There was a time, not so long ago, that The Zombie was one of the most horrifying creatures in popular culture. Of course I am talking about the ghouls that sprang from the minds of Mr. George A. Romero and company way back in 1968 (prior to that you had your voodoo zombies, but they posed no real threat to anyone); Romero had us dealing with reanimated corpses that shambled about on a lone quest - to eat the living. Singularly, The Zombie was no real threat. He or she was slow, stupid and clumsy, and could easily be outrun. But when you came across a horde of them (as was often the case), things usually went bad quickly.
Those early days of movie zombies were the most terrifying. Technicolor blood and guts splashed across the screen, and while the viewer's stomach might have been turning, his nerves were in tatters - and why not? Zombie movies were not the dime-a-dozen they are these days. This was a time well before Max Brooks was writing tongue in cheek survival guides, or when every one had a video camera so that everyone could shoot a walking dead movie - back in the old days, The Zombie was one scary mother fucker.
So what went wrong? When did The Zombie go from representing our collective fear of death, disease and group think to becoming just a silly prop (or worse, a cuddly monster)?
The start of the downfall was when Michael Jackson, in 1983, gave us dancing zombie's in his short film, Thriller - but, in my humble opinion, the problem started in earnest in 1985 with the release of Return of the Living Dead; a comic horror film that was co written by two of Romero's former collaborators, John Russo and Russell Streiner (who played Johnny in Night of the Living Dead). While Return... has it's charms, (I know, everyone loves The Tarman) - it also had zombie's who spoke, and craved human brains (this of course means that said zombie would have to crack open the skull of his victim to get to the coveted gray matter). Furthermore you had zombie's wise cracking as well as at least one female ghoul who despite her rotting flesh, was a hard bodied, punk bimbo that served as way of bringing in the teen aged boys and their raging hormones into the theaters.
Happily, 1985 also saw Romero's return to the living dead with Day of the Dead. But by this point, even The Master was getting a bit soft when he gave us Bub, the (almost) domesticated zombie who enjoys calling his Aunt Alicia, as well as feeding on human flesh. In spite of the comic relief that Bub provided, Day of the Dead was far from being a comedy and it continued the horrific and hopeless cinematic universe Romero had created several decades earlier.
It seems that The Zombie fell out of favor for most of the 1990's - with the exception of a Romero scripted remake of Night of the Living Dead, and John Skipp and Craig Spector's anthologies (Book of the Dead & Book of the Dead II - Still Dead), there was not much in the way of flesh eaters around in the decade of Bill Clinton (Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, anyone?).
It was not until 2004 when Shaun of the Dead popped up, that The Zombie came back in a big way. Unlike Return of the Living Dead, Shaun ... while clearly a comedy, kept The Zombie's pretty horrifying and the gore flowing. Sure, sure, by film's end Shaun's mate is a docile, video game playing monster, but that's OK, as most of the film was pretty relentless in spite of it's comedic nature (that scene when David is torn apart by zombies has to be one of the most ballsy scenes in a so called comedy, ever!)
It seemed that after Shaun of the Dead came out, The Zombie in popular culture was suddenly reborn - a remake of Dawn of the Dead (which heralded the introduction of the dreaded running zombie - because like everything else in America, even our ghouls have to be fast and streamlined, or maybe it's just a case of collective ADHD); the video game inspired crap fest that is the Resident Evil films; the aforementioned Max Brooks tomes, and, seemingly hundreds, of no-budget zombie films. These days you can't turn a corner without bumping into something zombie related. Cities host "zombie walks", blogs celebrate the living dead, books abound about lovelorn zombies ... frankly, I think we've reached a saturation point ...and becuase of that, zombies are just not scary anymore.
Maybe it was the movie Fido (about a boy and his pet zombie) or Otto (about a gay twink zombie looking for love) or the much admired (by everyone but me) Zombieland (where the zombies are used like punchlines to bad jokes); whatever the case, the hungry dead just don't have that creepy mojo anymore. What's even more pathetic is that while tripe like the aforementioned Zombieland is hearlded a masterpiece - when George Romero trots out his walking dead, and infuses his stories with all kinds of social commentary, his work is greeted with disdan at best, or ignored at worst. It seems nobody want's The Zombie as a metaphor any longer.
Farewell, sweet zombies, thanks for all the scares, the nightmares, the inspiration - the world has you now, you're dead to me - for real.