Zombies have been active in the minds of humans for centuries. The question of what comes after death is a mysterious one, and zombies, or ghouls, or whatever you would like to refer to them as, provide a terrifying answer. In film, it has hard to locate a definitive starting point for the zombie subculture, but a major influence on the modern zombie filmmaker is The Last Man on Earth, a 1964 release directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow. It is an adaption of the book I Am Legend, a much more faithful version than the two more recent remakes. In it, Dr. Robert Morgan, our films protagonist, is left alone on Earth, presumably the last living human. He spends his days hunting the living dead and attempting to find a cure. Although technically a vampire movie, The Last Man on Earth evoked many of the stylistic tendencies of a zombie movie. Characters lurk in shadows, as hordes of the living dead fill each frame. However, a more important influence was the interpretation derived from the zombie apocalypse scenario. In the film, the end of the world is used as a reflection of Dr. Morgan the character, a flawed and not altogether sane person. In a crucial twist of irony, Morgan discovers that he is the "legend" among some of the infected who can still function, similar to how we view vampires and zombies. In other words, the true "monster" of our culture may have feelings, even live and breathe as we do; we could even be the monster. This can even be interpreted as a commentary on racial prejudice, a universal flaw of humanity.
Of course, the zombie film would be nothing without the great George A. Romero. In 1968, he directed Night of the Living Dead, a film that was badly received at the time, but has since become a cult classic. In this film, the modern zombie was born. Stylistically, Romero set the rules for his genre. Lighting was just as important before, perhaps even more drastic, but it took a backseat to the props, makeup, and the style of the zombies themselves. Blood was especially important, the spirit of which soon became that there is never too much. After a decade, and some widespread success, Romero decided to make a sequel, Dawn of the Dead. This film takes place just after the first film, but with none of the same characters. In it, a group of misfits find retreat in a shopping mall, where they hold out for several months before being sabotaged by other living human, and ultimately, by the undead.. Beyond just the gore of your typical zombie move, Romero had a message he wished to deliver. Night of the Living Dead provides commentary on Vietnam-era paranoia and mob mentality. The climactic death of Ben, gunned down by fellow humans, demonstrates the destruction of a trigger happy culture. Dawn of the Dead contains a less than subtle allegory to consumerism, as characters indulge in their every pleasure in the months they are in the mall, despite the end of civilization that blazes outside. In both of these films, Romero uses the "zombie apocalypse" as a scenario to build upon. Like The Last Man on Earth, the zombie apocalypse is not the focus, but is instead used as a mirror to reveal the errors of society.
Recently, the zombie film has picked up steam in popular culture. Starting with 28 Days Later in 2002, and continuing with Shaun of the Dead and Fido, both comedic approaches, the zombie film has found a new purpose. 28 Days Later and the less eclectic Resident Evil, released the same year, mark a turning point for the zombie film. Particularly, they are the first significant films to have an explanation for why the dead are coming back to life. 28 Days Later attributes the cause to a "rage virus" which is spread through bites. Fido takes a similar route, attributing the reanimation to radiation, but is set in an alterante world where zombies are treated like domesticated pets. The standards remain relatively the same. Zombies are reanimated corpses, they hunt for the living, they can only be killed by destroying their brain, etc. But in both of these films, the mechanics behind the terror are revealed to the viewer almost immediately. In fact, in the very first scene of 28 Days Later, animal activists come to release monkeys that are caged up. Little did they know, the monkeys contain the rage virus, and so it is spread to humans. Just as the viewer began to think it might be a movie that addresses animal rights activism, director Danny Boyle spins around the meaning of the film. With this subtle change, all of the allegorical implications of earlier zombie flicks are stripped away. More recent films have found an allure to the zombies themselves. Once the mechanics are revealed, the fear of the zombie scenario is not a reflection out towards society, but inward. The realization of a possible reality of the "zombie apocalypse" is put into the mind of the audience, no matter how far fetched it is. The viewer becomes terrified not by the blood or the shadows, but by this very reality.This forced look inward has become the new standard of the zombie film, and an introspective gaze has never held such terror.