America doesn’t really make monsters anymore. Rare is the blockbuster horror movie where a werewolf or vampire poses a threat greater to young women than simple seduction, and demons and devils seem passé these days. Even popular space movies, from Interstellar to Gravity and Ad Astra, tend to hone in on existential dread rather than inventing new, terrifying alien lifeforms. The last time audiences saw a creature from a black lagoon, he was falling in love on-screen, not running after damsels in distress.
And yet zombies persist. Night of the Living Dead undoubtedly set the standard for the Western, canonical version of the flesh-eating, graveyard roaming “zombie,” but also as a political vehicle for reflecting social problems. “I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism,” director George A. Romero said in 2013. But since then the genre has expanded from low-budget, cult gorefest (Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead) to a full-blown box-office success, as movies and TV shows like 28 Days Later, World War Z, The Walking Dead, and Train to Busan transformed the zombie movie into apocalyptic thrillers honing in on global, viral disasters. But 2019's crop of zombie movies suggest that the genre, copied and mutated again and again since Romero’s hit, is hitting a wall.
It’s funny to speculate the death of a genre defined by the undead, but the zombie movies of 2019 are united in the way they approach not just zombies, but the vitality of the genre. One Cut of the Dead, the low-budget Japanese movie that went on to generate more than 250 times its budget at the box office before getting an American release this year, takes an extremely meta approach. Spoilers ahead! It starts as a movie about an indie film crew making a zombie flick who are then overtaken by real-life zombies, but halfway through, One Cut of the Dead takes one more step back and suddenly becomes a goofy comedy detailing the behind-the-scenes process of making the zombie movie. Yes, it’s a movie about making a zombie movie, about making a zombie movie.
It’s a clever and disorienting move, one which ultimately emphasizes how flimsy and tired the canonical zombie movie has become. Cast members bicker over if a zombie can even wield an axe in a murder scene, because zombies don’t have wills, right? Another member of the production, frequently racked with diarrhea, gets his illness worked into the movie as a symptom of fear. The swerve away from the advertised shaky-cam, bloodfest into straight comedy feels like a direct refusal of all the former’s genre tropes and perhaps a dismissal of it entirely.
Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die takes a much more subtle but no less meta approach. The film’s tiny town is such an Americana-rendering of diners and motels and dinky police stations that it might as well have been ripped from a snowglobe. After “polar fracking” throws the Earth off its axis, the dead rise up once again across the world, but even as townsfolk and the inept police department (played by Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny) clamor to protect themselves, it’s as if the characters are going through the motions of their genre, so much so that the movie acknowledges it’s a movie. “Well, it’s the theme song,” Driver remarks to Murray’s character, when he asks why they keep hearing the opening credit’s Sturgill Simpson soundtrack everywhere. At the end of the film, when Murray asks Driver how he was so sure they were being attacked by zombies, Driver says “because I’ve read the script.” “The whole script?” Murray asks. “Jim only gave me my scenes.”
There’s a less self-aware stance to Little Monsters, which stars Lupita Nyong’o as a cheery, Australian elementary school teacher who must protect her class at all costs when their petting zoo field trip coincides with a neighboring zombie attack on an American military base. The slapstick comedy is more concerned with its lead Dave, a washed-up, crude musician played by Alexander England, overcoming his deadbeat bro ways and falling in love with Nyong’o than the actual zombies that threaten the film’s characters. But as much as the zombies feel like an ambient backdrop to the star romance in the film, the characters within them also seem to shrug them off. One of the children, who thinks the zombies are part of an elaborate game at the zoo, remarks that they all look “fake.” When the military get wind that their zombies, held for some sort of testing, have escaped, one officer remarks to the other, “Zombies, again?” “Fast ones or slow ones,” another asks.
The zombie comedy is well-tread territory to begin with, from movies like Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland, the sequel of which is out this year as well. But 2019's zombie flicks don’t feel like they’re poking fun at the straight zombie horror film as much as they’re expressing an exhaustion with them. They seem to anticipate that viewers might find this material boring. If the zombie movie’s boom in the mid-00's with 28 Days Later, which imagined the depravity and violence of people at the end of the world, reflected real fears about viral contagion and the apocalypse, now everyone seems a little numb to it, as if the zombie is simply another nuisance one has to deal with during their commute home. In shows from the past few years like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, zombies move through the world as normal citizens, as if their comfortable existence among the living is an accepted inevitability.
In a piece for The Independent on the aimlessness of the genre, writer Geoffrey Macnab pointed out that the zombie movie has traditionally been “one of the most democratic and accessible forms of moviemaking.” In the spectrum of creature features and apocalyptic action movies, zombies are an easy in, but that also makes it harder for new additions to standout. But the decline of the zombie as a convincing threat in horror, as well as the decline of archetypal monsters in horror, could also be attributed to a rise in horror realism in pop culture. If horror reflects the anxieties of its era, then currently we’re in a state of masochism. As the true crime renaissance continues to boom, TV shows, podcasts, books, and movies have turned to real-life stories ripped from serial killers; what’s scarier than watching Ed Kemper detail his actual murders on Mindhunter, after all? Even films like Get Out, Hereditary, The Purge, find their most chilling moments not in their fantasy but in how they express real-life violence, at the root of it all people who look just like you, family members, partners.
There is hope for the zombie as powerful tool for social commentary. The most compelling, original zombie story in recent years may not be a movie, but a book. In Ling Ma’s 2018 book Severance, a virus begins to turn people essentially into zombies, the walking undead who repeat the same routines over and over again. Told from the perspective of an office worker who just keeps working even as the world around her begins to crumble, the novel becomes a depressing story about the dutiful worker under capitalism. When Ma’s narrator, immune to the disease, eventually finds a group of survivors, the dynamics of the group begin to reflect the same type of micro-managing office politics you’d find in any conference room in America. And the zombies, who return to the sad minutiae of their lives, even if it means filing papers away, are not a violent threat to the living as much as they are a creepy reminder of their own meaningless routines.
As long as the zombie film continues to copy and paste Romero’s image of the zombie, then it will continue to feel as uninspired as 2019's offerings. Otherwise we’ll continue to get what they give us: attempts at funny zombie movies that only seem trapped in the rules of their genre, rather than trying to break free of them.