The classic George Romero film “Night of the Living Dead” breathed life into our understanding of what a zombie is. Romero captured all of the basic human elements of fear. His monsters were the embodiment of that which we fear the most. The fact that we see the zombies literally rising from the grave in a cemetery, not just figuratively, reflects our mortality. When I watched this film as a kid it struck the same chord for me as the proverbial things that go bump in the night.
The feeling of hopelessness, being outnumbered, and overwhelmed combined with the threat of becoming one of the monsters after death cultivated our heightened sense of being the prey (or simply…made us consider what it would be like to be the prey, for a change). We are so far up on the food chain and so disconnected from the natural order of things that we have no real connection with being the hunter or the hunted anymore. Romero was able to tap in to our primal fears, capture our imagination, and allow us to put ourselves in the place of the characters.
A thick fog of desensitization fell upon our society in the years after Romero’s work of art. Films were colorized. Stunts, visual effects, and computer generated graphics caved in our imaginations and left the work up to our eyes and ears rather than our minds. We became unafraid of the proverbial boogeyman. This was a gradual process at first, but with the explosion of technological advancements, the film industry’s ability to illustrate demons and ghouls in vivid detail ruined the public’s ability to be entertained by a good story if it lacked the new enhancements of the digital age.
I don’t mean to say that none of the movies made with these elements are good, although I do personally enjoy classic films over most of the flashy modern versions. What I will point out is that if you took away the glamorous high definition gore and graphics and compared them side by side to the classics, many of them would not stand a chance. The technological advancements in the film industry are more often used as a crutch than they are an augmentation to a well developed story.
Where did we go from there? In reverse, I believe. The zombies of our past were turned into something people could finally be afraid of again. They were given life. We saw the birth of the contagion zombie. Society became too smart and desensitized to fear something that they couldn’t believe in, such as corpses rising from their graves to walk the earth and devour the living. The nightly news was filled with more terrifying stories than our theatres, until someone had the idea to combine the two. With pandemic after pandemic being broadcasted over the airwaves by credible government agencies, threats such as H1N1, bird-flu, and SARS became the new monster under the bed. It scared us, because we became able to place ourselves in the role of the victim. Once again, our good friend the zombie, albeit in a much different form, came back to haunt us.
Where are we headed, now that this virus-infected zombie format appears to be the norm? Are we doomed to watch this storyline be regurgitated and enhanced by computers until it no longer registers on our fear meters? I hope not. I don’t think history is repeating itself in this way. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite. It has been a pleasure to watch the excellent writers behind the Walking Dead series bridge the gap between these two opposing characteristics. By going back to the age-old “undead” zombie, yet utilizing the raw talent of make-up artists and filming techniques, we have been able to witness a new hybrid. This is, first and foremost, a good story with a well developed plot and a strong set of characters. The special effects teams and film crew do a fantastic job of augmenting a great story, without stealing the show. When the two come together, it becomes a best of both worlds scenario.
Another unsung set of heroes who are bringing us back to our roots are the independent film makers. Many of these films are made with a low-budget or, at times, practically no budget at all. Revenue is generated for filming through campaigning with various social media outlets and good old-fashioned fundraising efforts. I like to think that it’s the hard work, dedication, and the fact that this is a labor of love for these folks that are the reasons why many of these films are so great. By having limited resources, we see creativity at is best. I can only imagine that George is proud of these efforts to take us back to a place that could have been so easily lost.