Hello and welcome to In Too Deep/31 Days of Halloween, where I over-analyse a certain section of horror pop culture.
Very few films can have been said to make an entire franchise. Star Wars invented the blockbuster, Frankenstein the Universal Gothic Horror, and Night of the Living Dead… did not invent zombies. In fact it’s just a shameless rip-off. But lets imagine that this great film never got made. What world we would end up finding ourselves in?
Well to start, lets look at the background of the film. Now this film is often regarded as the film that ‘invented’ the zombie genre… even though the zombie in the film are referred to only as ‘ghouls’ and zombies existed before this film. In fact even the concept of horrible cannibalistic monsters wasn’t a new idea, but instead taken from the famous vampire novel I Am Legend. In the novel we have one man, holed up against the frightening vampire monsters out there, spending his time trying to kill each and every one of them. It is essentially the end of the world via a zombie apocalypse. Even George Romero himself admitted that his most influential work was copied almost entirely from the ideas found in I Am Legend. So if the film is just a fan made adaptation, what exactly did it bring to the table that was new?
Well for one thing this film solidified many, many, many tropes found within the genre as a whole. Story starts with lone zombie attacking protagonist and unfortunate friend? Check. Protagonist holes themselves up in an abandoned house with other survivors? Check. The zombies swarm upon the house and have a craving for human flesh? Check. The survivors own mistrust and lack of cooperation ends up being their downfall? Check. One of the characters gets turned into a zombie to eat another? Check. Their only weakness is a bullet through the head? Check. The film ends in a bleak and unsettling way? Check, check, check. Pretty much every zombie film has at one point or another referenced this original film. It helped set out a very clear and defined story structure that every zombie film after that either faithfully followed or subverted for a change. So it can be said to be one of the very few films in existence that pretty much set forward an entire genre of film in motion. While none of the concepts on their own were new, put together they created something that, at the time, was totally unique. But that’s what it brought to the table. What if it had never been made at all?
Well an over-dramatic person might say that without Night of the Living Dead we’d have no zombie works of fiction at all, which I find… debatable. While I don’t think that we would have zombies specifically (aka undead monsters that eat the flesh of humans and can spread the disease) we would have a close equivalent like vampires. We would have a world where the vampire genre is split into two categories: The romantic vampire a la Dracula and the mindless horde vampire like I Am Legend. Or rather than having zombies being creatures of the undead, we might have perhaps shifted a greater focus onto a controlled monster. A being who isn’t dead but is merely the human being as controlled by another power. Whether it be a virus or an alien intelligence (or maybe even a human intelligence high in power), we would have a group of live humans being controlled by something. At a stretch someone might take the original zombie witch doctor idea (that the dead were brought back to life to be the doctor’s servants) and have that be the basis for zombie fiction. That one of the tropes is that there is always some sort of higher power controlling it. It’s not at all unlikely that someone might see the original concept and develop a film based on that. But that’s offshoots of the idea. What if the idea of zombie never came about at all?
Well on the surface our pop culture landscape changes significantly. I mean, how much of our pop culture is made up or built around the idea of the zombie apocalypse? It seems like every few months we get a new book, film, game or comic book taking the idea of the zombie apocalypse and giving their own spin on it. Some stick with the anti-capitalist message Romero wanted in the original, some spin their own message into the genre. But without all that, we would struggle to fill that void. Because zombie apocalypses give us what we want most of all: Justifiable violence. You don’t need to set up the zombie, or explain to the audience why it’s a bad thing. Like a hurricane or a tsunami we just know that they’re a bad thing that should be feared and avoided. We already accept that the zombies are a threat and thus we can get to the real meat of the story: human beings being forced to co-operate with each other in a time of crisis. Honestly the zombies are merely scenery dressing. You could have a plague of locusts be the big threat and the story would be the same. So while we wouldn’t have zombies specifically, the genre of human beings banding together in adversity will always be around. Zombies just fulfil our desire to hurt those that we don’t really like.
So there you have it. My looks on the zombie genre in general this Halloween month. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.