Sunday, May 6, 2012

Zombie Movies

What makes a movie or TV show enjoyable?  For me it is likable characters and a suspenseful story, or at least a story that is interesting in some way.  That is all that should really be required.  However, I know people who rule out specific genres saying that they will never watch those genres.  For example, I have heard people say that they think that Star Trek is stupid.  I think that Star Trek is anything but stupid, although some of the older shows do feel a bit dated.  Some people will never watch horror or science fiction (or science fiction horror) because they simply don't like those genres.  I have heard people say the same thing about animated films, although I can think of a few animated films that were absolutely terrific.

Much of the problem comes down to Suspension of Disbelief and how much fantasy a person can tolerate.  When you think about it, all movies are fantasy,  but if you don't believe it then chances are  you won't enjoy watching it.  There are maybe a few movies that seem so absurd that I would lose interest, but for the most part my ability to Suspend Disbelief is pretty high.  I have no problem watching The Muppets (twice) because I enjoy the characters; Some of them feel like old friends to me.  I have no problem watching a movie about a sponge who cooks burgers at the bottom of the sea because the whole thing is satire on human society; It's not about sea creatures.  It is about people in the same way that Aesop's fables are about people.  Much of science fiction and horror is actually intended to be a commentary on our society, so they could be viewed as modern fables.

The comment I made about The Ultimate Gift is that I don't necessarily have to believe it to enjoy the movie for what it is.  All that was required is that the characters be likable, and they are, and for there to be suspense, and there is.

So where does one draw the line?  Even I have a slight problem with the movies where the dead come back to life because I know it is impossible.  To believe such a thing would require us to believe in supernatural forces, which is the problem that I have with most horror movies.  Still, it can be fun to pretend.  It can be fun to imagine what we would do if we were faced with such a situation.  But if the situation doesn't sound interesting to you, then maybe Suspension of Disbelief goes out the window?

The best show where the dead come back to life is not a movie, but The Walking Dead television show.  This show has great characters - really great characters.  Because of this, I am a die hard fan.  Do yourself a favor and watch the first 15 minutes.  You will meet some very interesting people.  Everyone I know who has watched it, loves it.

Not all zombie movies are movies where the dead come back to life.   The most successful zombie movie ever made, the Will Smith version of I am Legend, is really about a virus that turns humans into homicidal maniacs.  In fact, the producer of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, both of which are pretty good movies, argues that his movies aren't zombie movies at all;  They are about the spread of a "rage virus."  Another really good movie, The Crazies, has the same premise, except that it is a bio-weapon.   The comedy Zombieland, which I happen to absolutely love, claims that it is a mutated form of Mad Cow Disease, which doesn't sound that impossible to me.

I prefer this type of zombie movie where a disease has infected most of the human population.  In this respect, movies like this are not much different than a movie like Contagion, which is terrific movie about a pandemic.  The primary difference is that Contagion doesn't have hordes of crazy people chasing and killing the non-infected.

Almost all zombie movies share certain characteristics:
  1. The breakdown of society.  I think that this is the major part of the appeal.  Most zombie movies are post-apocalyptic.  In that respect, they are not that different from Mad Max movies.
  2. Man's greatest enemy is still his fellow (living) man.  Most zombie movies have people at odds with each other.  I would think that under these circumstances, people would put aside their differences and unite against a common non-living enemy, but that might not make for a very interesting movie.  Instead it is the living people who end up killing each other.
  3. Gore.  Personally I can live without excessive gore in my entertainment, but it does give the story an extra urgency when you see people ripped apart by a horde of attacking zombies.  The George Romero series of zombie movies and The Walking Dead TV series tend to be excessively gory, but the other movies that I listed above aren't nearly as bad.
  4. Social Commentary.  Most zombie movies comment in one way or another about the human condition, but the George Romero movies are especially famous for this.
I recently watched all 6 George Romero zombie movies, which is the series that started the whole zombie fad.
George Romero's first Zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968 version) started it all.  It has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It has been heralded as a groundbreaking movie that spawned dozens of imitators.

For me the movie is just O.K.  It is obviously low budget.  The acting and production quality are second rate.

There is a whole genre of movies about people hiding in a building or a house while being attacked from the outside.  These movies have the advantage of of creating a suspense that carries the film because the audience wants to see how it ends.  Despite the cheap production quality, the movie is suspenseful and  occasionally exciting.

At first I was disappointed that the movie ended with such a predictable tragedy.  After some reflection, I felt satisfied with it.  One common theme in most zombie films is that even though there are monsters everywhere, man's greatest enemy is still his fellow man.

One thing that makes George Romero zombie movies stand out is that they all have a certain amount of social commentary.
George Romero's second zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead, was for the longest time the king of zombie movies.  Roger Ebert rates the movie at 4 stars.  I liked the movie quite a bit.  It is not necessary to watch any of the other zombie movies to see this one.

After a Zombie Apocalypse, a small group of humans hole up in a shopping mall and make a life for themselves there. Their biggest threat is not the zombies, but other humans who want what they have.

There is some unpleasant gore at the end, but it is not as bad as some other zombie movies.
George Romero's Day of the Dead (1986 version) is the third installment in his zombie series.  The only reasons to see it are ...
  1. You like zombie or horror movies.
  2. You are interested in the George Romero series.
I give the movie a generous B- because I fit into both categories.

Romero originally intended the movie to be a much more epic film, but couldn't get the funding for it.  The film looks somewhat cheap, like a made for TV movie.

I could have done without all of the gory special effects.  Every zombie movie has at least one scene where a massive hoard of zombies attacks people, but here they take the special effects to a new level by showing live people being ripped apart.  The special effects are interesting in a clinical sort of way, but reality would be much messier.  Therefore the gore in this film is more on the comic book level, although extreme, which almost makes it tolerable.

I have a problem with any movie where the characters spend a lot of time arguing with each other.  Here the conflict is between a small group of scientists doing research in an underground bunker, and a small group of soldiers assigned to protect them.  You would think that if these people thought that they might be last people on earth, that they would put aside their differences and band together to fight a common enemy, which is the zombies.  Much of the conflict revolves around the head scientist and the head soldier, both of which have gone a little crazy.

The lead scientist is especially crazy because he has the wacky idea that he can train the zombies to be non-aggressive.  The trouble with his theory is that the humans are outnumbered by a hundred million to one, so his chance of  training all the zombies is nil.  He actually makes progress with a captured zombie that he has nicknamed "Bob" (pictured), who oddly enough starts to develop a bit of a personality.  Bob ends up being so interesting that he makes the movie almost worth seeing.

Despite all the flaws, I couldn't help but think that the movie is entertaining.  It has a whopping 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  When the humans start to kill each other, there is a certain suspense in wanting to know how it turns out.
Land of the Dead is about the conflict between rich and poor in walled off city after an Zombie Apocalypse.  Dennis Hopper plays the most powerful person in the city with his usual sliminess.  Meanwhile, like in the preceding movie, the zombies start to develop some personality and begin to organize against the humans.

When I got the movie from Netflix, I was disappointed to see that it was the director's cut.  I knew that this meant that it would have extra gore and violence, which it does.  George Romero seems like a pretty weird person to add 4 minutes of extra violence and gore to a movie that is already gory and violent.

Despite this, it is a pretty slick film with many interesting characters and an interesting story.  It is a major step up from its predecessor.  This movie has many memorable quotes.
Diary of the Dead is essentially a reboot of the zombie series because the zombie apocalypse takes place in more modern times.  It follows a group of film students who decide to film the zombie apocalypse as it is happening and post their film to the internet.  Overall, the movie is pretty interesting and not as gory as some of its predecessors.

Survival of the Dead is about the conflict between two feuding families living on an island after a zombie apocalypse.  In a way, this movie is a throwback to western films.  This is also the first George Romero zombie film to include some characters from the previous movie.

This is the only George Romero zombie movie to get a bad rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I think that the movie is underrated.  (I give it a B.)  

My favorite zombie movie is not any of the George Romero films, but 28 Days Later.  The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is still pretty good, but I prefer the original.  Of all the George Romero films, Dawn of the Dead should probably not be missed.

If you like your zombie movies more on the funny side, I thought that Zombieland was great in so many ways.  Shaun of the Dead is a lessor movie that is still funny and made Simon Pegg famous.

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