Zombies seem to be everywhere these days—in a theatrical version of the ’68 classic Night of the Living Dead; on TV in the series The Walking Dead; in the sci-fi blockbuster World War Z and the book that spawned it; in the teenage romance flick Warm Bodies; and as “dress-up” items at parties, especially at Halloween. Most of us grew up knowing about vampires and werewolves and Frankenstein monsters but when did zombies become so big? Doc director Alexandre O. Philippe decided to find out and the results are in his overly long but certainly informative Doc of the Dead.
It turns out that George A. Romero is the man to blame or acclaim for the modern fascination with zombies. His Night of the Living Dead was a surprise success as a “midnight madness” staple in rep cinemas from the late ‘60s onwards and since his producer didn’t hold onto the film’s copyright properly, it was shown endlessly on local TV stations for free. A generation got infected by that one zombie film—admittedly a fine one—and a genre was born.
No doc would offer such a simple story, of course. Philippe does show earlier examples than Romero’s in film—White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie and even the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—but those monsters were scary and comparatively benign. They didn’t shamble through the countryside, bloody, bruised and broken, hunting for the brains of homo sapiens. Early zombies were sleep walkers deprived of human consciousness but they weren’t dead or rapaciously brutal. Philippe’s film points out that the zombie myth comes from the Caribbean islands, particularly Haiti, where a poison is said to have robbed people of their intelligence, turning the victims into slaves. Considering the history of Haiti and so many other islands, which initially grew economically through slavery controlled by colonialists, such a myth seems all too conceivable.
Philippe’s film is good as long as it digs through zombie history and tales from Romero, clearly the genius behind the whole phenomenon. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which takes place in a shopping mall, is extolled as a great movie, with its satirical point about consumerism equating to mindless zombie-ism made very well. But Philippe strays into irrelevance (if that’s possible), with endless discussions about whether zombies should move slow or fast (Romero says “slow”); P-G scenes from a porno-zombie film (huh?) and long sections on where to buy or make zombie survival kits.
By the end of Doc of the Dead, your mind may feel as mushy as the zombies themselves. That is, unless you’re a fan or have the potential to become one. In that case, this film is for you.