The Battle Inside: Infection and the Modern Horror Film
by Richard Harland Smith
London feels the ill effects of infection in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later
“Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam…,” Bob Dylan sang with revival-tent portentousness in January 1964, “for the times they are a-changin’.” Four years later, those words became flesh with the release of George A. Romero’s taboo-shattering Night of the Living Dead (1968). By way of explaining the song’s unabashedly biblical cast, Dylan averred that his lyrics “were the only words I could find to separate aliveness from deadness.”
The line it is drawn The curse it is cast The slow one now Will later be fast As the present now Will later be past The order is Rapidly fadin’.
George Romero and cowriter John Russo’s vision of an American homeland divided by a modern-day War Between the States (pitting the living against a breakaway republic of the recently deceased, who have risen inexplicably from their biers as cannibalistic ghouls) was conceived in the relative lull between the assassinations of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963 and of the Reverend Martin Luther King in 1968, against a backdrop of domestic dissent concerning the escalating Vietnam conflict. Its critical thunder eclipsed at the time by the more lushly funded Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey (both of which brokered in discomfiting speculation about mankind’s origins and destiny), Night of the Living Dead seems the more influential work forty years after the fact. Eschewing heady preoccupations of past and future, the film grounds itself in the moment, favoring infection over evolution as a vector for change. Romero and Russo’s concept of a viral apocalypse downsizing the number of available protagonists as it supersizes the apportionment of antagonists has proven so popular a device in contemporary horror films that gauging its intragenre influence might best be achieved via the model of an opportunistic infection.
As with the spread of any virus, the cultural impact of Night of the Living Dead was at first difficult to appreciate. Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) from Spain and Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976) were among the first films to run with the contagion ball, although moviegoers and critics of the time fixated in both cases more squarely on the attendant carnage rather than the motifs of infection. Over time, all three installments of Romero’s “dead trilogy”—which was rounded out in 1978 by Dawn of the Dead and capped by Day of the Dead in 1985—were remade and spawned their own imitators. More recently, Romero has added to the canon with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). In 1985, the John Russo-scripted Return of the Living Dead did better business (and garnered better reviews) than Romero’s Day of the Dead and has since begotten four sequels.
Zack Snyder’s successful 2004 reboot of Dawn of the Dead may at this juncture be as influential a genre touchstone to younger horror fans as is the original. It is however inescapable that none of these movies, or such Romeroesque fare as Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) and its sequels, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2004), Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), Andrew Currie’s Fido (2006), Scott Thomas’s Flight of the Living Dead (2007), Grace Lee’s American Zombie (2007), Jason Murphy’s Zombies Zombies Zombies (2007), Marc Price’s Colin (2008), Bruce La Bruce’s Otto, or Up with Dead People (2008), Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008), Jay Lee’s Zombie Strippers! (2008) or Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland (2009) would exist without the example of Night of the Living Dead, the Patient Zero of zombie movies and the patron saint of every horror film made after 1968.
As seminal a text as is Night of the Living Dead, infection as a catalyst for calamity was not the invention of George Romero. The cinematic employment of contagion goes back at least as far as F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror (1922), in which a plague of rats telegraphs the arrival of Old World evil to the cobbled streets of nineteenth-century Germany. Vampire films are a first cousin to the zombie subgenre, whose dead rise not via an occult curse but from the fallout of science gone awry. Nonetheless, the model of infection is common, as well as crucial, to both narratives. Traditionally, vampire stories reflect a societal dread of exotic inclinations leaching into cultures regarded (however fallaciously) as pure. These xenophobic fables translate easily to moving pictures, in which a foreign-born revenant invariably attempts to extend his bloodline through the gene pools of Victorian England (Taste the Blood of Dracula), the Old West (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula), Eisenhower America (The Return of Dracula), Hollywood (Count Yorga, Vampire), or swinging London (Dracula A.D. 1972). As the times changed, so did the vampire’s modus operandi; by The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), the undying count is attempting nothing else but to destroy humanity (and by extension himself) through the spread of bubonic plague. Night of the Living Dead broke from the bloodsucker blueprint by stripping its undead of any trace of Romanticism, by removing from the contagion equation the seductiveness of surrender and its hollow promise of rebirth. In their moldy dishabille, Romero’s ghouls are closer kin to the loathsome creatures of folklore than the brilliantined dandies who followed in the footsteps of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931).
Over time, Night of the Living Dead established a paradigm for panic and informed a sizable corpus of fright flicks in which communicability plays a pivotal role. As it was ripped off, remade, referenced, and sequelized, the film’s logline incubated to emerge as archetypal an American narrative as the frontier myth. Structurally, Night of the Living Dead differs little from the standard Western. A year before its release, Gordon Douglas’s Chuka (1967) pitted the inhabitants of an isolated cavalry outpost against a tribe of starving Arapahos; the shadow of cannibalism loomed large in this gruesome siege scenario, in which squabbling amongst soldiers and civilians precludes an adequate defense, precipitating a downbeat conclusion that was rare for a major studio release. (Producer and star Rod Taylor had appeared earlier in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which seems also to have influenced George Romero.) Despite boasting many of the taboo-shattering plot points that put Night of the Living Dead on the map and kept it there for four decades, Chuka was swiftly forgotten. A logical conclusion would be that Night of the Living Dead endured for reasons beyond its subject matter and unblinking eye for savagery. The film’s power to disturb is rooted in the threat of communicability and the ghouls’ power to turn us into them with as little as a nip or scratch. The fragility of identity remains an abiding concern in contemporary horror films, which cling with almost religious fidelity to certain aspects of the Romero-Russo paradigm (the barricading of a make-do shelter, the infighting of those barricaded) while tailoring the specifics of the infection in question to the tenor of the times.
A foiled consumer zombie in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead
In Resident Evil (2002), Big Pharma is to blame for the test-tube apocalyptica rising from a subterranean lab to the pavement of dystopic Raccoon City. Based on a popular video game (Romero was attached to the production in its early stages), the film overeggs its dramatic custard by folding in big-bug monsters and Gothic-style ghosts, while the zombies spawned by the “T-virus” might have stepped more readily out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) than Night of the Living Dead. 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later substitute for anthrophagy a homicidal “rage” passed via bodily fluids, while The Signal (2007) posits mass lunacy sparked by a rogue TV signal. In Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002), a plague of lycanthropy ankles a military squad on maneuvers in Scotland. However they vary the recipe, these infection films lean heavily on established Romero-isms: windows are boarded up, barricades are assaulted, human relationships erode, and disease prevails.
In David Slade’s 30 Days of Night (2007), a catching hemophagia is visited upon an Alaskan frontier town by a cadre of revenants whose arrival on a rusted-out freighter is an allusion to the doomed schooner of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While the spread of vampirism from predators to protagonists is key to the plot, the spectacle of carnage steals focus. The film’s most inspired moment is an aerial tracking shot of the undead laying bloody waste to ninety percent of the townsfolk; from here, the action degrades to survivor bickering and a Jewish ghetto-style uprising against the invaders. Evil as a social disease was more persuasively tendered in Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen (1998), in which a demon disseminates its juju via touch, at one point passing its malevolence person-to-person along a crowded stretch of inner-city sidewalk towards an intended carrier host. Few modern horrors, however, are as concerned with the orchestration of infection, overeager as they are to get to the whistles and bells of fortification and entrapment, resistance, and domination.
In [REC] (2007), Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza mash up Night of the Living Dead with Rabid and Cronenberg’s earlier Shivers (aka They Came from Within, 1974), as a TV crew and an EMS unit find themselves locked inside a Barcelona brownstone infested with communicable madness. The cutting edge of the film’s real-time esthetic cannot mask its debt to old “dark house” thrillers of the early sound era while its shock mechanisms prove just as creaky. Vermin bites turn the residents of Jim Mickle’s Mulberry Street (2006) into rampaging rat-folk while a HazMat-suited military responds with fascistic containment tactics that recall Romero’s The Crazies (1973). The bulk of this independent production is taken up with evasive maneuvers on the part of the uninfected; a better use of screen time might have been in questioning the benefit to mankind of embracing its inner rodent.
In Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion (2007), the third remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), pod people are supplanted by an invasive alien fungus that coats its host in a mucousy rime. The troubled production (reworked in post by another director) was received poorly by critics but remains thought provoking in its depiction of alien invasion as forty-eight-hour bug. An adaptation of the novel by José Saramago, Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness (2008), sent victims of an epidemic of sightlessness stumbling with zombie awkwardness into the streets of an unnamed metropolis. The multinational production recalls a Night of the Living Dead variant produced in Spain at the end of the fascist epoch. León Klimovsky’s The People Who Own the Dark (1976) turned a mob of newly blinded peasants against a bordello full of businessmen and politicians whose bourgeois debauchery behind closed doors spared them from the plague but cannot protect them against the wrath of the afflicted.
The vengeful spirit in Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge
Farther from the nucleus of Night of the Living Dead’s concentric circles of influence are a slew of New Millennium horrors not concerned specifically with infection but which nonetheless broker in motifs of sickness. It might be argued that this mood of creeping malaise began with Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), a landmark Japanese horror film and the flagship of the “J-horror” wave that washed over North America at the turn of the century. Based on the novel by Kôji Suzuki, Ring posits a threat to young Japanese urbanites from an undying evil using microchip technology as a conduit for psychic contamination. Source novel, adaptation, and the inevitable sequels and remakes hew closely to the M. R. James paradigm for haunting but the result is messier and more disturbing than the standard Gothic arabesque. (The gimmick of the undead breaking a TV screen’s “fourth wall” to nag the living had been broached previously in a zombie movie, Robert Scott’s low-budget The Video Dead in 1987.)
In Nakata’s follow-up, Dark Water (2002) and its 2005 American remake, moisture seeping into a charmless apartment block creates an environment conducive for the growth of bacteria and ghosts. In a glut of J-horror ghost tales (including Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 Ju-On and its 2004 American remake The Grudge), the desiccated husks of the victims are evocative more of pestilence than haunting fear. In Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (2006), the Korean government is less concerned with a man-eating monster rising from Seoul’s Han River than a nonexistent “disease crisis” requiring the quarantining of tens of thousands of citizens. Viral marketing techniques played a significant role in the box-office success of Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield (2008), in which sundry survivors of the siege of Manhattan by a giant something-or-other suffer the explosive consequences of being infected by parasites that have tagged alongside the beast on its passage uptown.
Fleeing zombies in Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland
Haunting many of the films discussed is the specter of the loss of humanity, of individuality. Night of the Living Dead one-upped the bait-and-switch of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)—the murder of heroine Janet Leigh forty-eight minutes in—by allowing its hero to live to the bitter end and then killing him in an arbitrary manner that stripped the character of all he had fought to preserve. (By point of comparison, this is tantamount to allowing Herman Melville’s Ishmael to survive the wrath of Moby-Dick only to be eaten by sharks.) Inspired by Romero’s example, a considerable percentage of zombie/infection films—Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, the Dawn of the Dead reboot, Mulberry Street, 28 Weeks Later, 30 Days of Night—sacrifice their protagonists by having them become the very thing(s) they have opposed or by prophylactic suicide. (No zombie-movie protagonist suffered a ruder fate than the heroine of Bruno Mattei’s 1980 Dawn of the Dead ripoff, Hell of the Living Dead, having her eyes gouged out, tongue ripped loose, and abdominal cavity forcibly evacuated by a zombie throng led by the film’s nominal, and by this point decidedly erstwhile, hero.) The moral of these copycat efforts is that when evil goes viral there is no immunity for heroes. Yet even this tough love misses the real tragedy of Night of the Living Dead’s grim coda—that its hero fails because he has forfeited his humanity in his anger-motivated slaying of one of his own. Now no better than the ghouls he has been holding back, the character retreats both literally and figuratively and marks time until he is gunned down by a posse of normals who take him, not unreasonably, for one of the living dead.
Because Romero and Russo refused to fix a definitive cause for the epidemic of Night of the Living Dead (radiation from a returning space probe is bandied about as a probable catalyst), one wonders which way this infection is traveling—from the ground up or the other way around? And precisely who is infecting whom? The implication is that the sins of the living, their pettiness, their bitterness, their rejection of spontaneity in favor of habit, have driven the deceased to an eternal, shambling unrest.
Whatever the catalyst, infection films, whether concerned with vampires or zombies, continue to fascinate both filmmakers and the civilians who flock to them. In their corruption of the Christian belief of life everlasting, these narratives offer moviegoers a choice of worst-case scenarios: to rise redefined as a malevolent night-feeder—betraying friendships, sacrificing blood ties to bloodlust, and robbing the breathing world of its precious fund of innocence—or to shuffle about mindlessly as a ghoul, feasting upon warm flesh and pulsing gizzards, dead-eyed, beyond hope, beyond caring, footloose in the embodiment of mankind’s abiding attraction to a consumption devoutly to be wish’d.
Richard Harland Smith is a Los Angeles film and screenwriter, and a staff writer for Video Watchdog and Turner Classic Movies.