By Jerry Chandler
That may seem like an odd thing to say right now. A revival of the zombie film? For most people following horror, the zombie film hasn’t gone away. Cable television and the various streaming services are loaded with them; some old, some brand new. It wasn’t even that long ago that Brad Pitt was running around with zombies on the big screen screwing up a perfectly good book’s premise and talk of a follow-up film has been getting thrown around for a while now. As such, it may seem odd to some to say that we’re seeing a revival of the zombie movie. But the fact is, we are.
The thing is, I’m not talking about seeing more zombie movies being made or seeing larger zombie movies being made. I’m talking about a revival in the form of seeing better and better zombie films starting to be made again.
The zombie genre has long been the source of some very uneven periods of filmmaking. The things that made the genre the perfect place for independent filmmakers to create breakout films have also served to make the genre the home of every filmmaker looking to just churn out a low budget cash in whenever horror was having a pop culture resurgence and especially when the zombie was having a pop culture resurgence. It’s often unfortunately been a gateway genre into filmmaking for people that had no understanding of the zombie, and, occasionally, even for some who didn’t seem to have an understanding of filmmaking.
As such, the genre, going all the way back to the early Romero days, has suffered the same fate the found footage genre has suffered. For every one good film that makes a big splash, there follows a flood of dozens upon dozens of cheap, pointless, inferior cash-ins. The problem the zombie genre faced with this that differentiated it from the found footage genre was with the zombie being the specific focus rather than simply a technique. Found footage films can cover any number of topics, so when one (or twenty) flopped in the wake of a found footage success, people didn’t suddenly declare that the ghost/lake monster/bigfoot/slasher films was running out of stream. With zombies, people would talk about the glut of zombie films and about how the zombie was “over” rather than, say, talking about the fact that the zombie film they just watched was made by people who maybe shouldn’t have been making a zombie film. Of course, just as they’re saying this a new film comes along and gets some positive buzz and most of them back on the bandwagon. Wash, rinse, repeat…
Some few years back now, 2010’s The Dead was the film that did that. It was the first zombie film not connected to George Romero since the modern resurgence that started with 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake to really get a lot of strong, positive buzz with fans of the genre. It also served to give some hope that the genre was still viable as it came after a string of inferior, low budget, largely direct to video efforts and two of Romero’s least well received zombie efforts. For many, the Ford Brothers’ film was an undead breath of fresh air, and they were hoping for the film to act as the starting point of a good run of quality zombie films. Unfortunately, not even the Ford Brothers were ready to do that, and we saw the continuation of lesser efforts as the norm along with a Ford Brothers helmed disappointment, The Dead 2: India.
Talk of turning the novel WWZ by Max Brooks into a movie gave many hope for the future. Unfortunately, the film would ultimately fail to understand something that made the novel such a hit with zombie fans. Zombies work best when there’s a strong aspect of the human element running through the film, and zombies typically seem to work best on a smaller scale. They may seem at first blush to be on odd statement when discussing a novel that looked at the worldwide destruction of mankind and mankind’s fight to come back from the brink, but it’s an accurate one. The strength of the novel was in telling smaller, compelling, human stories within the framework of a giant, worldwide outbreak and war against the zombies. That really does seem the best way to go with zombie stories.
For a time during the more modern era of the genre, the most consistently entertaining zombie films were the ones that either had fun with the genre or turned it completely on its ear. Films like Shaun of the Dead and Fido gave the idea of surviving in a world full of zombies a nice dose of humor- not unlike we saw with Return of the Living Dead decades earlier -while films like Aaah! Zombies! spoofed the genre to the point that it at times didn’t feel like you were actually watching a zombie film. 2013’s Warm Bodies, unfairly knocked by many who did not see it as the zombie genre’s version of the Twilight films, took the zombie into an interesting and entertaining direction, but one that had limited future potential and tended to remove the horror aspect from the idea of the zombie before everything was over and done with.
Unfortunately for the zombie, many of the hardcore zombie fans seems reluctant to entertain efforts like Colin or Warm Bodies if not actually shunning them, the mainstream studios had no interest in or no ability to create a zombie film that was more than an action movie in undead skin, and far too many of the smaller filmmakers seemed content to churn out disposable and forgettable zombie efforts for as long as they could. But, recently, the zombie genre has started seeing some amazing films that treat the zombie as a true threat while focusing heavily on the human element.
2015’s Maggie (with Abigail Breslin and Arnold Schwarzenegger) was an attempt that got mixed reviews among fans of the genre. It certainly sought to make the idea of the zombie plague on film an incredibly devastating matter on a very human level again, but the focus being almost entirely on the two main characters while very few zombies saw screen time combined with a very slow pace kept the film from finding a large following. It was actually an incredibly good idea for a zombie film to play with, but it perhaps didn’t strike the right balance between the various elements that make a zombie movie really work. But the approach it took was a good idea. It made the film focus on smaller things even as it set the story in a worldwide outbreak, and it focused (perhaps a bit too much) on the human element to ground the horror and create something that the viewer could connect to.
Various zombie films followed these efforts, most deservedly going direct to video and being, while perhaps entertaining in their way, entirely forgettable affairs. But in the mix, we’ve seen some absolutely outstanding zombie film efforts hitting the- sadly almost exclusively here in the states -small screen.
2016’s The Girl with All the Gifts was a film getting a slow but steadily growing bit of buzz with genre fans. If nothing else, the inclusion of Glenn Close on the cast list as a major character in the film was turning heads. The film, written by Mike Cary and based on his own 2014 novel, took a tried and true approach to the zombie story that might have felt at home in a Romero film from his better years while playing with the concepts of what a zombie is and the ultimate fate of mankind under the threat of the zombie apocalypse.
The Girl with All the Gifts took the zombie “virus” that was becoming the popular cause for an outbreak and changed it into a zombie fungus not unlike the one seen in so many “zombie ant” viral videos. The film makes the ways the infection can be spread both traditional and new to the story being told, so there are more forms of danger in the contagion. The zombies of the film act both as the classical zombies act as well as exhibiting behavior new to their kind. There’s also a bone thrown to humanity in the form of a possible cure, but the person that holds the key to that cure may ultimately be the thing that ends humanity as we know it. The story has its action moments, its human moments, its philosophical moments, and its tense scares nicely balanced, and it has an ending that’s both upbeat and depressing at the same time.
But, perhaps more importantly, the film manages to take the zombie concept into a slightly different direction while still feeling like a classic zombie film. The talented cast make the most of what they’re given to work with, and the FX work on the zombies creates a creature both familiar and different for the genre. It’s a zombie film worth tracking down.
In the meantime, even as the UK was taking a different approach to the zombie genre, Korea gave the genre a nice shot in the arm with a more traditional zombie film. The zombies may have been fast zombies (still a sticking point with some hardcore genre fans) and seemed to suffer from an interesting form of ADD, but they gave the genre a film that would probably feel mostly at home in even the hardcore “Romero Rules” contingent of zombie fandom.
2016’s Train to Busan (and its 2016 animated sequel, Seoul Station) was a zombie film that made it feel worth the wait to find a great zombie film again. The film plays with the larger, countrywide outbreak here and there in order to make the film feel like it has a larger scope and scale than simply zombies on a train, but its primary focus is on the passengers of the train praying for a safe haven as it makes its way across the country. They just have to survive the zombies that are on the train with them as well as the ones waiting for them at the various infested stations.
The film gives us some great zombie action as well as delivering some solid scares here and there, but the heart of the film is its well-constructed human story. The film initially lost some points with me where the main characters were concerned, though. The lead is an unlikable sort when we first meet him, but, unlike some of the unlikable characters that inhabit many horror films today, the character changes during the course of the story as his world collapses around him and the focus of his new reality tightens on the one thing that is most important to him. We’re also given a good number of other characters that are fun to watch and you want to root for, as well as the complete asshole characters that you end up really hoping you see die on film.
The zombies are largely traditional in their general design, but they do have an interesting quirk to their nature that actually makes some level of sense for an undead and largely unthinking threat. It allows the humans on the train to have moments to rest and regroup without seeming too contrived or seeming too much like a bad plot device. The film also delivers an ending that, much like The Girl with All the Gifts, is both somewhat upbeat and a little depressing at the same time.
The animated sequel film, Seoul Station, is the harder of the two films to find. In the states, you either have to have Shudder to see it or pay a fair price for the Blu-Ray-R edition through an online seller. Frankly, if you’re reading this you should just drop some money on the Shudder subscription and see it that way. Although, before you do you should head over to the Gruesome Magazine website and their Horror News Radio podcast. They’ve got a great promotional deal worked out with Shudder for first time subscribers that beats the hell out of the deal that was out there when I signed up.
2017’s Cargo just found its way to Netflix last weekend, and it delivers and then some for zombie movie fans. The film is an Australian production starring Sherlock’s Martin Freeman that makes the absolute most out of Freeman’s acting strengths, and it’s through Freeman that we get some of the most powerful moments in the film.
The world of Cargo is a world that’s started to see a pandemic burning across the globe. Andy (Freeman) has kept his wife and baby girl safe by staying essentially isolated on a boat he keeps in the larger rivers of Australia. Then something goes wrong that leads to the eventual death and turning of his wife and him becoming infected. He then finds himself racing against time to find a new home for his daughter before the infection overtakes him and he becomes one of the creatures now roaming the Australian Outback. As he searches, he discovers that (duh) the humans are more dangerous than the creatures mankind is now becoming, and he also finds another survivor trying to save a member of her family in an interesting way based on her beliefs.
The creatures of Cargo are very much based on the traditional model of zombie, but with a few alterations that make them as much their own thing as they are traditional zombies. The effect used for the final stage of changing from human to zombie has an effective visual look to it that also serves to become one of the clues we start seeing showing us how close Andy is to becoming one of them as the film progresses. The Australian setting is used to its fullest, and the film is made to feel so much larger visually than the budget would have allowed if filmed in many other locations. The ending packs a powerfully emotional punch. It had my wife crying after the film kept her hooked from the early going, and she isn’t typically a horror movie fan and she’s especially not a traditional zombie movie fan. But, outside of moments of action being somewhat few and far in between, this is a film that fans of horror and traditional zombie films should really love as well as the rare viewer who isn’t normally a horror fan.
By the way- If you’re not watching the Netflix original zombie comedy Santa Clarita Diet, you need to be watching it. It’s a series rather than a film and it’s anything but a traditional zombie concept, but it’s a witty, clever, and often hilarious take on the concept of the intelligent zombie trying to stay alive and hidden in the modern world. Here, get some more info on it.
Hopefully, what we’re seeing with these films and a few others as well as things like Santa Clarita Diet is a sign that we’ve got at least a few more years of clever filmmakers delivering intelligent zombie movies that satisfy on multiple levels before the genre hits the inevitable dip period again and we just start getting a flood of lesser films that have us waiting for the next high point period to come along. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with the mindless, disposable zombie films that are the majority of the films in the genre.
Those films can be loads of fun and make up a great deal of my genre viewing. They’re also a major part of a lot of horror geeks’ film libraries for a good reason. But it’s nice to get a period where we get some really interesting films like this to add to the video shelves as well.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.