The single greatest trend in movies nowadays seems to be zombies. They've been on a steady increase ever since Romero introduced the new breed of flesh eating zombies in the 1968 classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Now they've invaded television, with the third season of THE WALKING DEAD about to kick off next month. They've became part of mass culture and are as integrated into the horror subconscious as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. Every kid knows zombies shamble around and say, "braaaiinnns."
But there's more to this mass-market zombie epidemic than simply walking dead people. Zombies have been around in cinema since 1932 when Bela Lugosi controlled them in WHITE ZOMBIE. THAT particular variety of zombie was taken straight from voodoo legend and refers to a dead person brought back to life by a zombie master, or bokor. Sometimes the person isn't dead but merely mind-controlled by this zombie master. Either way they are completely subservient and under the bokor's control.
Romero took this one step further by having his zombies eat the flesh of the living. This put them in direct conflict with humans and in fact they are attacking mankind. A new movie monster was born and it has gained in popularity throughout the years. Why does this particular monster resonate so well with today's society and why the sudden popularity with zombies? They're everywhere - zombie walks, zombie proms, zombie music - Lucio Fulci's famous shark vs. zombie scene from his groundbreaking 1979 film ZOMBIE was even used in a commercial for Microsoft Windows. What is it about zombies?
I think the key element here isn't the fact they're dead so much as the fact that they eat flesh. They're cannibals. They eat people. And this plays perfectly into our fear of losing our identity. This has never been more relevant than in recent times with the incidents of face eating attacks in Florida and other states. People high on "bath salt" drugs have attacked and physically eaten other people, consuming their face, taking away their identity.
Today's society is a society screaming for identity. People create multiple identities online - Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, email, texting - we're all searching for an identity or creating a new one online. Look at me, like my page, be my friend, check out my Klout rating. We present our best face forward and show people what we want them to see, even creating totally new personas online. We protect these identities closely and guard them with passwords. The worst thing that can happen is to lose our identity, to have our accounts hacked, our systems infiltrated, our identities stolen. Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States with over 15 million people having their identities stolen every year.
Even in death, the zombie continues to live - the individual continues, albeit changed. How do you destroy a zombie? we learned in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that destroy the brain, destroy the ghoul. The French philosopher René Descartes coined the phrase "I think, therefore I am." Romero's method of dealing with his ghouls eradicates the individual completely. Zombies are people too, right? At least that is what Romero seems to be getting at in his most recent sequels, where his zombies are becoming self-aware.
Romero's zombies are a natural extension of the voodoo zombie, even if he didn't realize it at the time. The bokor steals his victim's identity, reducing them to a mindless, soulless being, slave to his bidding. Romero's zombies steal their victims identity by physically consuming them, reducing them to a pile of shapeless flesh. Either way the individual is gone.
Zombies are also, of course, tapping into our fear of viral plague. Romero had the foresight to have his zombies spread an infection through biting another person, consuming a part of them. You get bitten you become one of them. AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Anthrax - the list goes on and on. Viral epidemics are today's equivalent of the atomic bomb in the 50s, and just as the fifties reflected this fear in cinema with an endless parade of atomically mutated creatures so today's movies reflect current fears through zombie cinema.
What are zombies? To quote a line from DAWN OF THE DEAD - They're us. That's all. So to get back to the main question, what is the de facto horror movie monster/villain/film for the new millennium? I'd have to say it's zombies, i.e. cannibals, i.e. us.