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‘Walking Dead’ and the many meanings of zombies


By Patrick Kevin Day

As far as monster flicks go, zombie movies are like snowflakes -- no two are the same.

Frankenstein movies are inevitably about the dangers of technology run amok, vampire movies are almost always about sex, and you can’t make a werewolf movie without saying something about the duality of a man’s nature. But zombies can be whatever the filmmakers want them to be.

Commentary on class inequality? Zombies can do that. Commentary on the shallowness of the modern lifestyle? Yup, yup, zombies can do that too. And zombies can even work on our behalf, demonstrating just how brain-dead some teenagers can be (and taking care of them in ways we never would).

With the eerie “Walking Dead” back on AMC for a fourth season, it’s a good chance to examine the many ways zombies have been used to point out the flaws, foibles and quirks in our society.  (AMC)
David Strick’s Hollywood Backlot">‘Zombieland’ (2009)
This indie-style zombie romp unites a quartet of hard-core survivors who go to great lengths to eke out an existence after mad cow disease reaches epidemic proportions. As rule-abiding Columbus, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee and manipulating sisters Wichita and Little Rock join forces and make the journey to Pacific Playland, they also develop familial bonds. And that’s what this one is truly all about. As co-screenwriter Rhett Reeves explained to FearNet, “The greatest message would be that home is defined by the people you are with. Your physical home can be taken away from you, but you will always be home if you are with people who love you.” (David Strick / David Strick’s Hollywood Backlot)
‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968)
George A. Romero’s zombie classic was given a title worthy of a drive-in flick, but the film itself is chock-full of political messages (it was released in the late ‘60s, after all, when everything was political). But in this case, the zombies and the carnage they left in their wake served as direct stand-ins for the slaughter and destruction Americans were just beginning to come to grips with in Vietnam. (Los Angeles Times)
‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1979)
The action in Romero’s follow-up a decade later took place largely inside a shopping mall, where the living dead mindlessly shambled up and down escalators and became symbols of the wretched excess of consumerism being practiced in the ‘70s. As two characters observe the zombies from atop the mall, one explains their presence there by saying it’s “some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” (Laurel Group)
‘Day of the Dead’ (1985)
Romero’s third zombie flick looked at the growing distrust between a group of scientists and soldiers holed up in an underground bunker. The zombies in this one were represented mainly by Bub, a zombie held captive by the resident mad doctor. Bub’s growing ability to learn and understand pointed up the many failings of the more highly developed humans. Maybe, in the end, life would be better if we were all zombies. (United Film Distribution Company)
‘Land of the Dead’ (2005)
Romero’s Bush-era zombie film picked up on the consumer and economic themes of his second zombie epic and updated them for modern times. In this case, the zombies represented exploited and ill-served common Americans, forced to fend for themselves out in the wild, while the wealthy and living led decadent lifestyles trapped in their upper-class surroundings (represented in the film by the Fiddler’s Green apartment tower). Eventually, the working class get sick of being kept outside and find a way in to lead more fulfilling lives (and eat a whole lot of warm flesh). (Michael Gibson / Universal)
‘Return of the Living Dead’ (1985)
Dan O’Bannon’s horror comedy changes the zombies from a mindless, unstoppable horde to a quite clever unstoppable horde. In fact, these zombies are smarter than the dum-dum humans whose brains they insist on eating. The human characters here are either incredibly obnoxious punk teenagers or clueless old guys, meaning the zombies in this case represent a kind of litmus test -- if you’re dumb enough to let them loose, then you’re too dumb to live. (Orion Pictures Corporation)
‘Dawn of the Dead’ (2004)
Director Zack Snyder’s remake of the Romero film was well received, despite his monkeying with the hallmarks of the genre (fast zombies!). But while some accuse this remake of being all style and no substance, the change of the zombie plague’s origin -- from outer space radiation (in the original) to a blood-borne infection that appears suddenly worldwide -- makes the zombie menace a stand-in for our fears of SARS, mad cow, avian flu, swine flu or any other global pandemics. (Michael Gibson / Universal Studios)
‘28 Days Later’ (2003)
Danny Boyle‘s post-apocalyptic thriller made great pains to distance itself from the zombie genre by claiming its creatures weren’t undead but simply “infected.” No matter, the real fear instilled in these monsters is that of the chaos caused by terrorist attacks. The infection gets its start when animal activists break into a government lab to release the animals who have been filled with a “rage virus” -- not unlike the rage that consumed the 9/11 hijackers. The havoc the virus unleashes empties London’s streets of people, creating visions eerily reminiscent of downtown Manhattan in the days following the World Trade Center destruction. (Peter Mountain / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
‘Dead Alive’ (1992)
Peter Jackson‘s over-the-top splatter masterpiece eschewed the political approach to zombies and focused on the domestic front. In this case, the mother-son relationship of the nebbishy Lionel (Timothy Balme, pictured) and his overbearing “Mum,” whose domineering influence on his life continues on long after her death. (Trimark Pictures)
‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004)
This romantic zombie comedy is more interested in gags than making a grand statement, but the parallels between zombie life and normal life are made pretty apparent in the opening moments. Are we really so checked out of our lives that we shamble through them like the undead? The difference apparently is so slight that Shaun and his friend Ed can barely tell the difference themselves. (Focus Features)