Over the years, zombie movies have evolved in many ways. The stories have become more complex, the characters more diverse, and of course the special effects much more gruesome and realistic. Fans have watched as the zombies we love have gone from mere pale, shadow eyed people to partially skeletal, decomposing creatures of pure gore fantasy. In this article I’d like us to explore this evolution and how it has contributed to the progression of popularity of the zombie genre.
To begin, we need to go all the way back to the very beginning of the zombie genre. Before zombies were what we think of today. Before they were infected flesh eaters. Back to when zombies were simply undead servants of dark magic. In 1932 cinema goers were given their first real taste of zombies in the film White Zombie, starring the legendary Bela Lugosi. In this film, however, the zombies were not flesh eating monsters, but rather undead servants of an evil voodoo master. Having been killed and brought back using voodoo black magic, the zombies were essentially mindless undead thugs. Their look was fairly simple, having dirty skin and dark circles around the eyes.
This continued to be the general look of zombies for nearly forty years. Then, in 1966, the film Plague of the Zombies hit theaters and zombies got a new, much more terrifying face. In this film the zombies were still undead voodoo slaves, but no longer were they simply tired looking humans, nor where they in black and white. Plague of the Zombies gave us a zombie that was more creature than human. The skin had become greyish green and had a look of decomposition, showing the flesh beginning to rot. The eyes were now white and cloudy, and the teeth were jagged and broken. Plague of the Zombies gave us the first glimpse of what zombies would eventually become, true horrifying monsters, in full technicolor.
Now we come to the birth of modern zombies. I refer, of course, to George A. Romero’s 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. This was the movie that first introduced audiences to the fleshing eating zombie. No longer were zombies voodoo slaves, instead they were now of mysterious origin. Returned from the dead and consumed with a single, terrible desire. To rip apart and devour any and all life they came across. Romero’s zombies did have the previously seen shadowed eyes and partially rotted skin, but now their appearance included wounds and injuries, giving us clues to how they may have died. Since these zombies had come back from the dead mysteriously, we see undead in various stages of decay.
In 1972 zombie movies got an upgrade in the form of the low budget film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. It presented the zombie look in a whole new frightening way. In Children Should Play with Dead Things, the zombies vary from green skinned corpses to bulging eyed almost skeletal mess of rotted flesh. The gory colors of the different stages of dead flesh and open wounds brings them to life in a way that had yet to be experienced.
The 70’s offered up a number of new zombie films, in which the zombies looked similar to what the audience had come to expect. Then, at the very end of the 70’s(1979 to be exact), the movie Zombie was released and suddenly took the gore aspect of zombie films to a whole new level. It showed the undead creature in a further state of decay and rot than we’d ever seen before, as well as depicting blood and wounds in incredibly vivid detail.
The 80’s were invaded with an overwhelming abundance of zombie films. Over 50 major zombie or zombie related films being released within that decade, including The Evil Dead, Return of the Living Dead(which was the first movie to feature a zombie saying “Brains!”), and of course, Day of the Dead. Romero’s third installation in his “of the Dead” series saw him step his special effects up quite a bit. In this film we get zombies with their jaws ripped out, zombies being autopsied on, and of course Bub, the semi intelligent zombie who has a look that while plain in comparison to the more gruesome zombies, is still very detailed in it’s textures and color.
Audiences ushered in the 90’s with, in my opinion, an absolutely spectacular 1990 remake of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. His classic zombies getting a full color, full gore makeover that would cement the level of grotesque expectation zombie fans would come to have from then on.
The look of zombies since then has stayed similar but steady. Improving slightly, of course, as special effects have developed. This all perhaps culminating in The Walking Dead television series, which can certainly be considered the go to representation of the modern zombie appearance.
Though I am inclined to believe we have reached a point in the evolution of practical effects that make us unable to expect to see anything we have not seen, in some form, before, I do hope that film and television will continue to try to evolve zombies. I will always be curious to see where this genre goes next and what new emerging minds will have to offer.