Names like George Romero, titles like Evil Dead, or videos like Thriller instantly bring to mind the notion of zombies, but what of the unsung (or less-sung) heroes? Below the cut, I celebrate five people (some of whom you may recognize above) who have helped make the undead into the horrifying pop-cultural phenomenon they are today…
Number Five: Shinji Mikami
Why? Resident Evil brought zombies back to the mainstream.
In the mid-90s, when low-level Capcom game designer Mikami was asked to create a new horror game, he knew he wanted to set it in a haunted house, but he was at a loss for what sort of bad guy to use. To his mind, ghosts and demonic possessions offered too little satisfaction in vanquishing or were simply not scary enough. It occurred to him that the creatures from Night of the Living Dead were both adequately terrifying and simple (if not easy) to beat. I don’t think he had any clue that this choice, the impetus for Resident Evil, would tap into the long-simmering phobias of a boatload of gamers and movie-watchers. Because it so squarely hit the nerve laid in us by Romero, Resident Evil became a sensation, triggering several successful sequels and similar games. The subsequent movie series, starting with 2002’s Resident Evil, was the first film in the new, gargantuan wave of zombie flicks, beating the oft-credited 28 Days Later to U.S. theaters by a year. Whatever you make of these franchises or their zombies, it’s hard to argue that they kickstarted the popular awareness from which innumerable followers have benefited.
Number Four: Skipp & Spector
Why? Rejuvenating zombies in fiction.
Zombies as we know them (i.e. non-Voodoo ones) have been around in film since 1968, a medium in which they thrived. Yet they somehow never cracked fiction until the appearance of John Skipp & Craig Spector’s groundbreaking 1989 anthology Book of the Dead. Even with original stories by Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Joe Lansdale and other industry hard-hitters, George Romero doubted that a zombie anthology could be successful. Still, he graciously penned the introduction, thereby helping to grease the wheels for the undead’s transition from screen to print, inspiring a generation of fans and writers to follow suit. Today, zombies are positively booming in comics and books (even ones they never belonged in, like Pride and Prejudice).
Number Three: Dan O’Bannon
Best known by people with taste as the screenwriter for Alien, Dan O’Bannon only had a fleeting presence in cinema. His contribution to zombie lore, however, is (unfortunately) fiercely enduring. O’Bannon wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead (1985). In it, for the first time ever, zombies both specifically sought and verbally cried for “brains.” The Return franchise was alone in carrying on that trait—nearly all other cinematic zombies to date have stuck to mutely munching every part of their victims—yet somehow the concept and the quote stuck in the minds of the public. Accurate or not, clamoring for “braaaaaaains!” is a huge part of the popular conception of zombies.
Number Two: John Russo
Why? Without him, zombies might just be the walking dead, not the flesh-hungry dead.
Russo shares screenwriting credit for Night of the Living Dead with George Romero, and, according to Russo, it was his idea to have the “murder-happy characters” also eat the flesh of the living. Romero disagrees, and it will probably never be settled. Romero has always maintained that his direct inspiration for Night was Matheson’s vampires in I Am Legend, so in that regard it’s possible that the consumption of humans was always in the cards. However, it is generally accepted as fact that Romero penned the first portion of Night and Russo the second (and possibly larger) portion. If you run through the scenes mentally, you’ll note that no flesh-eating happens until well into the movie, only ghoulish attacks. As mentioned, the credit for flesh-eating has been contested for years, and we’ll probably never know for sure. However, if Russo is right, we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for zombies being the cadaverous carnivores we fear and love.
Number one: The U.S. Draft Board
Why? For drawing Tom Savini’s number.
Picture it: it’s 1968. 22-year-old, fresh-faced (and probably crisp-mustachioed) Tom Savini, who has worshiped at the altar of Universal Horror since he was old enough to stick his fingers in greasepaint, who idolizes Lon Chaney and devours Famous Monsters of Filmland and practices makeup in his bedroom for hours on end, has just gotten his first big break. He’s going to do the special makeup effects for a film called Night of Anubis! Or Night of the Flesh Eaters, George hasn’t decided yet. In either case, young Tom is going to have his first shot at creating the makeup effects for a dozen or two… monstrous corpses? Ghouls? (The script isn’t terribly clear, but they are dead people, and certainly horrifying!) He’ll have a shot at all the elaborate, theatrical monster effects he’s always longed to do! By golly, he’s going to go all out, using every trick and technique, spanning the gamut of striking visuals!
And then the Draft Board called him up and sent him to Vietnam as a combat photographer. Savini had to pull out. Actors Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman picked up the slack, but neither of them came from makeup, so the result is a lot of powdered faces and raccoon-eyes.
The Savini we know now—the one who created realistic eviscerations and gray-faced zombies (the lighting made them appear blue) for Dawn of the Dead—is one whose firsthand experience in combat has fundamentally shaped his approach to gore and corpse FX. The Savini borne out of military service is a completely different visualist from the Savini we might have had if the draft had never called him up. But furthermore, since Night of the Living Dead lost its makeup man at the eleventh hour, its zombies merely look like plain, drained humans, arguably more effective and fearsome than Savini would have mustered. Imagine a Night of the Living Dead populated with overworked, latex-and-cotton frankensteins and you can see why Savini being available to work on Night could have radically changed the film’s impact—perhaps to the point of being a low-budget black-and-white monster flick, forgettable like any other. I don’t think we owe anything to the Draft Board, and of course a movie doesn’t justify the awful experience Savini endured in Vietnam, let alone an entire war. Still, it’s quite a thing to ponder.
Julia Sevin is a the co-owner and co-editor of Creeping Hemlock Press, a New Orleans-based specialty press offering fine limited editions of tasty genre books, culminating with Print Is Dead, an upcoming line of zombie novels. Her fiction appears in the anthologies The Living Dead 2 (ed. John Joseph Adams) and Bits of the Dead (ed. Keith Gouveia). “Thin Them Out,” the story from The Living Dead 2, co-written with R.J. Sevin and Kim Paffenroth (Dying to Live, Gospel of the Dead) was originally released through Creeping Hemlock Press as a $6 signed/limited chapbook for the 2008 Zombie Fest in Monroeville and is available for purchase at creepinghemlock.com. Julia grew up in the coastal Northern California hamlet of Mendocino, which was far too clean and safe an environment to be conducive to writing zombie fiction. New Orleans is much better for it, and a cultural and culinary mecca to boot.