease. Furthermore, the zombification of humans occurs in a mere 12 seconds. Clearly, the threat of the zombie in World War Z derives from its superior physical capabilities in certain aspects, which renders the zombie collective extremely fearsome, a notion reinforced by scenes such as Jerusalem being overrun by a horde of zombies breaching the city wall. The advanced capabilities of the zombie in World War Z are congruent with growing cultural anxieties on the threat of posthumanism, where the primacy and superiority of the human is questioned with the advent of rapid technological change.
Trajectories of survival (or not)
Lastly, both films follow starkly different trajectories in the strategies that characters adopt to deal with the zombie outbreak, which culminates in vastly different outcomes that are reflective of the prevailing apocalyptic imagination. In Night of the Living Dead, characters choose to quarantine themselves in a safe space and only leave to obtain supplies or find a rescue centre. The atmosphere throughout the film is pessimistic and sinister. Beginning with the opening scene of siblings Barbra and Johnny visiting a cemetery before they are attacked by a zombie, an air of resignation dominates the safehouse as a growing number of zombies continue to besiege them on the outside. Eventually, all the characters but one are killed by the zombies, but when the sole survivor Ben comes out from the farmhouse, he is mistakenly and fatally shot by an armed posse, the very forces that are meant to protect and save. The tragic ending of the film is particularly poignant for the audience as none of the characters survive despite their protracted struggle against the zombies, with Ben’s death as the result of the failure of the authorities. Night of the Living Dead encapsulates the contested and undermined patriotic hegemony that emerged in the American consciousness in the post-Vietnam period. Public opinion on the dangers of fervently upholding patriotic ideology and disapproval of American leadership were increasingly commonplace, a sentiment echoed in the film as social cohesion is undermined in the microcosm of the safehouse and characters fail to receive help from the authorities.
Contrastingly, World War Z crystallises the salvation of humanity in the person of Gerry, who mirrors the US’ hegemonic leadership during the pandemic crises of the early 2000s. In the film, Gerry adopts the role of the white saviour whose actions are central to the resolution of the zombie outbreak. The film centrally follows Gerry’s journey from discovering the zombie outbreak to searching and eventually successfully discovering a cure for it. Despite encountering numerous challenges and near-death experiences along the way, Gerry survives each time and manages to resolve conflicts swiftly. This culminates in the ultimate display of heroism and sacrifice when Gerry battles his way through a zombie-infested lab to access the pathogens he believes are a cure, and even willingly injects himself and confronts a zombie to test the effectiveness of the vaccine. Undeniably, Gerry is idealised as the perfect protagonist who single handedly saves the world from the zombie invasion. Throughout, scientific rationality undergirds his search for a resolution as he seeks to understand the biological elements of the virus. Collective action and cooperation are facilitated by Gerry as he interacts with disparate individuals who do not possess significant agency compared to him. Through Gerry’s heroism, World War Z appeals to a more optimistic atmosphere of faith in scientific progress and Western-led international action in the face of global health crises.
Over the past decades, audiences’ attitudes towards zombies have undergone significant transformations. From once horrifying flesh-eating corpses novel to the apocalyptic imagination, zombies today take on a complexity of meanings owing to the compounding effect of changing societal currents in which they were produced. Beyond a one-dimensional manifestation of our most innate and existential fears of losing our humanity and autonomy, zombie films, by analogising the universal and indiscriminate spread of disease, can have markedly different ideological implications that both reflect and reify socio-political realities.
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- Hubner, Laura, Marcus Leaning, and Paul Manning, eds. The Zombie Renaissance in Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
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