Oct. 03--When George Romero's genre-defining "Night of the Living Dead" hit movie theaters on Oct. 1, 1968, only a handful of unknown actors could claim to have faced an undead apocalypse, much less survived one.
Romero's film laid the foundation for a new cinematic horror archetype. In 1999, it was selected for entry in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, an honor reserved for "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant works.
Hollywood's zombie obsession has been building ever since. The ranks of silver and small-screen thespians with undead cred have grown to include some major league celebrities, such as Brad Pitt, Michael Jackson, Woody Harrelson, Milla Jovovich and -- curiously -- Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."
In recent years, zombies have all-but-overrun pop culture, showing up in everything from AMC's hugely successful "The Walking Dead" series and the "Call of Duty" video games to the literary spoof, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," which climbed to the No. 3 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list in 2009.
A penny-pinching zombie even stars in Sprint's latest line of commercials, inquiring whether he still qualifies for the company's Unlimited for Life data plan.
"What if say, technically, you weren't alive? Like, maybe, you were ... undead?" the surprisingly well-spoken corpse asks a Sprint sales associate.
Some say they are starting to wish zombies would shamble back out of the spotlight.
"I'm tired of [zombies]," writes Christian Koelle of Chattanooga on the Times Free Press Facebook page. "I think it's time to move on to something new. I mean, it's like eating the same flavor of gum every day for two months. It gets old, and you need to find a new flavor."
Even long-time zombie lovers are starting to feel lackluster about the undead.
Philadelphia-based filmmaker Gary Ugarek, 42, was born and raised on "Night of the Living Dead" and its sequels. In 2005, he was cast as an "earless fence zombie" in Romero's "Land of the Dead." The next year, he released his own entry into the zombie sub-genre, "Deadlands: The Rising," followed in 2008 by a pseudo-sequel/prequel "Deadlands 2: Trapped."
Ugarek admits that his films -- both of which were low-budget, grassroots productions -- have contributed to the over-saturation of the genre, but the real problem, he says, is that most of the new entries in zombie pop culture have become as uninspired and lifeless as their subject matter.
"Back when it was just Romero, it was fine, but now that everybody and their brother is doing [zombies], we've kind of ruined it," Ugarek says. "I don't look forward to zombie films anymore, even the low-budget stuff, which I used to enjoy.
"It's like 'Been there, done it, seen it'; it's wash-rinse-repeat."
Hollywood's fixation with zombies has gained significant momentum in the last five years. Of the more than 600 zombie-related titles listed on the Internet Movie Database, one-third were produced since 2008.
Some directors have chosen to emphasize the innately horrific nature of the undead, but many filmmakers show zombies in unlikely roles that fans argue have dulled their menace. There have been exotic dancers ("Zombie Strippers," 2008), Broadway stars ("Z: A Zombie Musical," 2007), rednecks ("Hillbilly Bob Zombie," 2009), fast-moving zombies ("28 Days Later," 2002, "28 Weeks Later," 2007, "World War Z" 2013) and even Nazis ("Dead Snow," 2008).
When it comes to the portrayal of the undead, some zombie fans say the most egregious of Hollywood's sins is that the saturation of the market and the sometimes-comedic portrayal of zombies has desensitized audiences to the terror that a walking corpse should exude.
"I'm not saying [zombie films] are all bad, but by the time they got to 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,' I thought, 'OK, maybe it's time to put that genre back on the shelf for a while,'" laughs Devin Fitzgerald, 29, a fiction writer from Trenton, Ga. "I just thought the whole idea was kind of strange. It seemed like somebody was trying to throw anything out there and see what stuck to the wall."
For Ugarek, however, the last straw for zombies being taken seriously was "Warm Bodies," a "zombie romance" adapted from Isaac Marion's book of the same name and released to theaters on Feb. 1.
The film's trist between an undead boy and a living girl drew obvious comparisons to the supernatural teen drama of the "Twilight" films, a parallel that Ugarek says might as well have sounded the death knell for zombies as icons of terror.
"It seems like they're softening it. All horror has gone downhill," he says. "They've turned horror icons into punch lines.
"You know you've lost your way when you have PG-13 zombie films."
PRIME TIME DEAD
Not everyone agrees that Hollywood's zombie fever has broken or is showing signs of doing so any time soon.
On June 21, "World War Z," one of the summer's most-anticipated blockbusters, inducted Brad Pitt into the zombie slaying rank and file. A film adaptation of Max Brooks' novel (which was subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War"), "World War Z" was produced with an estimated budget of $190 million, about 250 times that of "Night of the Living Dead," when adjusted for inflation.
Despite earning a good-not-great aggregate critical score of 67 on RottenTomatoes.com, the film generated about $540 million worldwide, making it the year's seventh-best earner at the box office.
For many zombie lovers, however, "World War Z" was merely a stopgap bit of entertainment between seasons of "The Walking Dead," AMC's TV drama based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Since its debut in 2010 on Halloween night, the series' tale of a handful of people struggling to survive in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse has attracted millions of viewers, turning it into the channel's flagship program.
The fourth season of "The Walking Dead" will premiere on Oct. 13, following a season finale that set cable TV records with 12.4 million viewers.
"In just three seasons, 'The Walking Dead' has become a pop-culture phenomenon, entertaining millions of passionate viewers and obliterating traditional lines between cable and broadcast audiences," AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier says in a statement.
According to AMC, a new series spinoff from "The Walking Dead," featuring a plot not based on that of the graphic novels, is in development and set to premiere in 2015.
About half of the more than 100 respondents to a Times Free Press Facebook poll asking whether the zombie craze has played out pointed to "The Walking Dead" -- and "World War Z," to a lesser extent -- as proof of the genre's continuing relevance.
Although the show's popularity has helped introduce zombies to a wider audience, "The Walking Dead" fans argue it is fundamentally about the living. The dead are just walking props.
"You don't really have to like zombies to enjoy that show," says Sherry Shelton, owner of Chattanooga-based Web hosting service FatCat Servers. "To me, it's a story about survival. The zombies are a cool bonus."
Last year, Shelton sent in pictures of her Halloween zombie costume to the company in charge of casting extras for "The Walking Dead." She was selected as one of the show's "hero" undead -- featured zombies who interact with the show's human actors, usually coming to a gruesome end.
Shelton says she was ecstatic to travel last November to Turing, Ga., for filming. She spent an hour and a half in the hands of the show's Emmy Award-winning makeup team so she could end up being incinerated in a gasoline fire in the 14th episode of the season.
Last week at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Shelton and several volunteers put their makeup skills to the test, turning ordinary humans into shambling corpses during a trial makeup run for the Chattanooga Zombie Walk. The event is expected to attract more than 800 "walkers" to the Walnut Street Bridge on Saturday afternoon.
Another volunteer, Henry Heck, is a self-taught makeup artist and lifelong zombie lover. As he affixed oatmeal flake "scabs" and rice grain "maggots" to the face of 27-year-old Edward Crowe, Heck says there's no saturation point when it comes to the undead.
"Nah, we'll never have too many zombies," he laughs. "Zombies last forever."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
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