When I was in high school the one type of movie monster my friends and I always thought was under represented and held such enormous potential were zombies. There was (and still is) something about asking yourself, “what would I do if the dead suddenly came back to life to feast on the living?” Zombie films are one of the few horror tropes that some people actually wish they were dropped into. No one wants to be stalked by a slasher, or hunted through the moors by a werewolf, but being placed into a zombie apocalypse… sure why not!
Anyway, during that time we were always going to the local video store and checking out the great zombie movies from the 70’s and 80’s. Evil Dead (1981), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) on VHS composed our zombie education. We were just waiting for the literal return of the living dead in cinema. I know what you are thinking, “but zombies are everywhere!” Well that wasn’t the case throughout the 90’s.
You would be hard pressed to find a quality zombie film that came out between 1990 through 1999. I am trying really hard to think of at least one that wasn’t a schlocky B minus budget horror film. I don’t even think I can count Army of Darkness (1992), as much as I would love to. The only really great ones I can remember from the 90’s were the Tom Savini remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990) and Peter Jackson’s, Dead Alive (1992).
The Night of the Living Dead remake, while not as memorable (or groundbreaking) as the original, did provide a faithful and fairly gory adaptation of the original. The makeup and zombie design was excellent but we should expect nothing less considering Tom Savini was the director. If he had failed on the gore front, we would have a big problem on our hands.
Dead Alive, also known as Braindead, is another story all together. This may actually be my favorite zombie movie from the 90’s. Directed by Lord of the Rings helmer, Peter Jackson, this is one of the finest examples of a zombie comedy. To this day Dead Alive remains the goriest movie I have ever seen. Literally buckets and buckets of blood are spilled in the most humorous manner possible. If you have not seen it and you are a fan of the genre…get out and see it as soon as possible. In fact, just stop reading this and go watch Dead Alive! All I have to say is lawnmower trumps chainsaw any day.
The next real step towards the zombie renaissance that we currently reside in was the publication of Resident Evil for the original PlayStation. This game was the reason I bought a PlayStation back in the day. This first entry into the “survival horror” genre made you feel the stress of being endlessly stalked by the living dead. The first time those undead Dobermans burst through the windows in the mansion… I have known people who have lost their crap when that happens… hilarious.
So we waited and waited for Resident Evil to make its way to the theater and why not, it had everything you could wish for when it comes to a good zombie flick. Early on there were even rumors that George Romero would direct the film! Oh how we took that news and ran with it. Sadly the film series was ruined by the atrocity that was Paul W.S. Anderson’s adaptation that came out in 2002. How that movie has spawned four sequels is beyond me. This certainly was not the Resident Evil movie we were hoping for. Here is a random fun fact for you though; George Romero did direct a Japanese commercial for the video game sequel, Resident Evil 2, which was AMAZING (well maybe not “amazing” but still better than the movie). I yearn for the day when we get a real Resident Evil movie.
The year 2002 was the genesis of the zombie revival. 28 Days Later (2002) was the zombie film we deserved, even if there were NO zombies in it (technically they are “infected” humans). It was also the first major movie to utilize what are known as the “running zombies” that show up in the genre quite often now. 28 Days Later touched on all the great things that make the genre, survival in a post-apocalyptic environment, villainous humans and zombies (or infected in this case). It just fired on all cylinders and I have to mention that the soundtrack is truly killer. Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting (1996), single handily introduced the world to digital cinema and reignited the zombie film.
I still prefer those slow shambling dead to those Olympic sprinters any day of the week. There is just something infinitely creepier about knowing that you can get by one slow zombie, or maybe even ten, but eventually their numbers will just overwhelm you. You are only buying time in the world of the zombie apocalypse.
Right now I think zombies are just buying time until the next creature rises. We are at critical mass when it comes to zombie related films, television and merchandise. Even the library is doing a Zombie Fun Run this October! I like to think that right now, as you read this a group of high school students are thinking about what the next big genre will be. I for one am hoping for werewolves.