Zombies used to be related only to voodoo, they were dead bodies, resurrected by witch doctors and the like to be mindless slaves. George Romero changed all that, without a conscious choice of his, the flesh-eating corpses he dreamed up in Night of the Living Dead came to be called zombies, and the mythology of the zombie apocalypse was born. Certainly, it was born in Night of the Living Dead, but it was 1978’s Dawn of the Dead that really made the genre what it is.
The recipe? Obviously, you start with a base of an undead horde of resurrected corpses intent on consuming the flesh of the living. Then, add some over the top gore, although by 1978 standards that gore couldn’t be all that realistic for both logistic and ratings purposes. Once you’ve stirred that in well, throw in a group of survivors working together for the purposes of surviving the apocalypse. Third, and this is the most important ingredient of all, you need to layer those ingredients with healthy amounts of subtext featuring commentary about the parts of our culture which make us real life zombies.
That’s the general formula, and it found its true birth in Dawn of the Dead. The zombie as we know it came into existence in Night of the Living Dead, there may have been a few poor attempts to recreate that during the early seventies, but Dawn of the Dead is the movie folks have been recreating in various forms and mediums ever since.
It’s certainly not a perfect movie, but it sure is a damned important one for the trajectory of what came after. The fact that without belaboring the point in the film, zombies are hording to the mall because their commercial worship in life formed such a neural connection that their instinct driven, undead brains continue to sense the significance of the place after death. It’s that sort of quiet, understated critique of ourselves that separates the wheat from the chaff in zombie-lore. This movie got the ball rolling in understanding the potential of the zombie genre to give us a way to play with the ways we destroy us.
There have been improvements and alterations, missteps and revolutions in the genre, but when you’re talking about zombies, it all comes back to this folks… it all comes back to this.