History Of The Zombie Film Genre In Western Pop-Culture

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries the zombie film genre has become an icon of western alongside world-wide pop-culture. In recent decades, the zombie film and all other associated media forms, such as video games, T. V. , merchandise etc. has achieved a net worth estimated to be minimum six billion dollars. In this report, the reason and history for the rise of the ‘zombie film genre’ in western pop-culture will be examined.

Pop-culture is recognised by most members of a society as a set of practices, beliefs and objects that are dominant in a society at any time. Pop-culture also includes activities and feelings produced as a result of interaction with these dominant objects. Pop-culture is generally categorised into the following: entertainment (movies, television and video games), sports, news, politics, fashion, technology and slang. Pop-culture is also generally viewed in contrast with other forms of culture; folk culture, the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; encompassing oral traditions (tales, proverbs and jokes), material culture (building styles) and customary lore (forms of ritual celebration). Working-class culture, a range of cultures created by or popular among working-class peoples; and high culture, which includes objects of art, intellectual works and education.

Pop-culture is viewed by many people as being trivial in order to find universal acceptance from the mainstream. Because of this, pop-culture comes under criticism from various non-mainstream sources. These non-mainstream sources are mostly made up of religious groups and countercultural groups.

Pop-culture was created as a side-effect of mass-media; which refers to a diverse array of media technologies that reach massive audiences through mass communication. The term ‘pop-culture’ is believed to have been coined in 19th century or earlier. Traditionally, pop culture had been associated with lower-class peoples as opposed to the ‘main-culture’ it is now.

In recent decades, a particular type of film has risen through pop culture. The Zombie genre has become a pop-culture phenomenon, not just in western cop-culture but worldwide. It is estimated that zombie film and other forms of media’s combined worth to be at least six billion US dollars and the zombie movie genre specifically to be worth over three billion dollars. However, these are considered to be grossly under calculated.

The estimate of two and a half billion only factors in the big titles. These include the four ‘Resident Evil’ films, grossing six-hundred million combined. Will Smith’s ‘I Am Legend’ and paramount’s ‘World War Z’ produced six-hundred million each. Combined with a multitude of lesser but hugely successful zombie films such as the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake, ’28 Days Later’ and ’28 Weeks Later’, ‘The Crazies’, ‘Zombieland’ and other such films the genre comes to three billion dollars without even factoring smaller films.

But this is only box office, and when factoring subscription and DVD sales, the figure quickly rises to closer to three and a half billion then three billion, still without factoring in smaller films. However, this is still only film and when factoring other associated media forms such as video games, comic books, magazines, T. V. , costumes, books, conventions and merchandise the tally quickly rises to a conservative six billion dollars.

Zombies are fictional creatures portrayed as reanimated corpses or virally infected human beings. Zombies are generally portrayed as cannibalistic in nature. Zombie films generally fall into the horror genre; however, some cross-over into other genres such as comedy, science, fiction, thriller or romance. Recently, due to universal conventions and popularity, the zombie film has evolved into its own distinct subgenre.

The first major subgenre to develop has been called ‘The Primitive Zombie’. The exact nature of this zombie was generally not touched upon except that the zombies were created through voodoo. The genre defining films of this era were ‘White Zombie’ (1932) and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ (1943). In both films, white women are the main victims of the zombies and voodoo.

In White Zombie, a white lady named Madeleine is transformed into a zombie by a witch doctor using voodoo. She is then forced to marry a wealthy plantation owner. It is important to note that the Witch Doctor in White Zombie, ‘Bela Lugosi’ appears once again in a future zombie film.

In I Walked with a Zombie, a white lady named Betsy arrives on an exotic island. Betsy discovers that the plantation owner’s wife, Jessica – another white lady – has some strange disease. A western doctor diagnoses this disease as a rare sleepwalking disease brought on by the exotic climate. The natives of the island than offer an alternate explanation, that because Jessica had secretly been married to another man, she has been cursed by some voodoo practitioner and is now a zombie. Neither western medicine or voodoo can cure now. Jessica and her lover are taken to the sea where they drown together.

The next era in zombie films is not often talked about, which is because there was only one decently successful film belong to it. I would like to refer to this mini era of zombie films as the ‘Nuclear Zombie’, this is because many of the popular films in this period have a new explanation of how zombies are created, and that is through nuclear energy. This era did introduce a major element of most contemporary zombie films, and that is that zombies are dead. The first and only hit of this genre was the ‘Creature with the Atom Brain’ (1955). Where an ex-Nazi scientist uses nuclear radiation and Atomic energy to reanimate corpses.

Another mini era followed the Nuclear Zombie, this era also had only one major hit, however it was more successful than Creature with the Atom Brain. This film was ‘Plan Nine from Outer Space’ (1959). This film has more links to the primitive era than Creature with the Atom Brain did, as the first zombie seen in this film is a white lady and Bella Lugosi is yet again a main actor, however this time he is also and a zombie. The new mastermind behind these zombies are now in-fact aliens from outer space. These extra-terrestrials are using the dead to destroy the Earth. I would like to refer to this mini era as the ‘space-race zombie’

The next set of zombie films were certainly not a ‘mini era’. These films took the zombie and turned it into the pop-culture icon it is today. These films being the Romero trilogy. These new zombies are no longer related to white people, they are slow but relentless in their hunt for humanity. The origins of these zombies are unknown, but they can now spread through biting humans. These films also establish that to kill a zombie, you must shoot it in the head. Romero’s rules for the zombie has become ‘canon’ to the entire genre.

The first of Romero’s trilogy, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) centers on a group of survivors that are trying to escape the horde. These survivors are: Barbara, a terrified white lady who is seeking permanent sanctuary, Ben a black character who is depicted as the hero of the story and a family of three. In the film, the party attempts to survive the night, and some of them do. Ben survives the night, but at dawn, he is mistaken for a zombie by an outside armed force and shot through the forehead.

The next Romero film released ten years later in 1978 is ‘Dawn of the Dead’. This film takes place the day after Night of the Living Dead did. The government is now powerless to stop the zombie horde. A group of four survivors flee Philadelphia in a helicopter and escape to rural town. They find an abandoned shopping mall and decide to take up residence there. Peter, another black man and hero of the story ends up surviving the night and escapes the following dawn with a pregnant white woman.

The final film in Romero’s trilogy is ‘Day of the Dead’ (1985). In this film, white women Sarah arrives in Fort Myers, Florida with other survivors. Eventually she finds out that some of her fellow survivors are actually ex-military researchers. Zombies are dragged into the bunker for testing. Sarah objects as she believes the testing is inhumane. Sarah and the researchers collide over ethics and the zombies escape, resulting in gore and violence. This film ends with another white women and black man surviving the zombie horde.

The next, and largest, era of the zombie genre is the ‘contagion zombie’. These zombies are now fast and brutal. Like the primitive zombies, these zombies aren’t dead but infected with a disease. Unlike the primitive zombie, this disease makes them animalistic and aggressive. A prime example of this is Danny Boyles hit ’28 Days Later’ (2002). In this film, hippies set free lab animals that infect the human population with a virus called ‘rage’. Notably, the first human infected is a white lady. This rage virus turns humans into flesh-craving zombies.

Another film that exhibits this new disease focused zombie is ‘Quarantine’ (2008). This film follows a white lady news reporter and her black cameraman who try to survive the apocalypse. The white lady, black man combo alludes to the Romero films but unlike Romero’s films no-one becomes a ‘hero’.

Like the film industry as a whole, an evolution in technology has deeply affected the way zombie films are made. In short, an evolution in technology has simplified the work for crew making a zombie film, aswell as the quality possibilities of the film. An example of simplifying work and improving the quality of the film is the aerial shot, an aerial shot in White Zombie (1932) would have taken an aircraft-mounted camera that weighed more than the plane. In World War Z (2013) an aerial shot can be taken with a small remote-controlled drone. There are four major areas that have received improvements in film and the zombie industry, these are: cost, editing and distribution.

The cost of film-making has went down massively. This can mainly be seen in film versus digital recording. Film is very expensive, it is also impossible to reuse, these to factors mean that if not every bit of film shot can be used, one would have to buy more expensive film. Digital does not share the downsides of being expensive and non-reusable.

Editing digitally has advantages in effects, convenience and quality. Adding visual effects to a roll of film is a very precise art, where the effect had to blend perfectly with what was on the film. This painstaking process has been invalidated by the digital process. Digital effects are created and added to the shot within in the same program or family of programs. The same software allows editors to work on entire sections of a film, easily piecing scenes together, as opposed to film where one had to literally copy and paste the film together. This results in movies that look cleaner.

The process of distributing films has had massive benefits to the industry but in particularly lower budget and indie film-makers. Marketing and distributing through YouTube is getting increasingly common. Online streaming services such as Netflix has also become incredibly popular. These services allow large companies to reach masses they previously couldn’t and smaller creators to reach small niche audiences they couldn’t in the past.

All these new technologies enhanced a new wave of zombie films. Big-budget zombie films got bigger and inspired more smaller creators that could now reach larger audiences. Previous waves had no-where near the same magnitude as the most recent wave, and that is most likely due to the new technologies available to film-makers and film companies.

Each era and mini era of the zombie film that has been mentioned prior all fall into another list of distinct changes. These changes are the changes of what America fears. Each era is a near perfect reflection of what America and western culture fear at the time.

In the 17th century, millions of West African Slaves had been dumped on Haiti by the French. These Haitians created their own religious system that centered around spirits and other elements of divine forces that govern the Earth. These spirits have a hierarchy, the lower the spirit the more basic element of life it controlled. Humans could tap into this realm of spirits; these people were called Witch Doctors. This religion is called Voodoo.

Western Countries demonized the Haitians and Voodoo in 1804 when the slaves rebelled and gained their independence from the French. Voodoo became the summary of the Haitians ‘savage inferiority’. This hatred was expressed in media for decades. Until everything came to a front when in 1915 the U. S. began a religious crusade in Haiti to cleanse and defeat Voodoo.

This is how the primitive zombie came into existence. Whether it spreads the anti-Voodoo messages America supports or critiques it varies by director. Critique or not, the films stoked Americas fears of Voodoo and turned the spiritual belief system from the symbol of uncivilized savages to a dark, unknown malevolent belief system.

The next shift in America’s fears is represented in Creature with the Atom Brain. The film follows the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the soviets own nuclear weapons tests.

Plan Nine from Outer Space follows the next shift in Americas fears, granted, this shift is not very significant compared to others. The film follows the soviet vs U. S. space race. Where now America’s fears have also been turned to space, represented by the alien threat.

The Romero trilogy follows the next major shift in America’s fears. Romero’s films represent a multitude of different fears, however. Night of the Living Dead, released in a decade known for assassinations, the civil rights movements, the Vietnam war and counterculture rebellions. The film was released just months after Martin Luther King Jr. ’s assassination. This is reflected in the film as it has many racially charged interactions with Ben the black man and a member of the family discussed earlier. The film ends with Ben surviving the zombie horde only to be shot by a group of white men. The closing credits show still images in which the group of white men puncture Ben’s body as a raging fire takes place in the background, alluding to a Ku Klux Klan ritual.

The film was shown to black youth and showcased in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a political film. Dawn of the Dead, the next Romero film was released when the unequal wealth distribution in the country had come to a forefront. Dawn of the Dead reflects and critiques this. In the film zombies aimlessly roam about the mall, reflecting fears of capitalism and consumerism. One of the survivors even comments ‘This was an important place in their lives’.

The next major fear of America that was represented in zombie films were the global contagions that swept the globe in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ebola was first detected in 1976, AIDS was discovered in the 1980’s, the avian flu broke out in the 1990’s and SARS was discovered in 2003. The fears of devastating epidemics destroying America took hold in the zombie genre as it was quickly offered as a new way zombies can re-animate.

This is seen in the widely popular video game and later film series ‘Resident Evil’ (1996). The plot of this game revolves around a major pharmaceutical company secretly experimenting with bio-organic weaponry and develops the ‘T-virus’, a virus that turns humans into zombies.

Zombies are clearly an icon of western pop-culture; being worth at-least six-billion US dollars, or 8 and a half billion AU dollars. This rise, from the ‘primitive zombie’ in 1930’s to the Romero trilogy in the late 1960’s to the 1980’s to more modern interpretations, is most likely due to each era of zombie films reflecting the fears of western countries and more particularly America, not only re-enforcing them but riding the wave of each fear.

31 October 2020
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