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Eaten Alive in ’85: The year zombies truly stole our hearts…and then promptly ate them!

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The recent release of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead on Netflix truly shows how far the zombification of the mainstream moviegoer has come over the last 36 years. Obviously, several things about our habits have changed, what with the last year spent dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the growing power of streaming, but to have a zombie-heist movie unchallenged in May, a week before Memorial Day weekend, would have seemed like madness 20 years ago. The weekend is considered the unofficial start of summer and the clear kickoff to blockbuster movie season. It’s a weekend during which the likes of Indiana Jones, the Fast & the Furious crew, everyone’s favorite mutant superheroes, and a certain group of Mickey-Mouse-serving pirates have all had their theatrical release. It could be that the curious release schedule during COVID has simply left the movie unchallenged by other blockbuster types, but a zombie film released as a kickoff to the summer movie season just doesn’t sound out of place these days. For a subgenre of horror whose ultimate masterpiece (Dawn of the Dead, 1978) is a well-pointed critique on capitalism, the undead sure are big business. However, there was a time when only the oddballs and weirdos were watching the flesh be torn from the bones of apocalyptic survivors, and no year of zombies was as influential as 1985.

   In 1985, we had the release of three zombie movies, and all three have had a major impact on our zombie-obsessed culture. Paste Magazine has these movies taking the #2, #3, and #5 spots on their list of the top 50 zombie movies of all time. Rotten Tomatoes has these three movies in their top 12 (out of 30) most essential zombie movies. Lastly, Stacker.com has all three films in their all-time top 10 greatest zombie movies.

The point being, these movies have some serious cred, but when I talk to moviegoers there seems to be limited knowledge of these films, and even less of their influence. The question is, why bring this up now? The answer, my friends, is because over the last two decades we have fallen in love with zombies, and over the last decade we have become obsessed with them, but the overall obsession is lacking the appreciation that the subgenre’s ancestors deserve.

Part of the obsession stems from improved storytelling in the subgenre and a serious belief that we could someday end up in a post-apocalyptic world of sorts. The other reason is that zombies as a monster, or a horror device, have always been used to represent some aspect of societal numbness and how we are all susceptible to it. There is a reason there are typically few survivors at the end of these movies, or why our lead characters don’t make it out alive. It is to show that we are all susceptible to this numbness, this mindless groupthink. A strong correlation can be made between the rise of social media and the rise of the cinema of the undead through the 2010s. While the king of zombies, George A. Romero, was critiquing our shopping mall obsessed culture, the filmmakers of today are capitalizing on our tech obsessions.

Day of the Dead (1985)

   The first zombie movie to come out in 1985 was Romero’s third film in his ongoing zombie franchise, Day of the Dead. This is a much more intimate and science-based approach to the genre than his magnum opus (Dawn of the Dead), and because of this it feels very modern. Looking at modern films about the undead hordes that are moving in to swallow our society whole, almost all of them deal with trying to solve the question of how it started, and how can we stop it. In 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, which director Danny Boyle and perhaps some purists would argue are not zombie movies, we see people struggling to survive and a city attempting to quarantine to keep the spread in check, which maybe sounds a bit too familiar on the tail end of our current pandemic. People were searching for safety as much as for answers to what was going on. World War Z involves a United Nations investigator globe-hopping attempting to find the cure for a zombie outbreak. Even the Walking Dead, which focuses much more on the survival aspect of the apocalypse, starts off with survivors trying to get to the CDC for answers. Before Day, there were flesh-eating monsters, and while we knew we didn’t want to join their team, no one seemed particularly interested in where they came from either.

   Day of the Dead also introduces the movie-going public to the first “intelligent” zombie, named “Bub,” although he certainly wouldn’t be the last to show up in ’85. We’ve seen evolving walking corpses in movies like Zombieland: Double Tap, Warm Bodies, and even the aforementioned Army of the Dead. Lo and behold, every time a zombie shows levels of intelligence in a modern movie, the couch critics come out, en masse, for the village criticism of such zombies as heretical. The truth is this is not a new concept, and that is why we should appreciate our undead forebearers.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The next film released involving the re-animated corpses of humans is Return of the Living Dead. Now, the name of this film creates some confusion, but it actually has to do with who owned the rights to the name “of the Living Dead.” John Russo, who co-wrote Night of the Living Dead with Romero, owned the naming rights and made his own movie after a disagreement with Romero. That’s why this movie is Return of the Living Dead and all of Romero’s follow-ups were simply of the Dead. This movie is not in the canon of George Romero’s zombie films, but it does reference them with the meta-humor that is layered throughout this masterpiece of a B-movie horror-comedy. Return …, along with Day of the Dead, also featured intelligent zombies who are able to call over a police radio to have HQ “send more cops” and to coordinate an ambush on the police when they do show up to help. You know what else these zombies were? They were fast! Everyone wants to give 28 Days Later or Zack Snyder’s other zombie film, a wonderful remake of Dawn of the Dead, credit for changing up zombies from slow trudging monsters into inescapable track stars. Well, guess again — because that happened 36 years ago with Return.

   In addition to intelligent, fast zombies, the greatest influence in the culture of zombies that Return of the Living Dead bestowed upon the world was letting us know what food zombies crave above all others: BBBRRRAAAIIINNNSSS!!!  Tell a kid to act like a zombie, and they start moaning the word “brains.” Basically, anything that happens in zombie movies that seems fresh and new was most likely covered by Return of the Living Dead .

Re-Animator (1985)

The last movie we’ll discuss is Re-Animator, an H.P. Lovecraft story where Frankenstein meets Romero. Once again, purists may be dismayed by me referring to this movie as a zombie film, but when dead humans are, as the title informs you, re-animated and start attacking the living? Eh…zombie enough for me. Much like the two previous films, we have smart zombies as well as scientific research used to understand the nature of life and death. Most importantly, this movie really was the cherry-on-top for horror-comedy. Ghostbusters had been released the year prior, but I would call that movie a comedy-horror. I know what you’re thinking: that’s just semantics. But the comedy is at the forefront of Ghostbusters with little bits of horror sprinkled throughout. Re-Animator is a horror first and foremost, but it’s a damn hilarious one at that. Return was a comedy as well, but Re-Animator is much less a screwball comedy than Return, and one can easily see its influence in modern day zombie movies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. Two years later, we witnessed the full potential of the horror-comedy with Evil Dead II.

   Other elements of the zombie that we all find ourselves searching for can first be viewed in these very films. What is causing the dead to rise and feed on the living? These things were made in the military’s never-ending search for biological weapons. And the gore…the GORE! Tom Savini, Romero’s go-to “Sultan of Splatter,” was an engineer of the grotesque that has us turning our heads, averting our eyes and laughing uproariously.

These three movies have left a major impact on our virus-spreading, brain-eating, undead film obsessed culture. 1985 is secretly the most influential year for zombie films that is consistently overlooked by the average moviegoer. Fast, smart and funny zombies are not some post 9/11 creation; rather, they came about long before the current generation of young moviegoers (including me) were even born. If you haven’t watched these movies, then do yourself a favor, use your brains before the undead hordes consume them and watch these movies! Zombies, the undead, walkers, zeds, white walkers, the living dead, roamers, lurkers, the infected, or whatever creative wordsmithing has been used to describe these creatures of the night all owe a great debt of gratitude to the class of ’85.

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