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Zombies: Have They Still Got Legs?

“This whole zombie revolution, it’s unbelievable. We were in France last week, and 3,000 zombies came out for the zombie walk. We’re going to Mexico City next week and there are 5,000 zombies expected to show up. I don’t know what that’s about…” – George A. Romero

George A. Romero may have lifted the idea for Night of the Living Dead from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, but his 1968 horror film spawned a genre of zombie films that has lasted over 40 years and is set to have its first ever $100m+ budget Hollywood film in the form of Brad Pitt’s World War Z, which opens this weekend.

We’ve seen slow zombies, fast zombies, zombies that aren’t really zombies (28 Days Later and The Crazies) and the genre has become a parody of itself in the form of comedies such as Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and the countless straight-to-DVD films that aren’t even worth watching if you’re an avid fan of the genre.

Not even the master of the genre understands the appeal of the undead. Considering that video games, comic books, novels and TV shows such as the awesome Walking Dead series have all arrived on the scene, the zombie genre keeps getting up after being shot multiple times.

World War Z is a pretty big risk. As bankable a star as Brad Pitt is – and the source novel is pretty popular too – a $100m budget for a zombie flick is pretty dangerous. Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later and Zombieland were fortunate that they weren’t huge budgeted films. $100m is a lot of dough, and reports say that the budget could be even more than that due to extensive rewrites and reshoots. This one could be the making or the breaking of the genre, at least in cinematic terms.

The Walking Dead is into season 4 now, and shows no signs of slowing down, but this is because the story focuses much more on the human side of things – the conflict, the family dynamic and the choices people make in the event of an apocalypse – rather than the splatter and trying to find new and interesting ways to blow up a zombie. If it was just about this, it is doubtful The Walking Dead would have survived series one.

The best stories in the zombie genre have the undead as a backdrop rather than upfront and centre. The Romero films are all about how mankind deals with the phenomenon (usually stupidly) and how mankind is unable to deal with these kind of problems. There is a satire, comedy and drama to be found in the stories before you even focus on the zombies having their heads taken off by helicopter blades.

The video game and literary world is probably where the future of the genre lies. The likes of Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising have sold millions of copies, and the Resident Evil series is still going strong, despite its best years being behind it. Sandbox gaming suits the zombie genre down to the ground, and Romero’s films felt like that when they were released. Dawn of the Dead is the model for the majority of video games in the genre for definite.

It will be interesting to see what World War Z can manage at the box office. Reviews have been mixed, but zombie fans don’t care about critics. They want to see hundreds of the undead teaching we living folk a lesson. As long as they continue to want to see that, zombies will have legs. If you haven’t already had them blown off.

He started it! George A. Romero