For big-screen zombies, the release of World War Z later this week will mark a climactic breakthrough.
This has already been a heady century for cinema's undead. Previously beloved only by horror enthusiasts, they've moved centre-stage, getting their teeth into the mainstream thriller with the 28 Days Later and Resident Evil franchises, popular comedy with the likes of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland and even feelgood romance with Warm Bodies. Only now, however, are they getting to share top billing with a megastar in a $200m summer blockbuster stuffed with state-of-the-art action and effects.
It's been a long journey. Myths involving the raising of the dead have been around since Babylonian times. In our own era, zombies were first seen not as mobs of flesh-eaters but as individuals transformed into animate corpses by supernatural means. Their early appearances on screen reflected these origins. The seminal White Zombie, made in 1932, showed people being mesmerised into zombiedom so they could be enslaved in mills. The 1943 classic, I Walked with a Zombie, portrayed a woman resorting to voodoo to neutralise a love rival.
It was George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968 that set the modern movie template of a few intact survivors besieged by an undead throng eager to eat or zombify them. Romero removed the arguably dated spiritual element, attributing his plague instead to radiation. By the 1990s, a flood of imitations had been unleashed. Many of these were cheaply made and plotted repetitively, but gradually their gruesome protagonists became smarter and slicker. They ceased to shamble and grew faster and more furious. Increasingly, their condition was allocated a fashionably viral cause.In this guise they appear well-placed to provoke the holocaust required of them by World War Z. Arguably, they're more credible than the aliens who might otherwise have been called upon, since the latter can never explain how they've reached our planet, interstellar distances being what they are. Neuroscientists have shown that a zombie brain might actually work. A condition not unlike zombification could arise through parasitism, nanotechnology, neurogenesis or neurotoxicity.
It also seems likely that if a zombie plague were to occur, it could indeed bring about chaos. A 2009 study on infectious disease modelling by University of Ottawa epidemiologists found that the emergence even of old-fashioned shambling zombies would be "likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly". Ferocious counter-measures, like those favoured in the movies, are recommended since quarantine would be ineffective.
All the same, the undead's plausibility is unlikely to have been their main attraction for the makers of World War Z. The film is doubtless intended to cash in on the current outbreak of zombie mania. At the moment, the living dead are swarming over TV and literature, while zombie video games earn more than £1bn a year. Across the world, people are dressing up to attend thousand-strong "zombie walks" and paying to fight ghouls with paintball guns.
The reasons for this craze are much debated. Most observers see terrorism, climate change and economic trauma as fostering the appeal of apocalyptic scenarios. Yet the dominance of zombies within these is less easily explained.
Some argue that we see in the rampaging undead the majority of our fellow humans. Increasingly, it's suggested, we hate and fear most other people, be they the working class, immigrants, foreigners, yobs, road ragers, scroungers or whatever. Like them, zombies are perceived to be loathsome, mindless and threatening. However, we're licensed to treat zombies as we'd secretly like to treat the untermenschen who surround us. We can, and must, just smash their heads in.
Yet there's a rival take. For some, empathy lies with the zombies, and not with their survivor foes. Stripped of individual dignity and condemned to futile depredation, zombies are seen as embodying the state of contemporary humanity. If they're enslaved by their condition, so are the rest of us by capitalism and officialdom. Shaun of the Dead ends with captive zombies being consigned to menial tasks like trolley collecting and clearing café tables, much as White Zombie's undead were corralled into the mills.
From this perspective, it's the uninfected survivors who may well become the villains. Their deliberate brutality may look uglier than the innocent aggression of their guileless if savage antagonists. In 28 Weeks Later, General Stone's order that the infected and uninfected must be slaughtered alike is more chilling than anything the zombies get up to.
In the midst of this face-off, World War Z must take its stand, and it knows which side it's on. The film celebrates unequivocally the triumph of the elect few over the hapless many.
Its zombies are allowed no moments of pathos, but swarm like turbo-charged ants over everything in their path, trampling each other under their feet to breach the citadels of the pure. Lack of care for their own well-being in pursuit of human prey brings to mind suicide bombers. There's no crossover between the untainted and the doomed. The noble hero loves his family above all else. Unlike his counterparts in more magnanimous movies, he's excused the anguish of confronting his affinity with the estranged. The experience of the damned isn't dwelled on, as it doesn't matter.
What does matter is the survival of one white and saintly middle-class family. Mercifully, the courage of the righteous, the wisdom of the proper authorities and the might of their technology can bring about this salvation. With World War Z, zombies may indeed have increased their hold on the big-screen big time. On this occasion though, they're doing themselves no favours. Nor are they edifying the rest of us.
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