Last week I was unable to see Land of the Dead, the fourth of George A. Romero's critically-acclaimed (and socially-aware) epics. This week I intend to remedy that fact, because while I love horror movies of all shapes, sizes, antagonists, and qualities, I particularly love the humble zombie.
The greatest horror movie villains have personified an aspect of the unknown, or have exaggerated the slightly creepy to excess. Silence of the Lambs puts a thin patina of rationalism over the sick uncertainty of the insane. Freddy Krueger is every bizarre, unexplainable nightmare you've ever had--and the early Nightmare on Elm Street movies play this in a way that later, campier films betrayed. Vampires have long been exposed as metaphors for libido and sexuality. Jaws stands in for bestial Nature. The recent influx of Japanese and Japan-influenced ghost stories (The Ring, The Grudge, or Dark Water) mix malevolence with a Lovecraft-like fear of What Lies Beyond.
Common to both the greats and to lesser aspirants (Darkness Falls, Wishmaster, Gigli) is a specific type of conflict. They express Man (or Woman) against Monster. Sometimes, as in slasher films, the Monster is also a Man. In Audition and Misery, it's a Woman (a whole topic for another day--or week). The exact nature of the Monster can vary, but it is almost always singular. Monsters that attack in the plural can still usually be dealt with as a distinct group--the Gremlins, Ghoulies, or Them! are still fundamentally actors within the plot. They are characters that have their motivations and react to the actions of the protagonists.
The undead are a unique creation (and they are a creation of Hollywood, as any informed person is painfully aware of the discrepancies between movie zombies and honest-to-Baron-Samedi-raised-by-a-houngan-and-set-to-work Voudoun zombies) because they don't fall into that role. I propose that zombies are not so much distinct monsters as they are an extension of a newly-dangerous environment. Whereas even automatons like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers are variables, zombies are a constant. Zombie movies, especially the good ones, don't focus on the zombies themselves as much as they focus on the people who have been placed in a zombie-fied environment.
For example, take 28 Days Later, which is not technically a zombie movie but fills the role of a condensed homage to the original Romero trilogy. At no point in the movie do we ask ourselves what the "undead" will do--they simply attack and infect anything within reach. Our attention is always focused on the human actors of the plot. Where will they go? Are the people they've met trustworthy? Are they themselves trustworthy? Who is betrayed and who is the betrayer? 28, like the best undead flicks, is really about people who are placed in a dangerous environment and not about the monsters themselves. The heart of its conflict could be expressed just as easily if the main characters were dropped into the middle of a jungle, or indeed, a war.
Romero has always played with this dynamic in his films. Night of the Living Dead is probably its purest expression, centering as it does on strangers thrown together in a farmhouse against the undead hordes. With Dawn of the Dead he added a social subtext about capitalism, and the zombies started to differentiate themselves more clearly. Day of the Dead continued that trend: both of the later movies feature walking dead that are clearly ex-members of society. Instead of simply wearing rags, there are zombie cheerleaders, businessmen, construction workers, housewives, and more. The third Dead movie also picked out a single zombie (I believe his name was "Bub") to treat as a character apart from the rest of the horde. Despite these nods to reality, the movies remained firmly focused on the living, despite their titles.
I'm curious to see what Land of the Dead will add to the mythos, because I understand that Romero has again used zombies as both environment and agent. I'm likewise interested to see the evolution of his Socialist undercurrents. Perhaps the greatest irony of zombie films is not their niche within horror movies, but that they are often smart movies about brainless subjects--both the living, and the undead.