Back in May, AMC ran a miniseries about science fiction hosted by James Cameron. Following up on that, they have begun a series dedicated to horror hosted by Eli Roth for the spookiest month of the year. Eli Roth’s History of Horror has a similar setup, giving a basic history of topics and the highlights, with soundbites from celebrities such as Stephen King, Joe Hill, Norman Reedus, Max Brooks, and more.
This episode focused on zombies, beginning and ending with AMC’s darling, The Walking Dead, of course. It’s given credit as “exploding” zombies into pop culture and also suggests that the reason why it has done so well–and why zombie movies in general do so well with their audiences–is that it’s because the media is character-driven. That and the characters are “ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations,” that is, coming from the place as its audience.
The show then pulls back to Night of the Living Dead (1968). There were zombie movies before this that are mentioned (White Zombie  and I Walked With a Zombie ), but these movies had the reanimated dead acting as mindless slaves. Starting with Romero’s movie, the zombies became something–something violent. This marked a change that coincided with changes in US at the time. One commentator quipped that a viewer in 1968 concerned about things like civil rights might be more frightened of the back protagonist than the zombie threat.
There is then a look at Shaun of the Dead (2004) which, along with 28 Days Later (2002) and the early Resident Evil games gets credit for rekindling interest in the genre. Of course, mentioning 28 Days Later brings up some quick sound bites of different celebrities weighing in on the fast versus slow zombie debate. To be honest, the lovers of slow zombies have better arguments for their preferred zombie speeds, saying it erases zombies of the unfit, and even likening the horror of a slow zombie over a fast zombie by likening it to getting shot versus dying slowly of cancer.
Dawn of the Dead (1978) is also discussed and analyzed superbly. Max Brooks, the author of World War Z, commented that “Romero managed to distill the worst of every generation into his movies… [He] channeled his outrage at his generation giving up all its ideals and he put it in a movie.” If you’ve never seen the movie, it takes the group that had once been free spirited hippies as literal shambling mindless figures of consumerism. Of course, the gore didn’t hurt this or any of Romero’s other zombie movies’ popularity.
Purposefully reanimated zombies like Frankenstein’s monster and HP Lovecraft’s adapted-for-film story Re-Animator (1985) are briefly touched upon, which led to Day of the Dead (1985), considered to be Romero’s pessimistic magnum opus, as well as make-up artist and Vietnam veteran Tom Savini’s highest point. This leads back to The Walking Dead via its groundbreaking special effects, which ultimately wraps things up with the idea that the mutability of zombies lends to its power. They can represent disease, decay, fears of degradation and eradication, the breakdown of society, and anarchy.
Admittedly, I’m not as into this subgenre as others, so this series didn’t exactly start off with a bang for me. Romero analysis is always interesting, though this isn’t the first time I’ve seen these most of these interpretations, and things didn’t go much deeper than that. There was no look at zombies outside their existence in pop culture, that is, their folkloric origins. It felt like a loss to not even mention that background and the ways it does still exert influence over some more modern films and comics.
I also didn’t love the emphasis on The Walking Dead–it’s a huge part of the zombie subgenre, so it would be weird if they didn’t mention it. But it’s also one of AMC’s biggest cash cows, so the heavy emphasis on it struck me as a bit suspect, no matter how important to the subgenre it actually is.
The shining parts for me was being able to really see the celebrities and scholars open up on the topics. There was interesting analysis, and how it came out was appealing as well. Where James Cameron appeared one-on-one with his guests in a strangely industrial room, Eli Roth sits at a table in a decorated room with a few guests, facing outwards towards the camera instead one-on-one, focused on one guest. The more casual feeling definitely appeals to the viewer and even if you don’t love zombie movies–like me–it lets you feel like you’re in on the fun. And some guests, like Jack Black, are definitely there to have fun.
The next episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, “Slashers, Part 1,” will air at 12:15 AM, October 22, on AMC. “Slashers, Part 2” will air the same day, albeit at ten PM.