There are slow zombies, and there are fast zombies. But moviegoers may never have seen the likes of the latest breed of the undead, coming at you in "World War Z" on Friday: the swarming zombie.
In the Brad Pitt-produced adaptation of Max Brooks' best selling novel, Pitt plays Gerry, an ex-United Nations investigator and family man who finds his world upended when an epidemic begins turning people into the walking - and running and massing - dead.
"When they are not provoked, they are stagnant, slow and wandering," says the film's director, Marc Forster ("Quantum of Solace"). "When the feeding frenzy starts, it's almost like a shark that smells blood. In the moment they sense that there's something to attack, they will just go for it. It's the way flocks of birds or fish or ants move together. There is almost a 'swarm intelligence' to it."
It's the latest - and possibly most terrifying - development in the zombie genre, which has enjoyed a surging renaissance over the past decade. The zombie has never been so front-and-center in the public consciousness, which the director says is no accident.
"People are tied to their screens and their monitors and their headphones - in the most basic sense, they do walk around like zombies by not interacting with other human beings," he says. "Also, at least for me, the world feels like a tenuous place - it feels unstable. It feels like there are big waves of emotion and behavior that are sweeping over us, and it's happening more and more quickly."
But the idea of zombies as embodiments of our cultural unease is far from new. It dates back to 1932 and the release of a Bela Lugosi film, "White Zombie," featuring a witch doctor who turns a young woman into a zombie slave. A decade later, we saw a more classic rendition of a zombie: the voodoo-induced state of the island native Carre Four in 1943's "I Walked With a Zombie."
"The genre started with old Haitian folklore," says Peter Dendle, author of "The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia," now out in Vol. 2. "During the US Marine occupation of Haiti, Marines brought back travel accounts - largely made up - of cannibalism and voodoo. Hollywood turned it into an icon of entertainment.
"The early years focus on appropriation of female bodies," Dendle adds. "The voodoo master would be abe to take over a woman's body and control her like a puppet."
Zombies also corresponded with a domestic concern: the Great Depression. "It did resonate with the images of soup lines made up of people whose souls were dug out, whose eyes were dead," says Dendle. "It was a population that had been gutted from within."
Then in the 1950s, "you had your first contagious zombies," says Sean Hoade, a writer and academic who hosts a seven-part iTunes series called "Zombies! The Living Dead in Literature, Film and Culture."
"The zombies were radioactive," he says of 1957's "Zombies of Mora Tau." "It was the start of the Cold War. Not a great film, but a milestone in zombie movies."
The film that put the undead on the map came in 1968: George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," which introduced the classic "shambling zombie," slow-moving but relentless, and still the mainstay of much zombie pop culture, as in TV's current smash, "The Walking Dead."
Romero's plot reflected the nation's civil rights turbulence. "When you look at it as a racial element, it's this idea of 'look at the rapidly spreading people beneath us coming to ruin the elite,' " says Hoade, who adds that Romero threw in a twist: "Ben [the hero] is black. He wasn't written as black, but Duane Jones was the best actor among their friends, so he got the part."
Romero's subsequent "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) turned its focus to commercialism, setting the action in a shopping mall, while 1985's "Day of the Dead" pushed the envelope with a sentient zombie named Bub, who's captured and held at an underground Army base. "Bub the zombie speaks the only dialogue of any zombie in any of those films," says Hoade. "That's the first inkling there's intelligence there."
Bub was trained to follow orders, but "what they used as a reward was human flesh," Hoade points out. "We don't want that kind of conditioning!"
Fast zombies - or "zoombies," as Dendle calls them - made everything exponentially scarier when they arrived, first in Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" in 2002 and then in Zack Snyder's 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake. In "28 Days," a man (Cillian Murphy) wakes to find himself in a London decimated by a "rage" virus that turns victims into ferocious, unstoppable monsters.
Boyle's film marked "the rebirth of the zombie genre," says Ross Payton, author of "Zombies of the World: A Field Guide to the Undead." "You have a respected director, a great script, and you have a new type of zombie: the fast-running zombie."
"28 Days" played into our newly developing anxiety about pandemics, overpopulation and the vulnerability of our infrastructure.
"[Both films are] very much a comment on how we're all packed together, and a fear of epidemics in general," says Hoade. "Can you trust your neighbor? Are you prepared for systems to go down?"
It also mainstreamed zombie culture in a new way. "This last decade has been the most vital and creative and important in the genre's history," says Dendle. Also the most disturbing, with increasingly realistic effects giving the undead a believability they previously lacked.
" 'The Walking Dead' has the best zombie effects of any movie or TV show, anything, ever," says Hoade. "They're brilliant.
"But," he laments, "that makes the completely inept storytelling that much sadder!"
Still, this soap opera-fication normalized the zombie for millions of viewers, who tune in to AMC to watch Deputy Rick and company fight their way through the blighted landscape, picking off expertly styled zombies who looked eerily real.
The undead then grew a heart in "Warm Bodies," earlier this year, in which Nicholas Hoult's zombie still had memories, feelings and the capacity to fall head over heels in love - with a human.
"I guess that was inevitable because of 'Twilight,'" says Payton. "But also it's getting into the trend of humanizing zombies. Pop culture is aware of the 'othering' of groups of people, and some people get uncomfortable with the idea of killing zombies - aren't they just people infected with a disease?"
But don't expect gooshy sentiments in the latest chapter in the zombie evolution. "World War Z," from early accounts, is a harder- edged look at a world under siege from a zombifying epidemic. It veers sharply from its source material (which is subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War") to become a more traditional thriller in which Pitt's character is at the center of an unraveling world.
Though the studio has been cagey about showing the zombies in its film (or showing the film to press), those who have seen it say its zombies are at odds with the classic shambling breed in the book.
"In the movie," says Hoade, "what we have are super-fast zombies who can jump higher, run faster, which has nothing to do with the zombies in the book."
They also work in concert: "You see them making human bridges, hunting together to flush out prey," he says. "The mechanism for them to communicate, I'm sure, is that it's in the virus."
Picking up the baton from "The Walking Dead," costume designer Mayes Rubeo went for super-realism in her depiction of the virus' ravages on the various zombies.
"We wanted to show the process from human to zombie through the costumes," she says. "Not everyone has the same bite, not everybody is hurt or traumatized in the same way. Every [zombie] has a specific design, including the aging of the wardrobe, the condition of the clothes, the amount of blood. We wanted to portray each one as an individual in a certain stage of the epidemic."
As for their movements, the designers cite a host of influences, from insects to the Coen brothers.
"We thought of movies that perhaps had a character without any humanity. We thought that Javier Bardem's character in 'No Country for Old Men' had an interesting feel. We spent a lot of time trying to re-create what it might feel like to be him, so the movement came from within," says Ryen Perkins-Gangnes, the film's zombie movement ace.
"[We] also brought in images of insects feeding, how rapacious and relentless they are and their pace, which can go from really fast to slow and rhythmical and really fast again - this sort of insect-y, jaw-driven creature devoid of any humanity or sense of future or past, just stuck in the present moment."
Which might sound familiar to anyone who's lost three hours of a day to Facebook. Hoade says he sees a social-media angle in the film: "We now have the idea that we have all these 'friends' out there, but we don't really know them. And the idea that you know them but you don't really know them becomes literal in zombie movies."
Payton sees an element of the survivalist classic here. "There isn't that much wilderness anymore," he points out. "Everyone has cellphones. We have search and rescue. It's really hard to get lost. But if you want to do a man versus nature story, zombies are a great way of explaining why there's no one - without the unpleasant effects of something like a nuclear winter. It's a 'cozy catastrophe.' And you don't have to have a lot of backstory."
After all, he points out, these days "everyone knows what a zombie apocalypse is."
Originally published by SARA STEWART.
(c) 2013 The New York Post. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.
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