Now there’s a question with some wiggle room. Why Zombies, huh? If you’re wondering why I happen to be drawn to the shuffling dead at this point in my life, I’m not sure I have an answer. But I might know why people are attracted to them. Now, I mean. Why people are attracted to them now. Answer is… because it’s time.
Zombie culture is like punk rock. Let me explain––
Back in the fifties big money, meaning Hollywood, was on a horror kick. It seemed like every third movie in production was designed to scare the pants off the viewer. Mainstream audiences lapped it up. Hollywood churned out sci-fi thrillers like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956), and War of the Worlds (1953). They gave us monster movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Them (1954), The Blob (1958), and The Fly (1958). They coughed up mysteries like Dial M for Murder (1954) and thrillers like To Catch a Thief (1955). They gave us the classics Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Vertigo (1958). The fifties even showcased the one and only Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). And this list of mine doesn’t even scratch the surface of what was being made. There was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, House of Wax, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Tarantula––the list goes on and on and on. But here’s something to chew on––guess what wasn’t happening in the 1950s: the zombie film.
Okay, so… if you want to point a finger at Voodoo Island, The Zombies of Mora Tau, and a few other rarities, you do that. But zombies weren’t happening. Not in a big way. And in the sixties they still weren’t happening. Sure, a handful of films trickled through the door, like Zombies (1964), Plague of the Zombies (1966), and Cemetery of the Living Dead (1965). It should also be noted that in 1968 George Romero dropped Night of the Living ‘You Know What,’ but still... we’re looking back in time through rose colored glasses. Night of the Living Dead was an indie-film. It had a budget of $114,000 and had a hard time finding distribution. Big money wasn’t thinking zombies. Nobody was. In the 1970s, nothing changed. In the 1980s, again, nothing changed. Vampire films outnumbered zombie films 100 to 1. If you want to drop names like Lucio Fulci, Brian Yuzna, Sam Raimi (and whoever else you got tucked away in your bag of zombie tricks) go ahead. Doesn’t change anything. Bottom line is this: zombie films didn’t take off like other films… and zombie literature? Forget about it. You’re reading stories from a near-empty book shelf.
I’m hearing cursing and yelling, I’m seeing fists rising and feet stomping, I’m feeling anger and resentment, and I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Wait a minute, you stupid idiot! Have you somehow forgotten Dawn of the frickin’ Dead?
First of all, Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978, near the end of the greatest decade that film had ever seen. Much like Night of the Living Dead, it was a low-budget film, being created for roughly $500,000 dollars. Not to suggest the film was lost in the shuffle of life. It wasn’t. The film earned some fans and did well at the box office, but in the bigger scheme of things it was quite simply one of many successes. The biggest horror movies of the decade were Jaws (1975), which was the biggest film of all time and brought in close to a half billion dollars, Jaws 2, (1978), at 209 million dollars, and The Exorcist (1973), at 357 million dollars. With Dawn eventually taking in a respectable 55 million, it was buried by films like Star Wars (1977), Rocky (1976), and The Godfather (1972). And the films people were spending their money on in 1978 were Grease, Superman, and Animal House––in that order. Point is, there was so much going on in the 1970s that zombies were not the hot topic, nor should they have been. If we fast-forward to 1985 we can contemplate Day of the Dead, but with its budget a mere 3.5 million, and it being considerably less successful at the box office than Dawn, once again, zombies didn’t take off. Not yet.
New question: if the biggest, most awesomely important zombie films of all time weren’t that big, how did we get here?
Let's go back to the punk rock thing.
Sure, The Sex Pistols blew up. But in general, punk rock doesn’t ‘blow up.’ The Misfits didn’t blow up. The Ramones didn’t blow up. The Stooges didn’t blow up. They––like a fine wine––became more appreciated with age. In time, some punk bands gain an ever-expanding, hardcore following. Zombie films are like punk. They might even be punk. They gain new followers generation to generation. But there’s a flipside to gaining popularity exponentially. When enough time passes, and punk-like things become too popular, they become mainstream, which is, almost by definition, the opposite of punk. Its hard to believe that on a day like today I can walk into my local mall and buy t-shirts, stickers, and posters, for the same bands that needed to be special ordered when they were trying to get noticed. But that’s the way it is with punk. And that’s the way it is with zombies. The odds of buying a Night of the Living Dead t-shirt back in 1968 weren’t good. In fact, you couldn’t find a t-shirt no matter how hard you looked. But today? Oh yeah. Every major chain carries a whole rack of them.
Zombies are creepers. Always have been. And they’ve crept right into the mainstream. You can find them in aisle three, wedged between American Idol and Harry Potter, on the same shelf as Iggy Pop and The Cramps.
Going back to the original question, why zombies?
The answer is easy: because in today’s world, zombies are mainstream. Sorry kids but its true. Enough time has passed, and that’s why they’re so popular.
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