At this point, it strikes me that George A. Romero has all but permeated popular culture in a way that few other filmmakers could hope to rival … you’d have to go back to Eisenstein, Welles, Griffith or Chaplin to find anything like the way the legacy of Night of the Living Dead has spread throughout all cinema. To illustrate this point, I’ve just watched two films which derive from Romero’s works – Night of the Living Dead, of course, but also The Crazies. They even work from similar premises (joining The Returned and the TV series In the Flesh in a subset of films dealing with what happens after a zombie/rage outbreak which turns out to be treatable) and follow the strict Romero model of using genre to tackle hot topic issues – school integration/civil rights and the aftermath of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One’s a bright, peppy teenage musical made for the Disney Channel, and one’s a low-key, intense, fringe-art horror movie doing the festival circuit.
Directed by Paul Hoen from a script by David Light and Joseph Raso, Z-O-M-B-I-E-S is a remake of a TV pilot, Zombies and Cheerleaders (2012), and goes through its set-up with a cartoon precis that manages mild peril but avoids showing anyone eating anyone else. Fifty years after an industrial accident involving lime soda has infected a section of Seabrook – a small town presumably named after the author William Seabrook, whose 1929 book The Magic Island popularised the term ‘zombie’ in English – the zombie population, who have pasty complexions and Joker-green hair, are fitted with control bracelets that damp any brain-eating urges and can live normal-ish lives in a fenced-off ghetto. The plot kicks off when state law insists zombie kids attend ‘human’ high schools, which excites cheery, charming Zed (Milo Manheim), who wants to try out for the football team. When told that regular people don’t exactly like zombies he blithely explains ‘that’s because they haven’t met me yet’. However, in pastel-coloured scenes that still recreate famous images from the civil rights era, zombies have to pass through angry, protesting crowds to get to school and wind up segregated in a basement classroom with a janitor (the school’s only zombie employee) as teacher and are excluded from many activities, including football. Juliet to Zed’s Romeo is Addison (Meg Donnelly), a perfect cheerleader with one hidden flaw (undyeable white hair under her blonde wig), who meets cute with him during a zombie alarm – triggered because he’s tripped over something and stumbles like a cliché brain-eater for a few steps – when they’ve both run for a zombie panic room.
Seabrook is ‘a cheer town’, where school top dog is Bucky (Trevor Tjordman), bitchy ruler of the cheer squad – by contrast, the football team is rubbish, until an accident with a malfunctioning control bracelet lets Zed show off his ploughing-through-people ability and lands him a spot on the team which gives the perennial no-hopers a shot at a string of victories but only if Zed continues to tamper with the inhibitor. Z-O-M-B-I-E-S has a lot of charm, bright and peppy musical numbers, engaging performances (James Godfrey, Kylee Russell and Kingston Foster are amusing supporting zombies) and one of those plots where you know it’ll be all right in the end and lessons will be learned … but for a fun hour and a half it touches on a lot of heavy issues, including cultural appropriation (human kids dye their hair green or wear ‘zombie flare’ when Zed’s football prowess makes zombies fashionable), the risks to health of misusing performance-enhancing drugs to make plays on the football field (the notion that using what are essentially superpowers to win at sports isn’t cheating goes all the way back to Disney campus comedies like The Absent-Minded Professor), the demonisation of the racial and sexual other and the way that barriers can be broken in high school for the betterment of all society. Or, you know, you could just enjoy it. As a Disney product, it lacks the teeth of comparable projects like Fido, Warm Bodies or Anna and the Apocalypse, but it’s still extremely winning.
Written and directed by David Freyne – who tested the waters with a related short The First Wave (2014), The Cured is stylistically the exact opposite of Z-O-M-B-I-E-S. It’s the sort of film that’s very insistent on being no fun at all, but all the better for it – presenting a tight little personal story set against the backdrop of post-plague Ireland. The ‘Maze’ virus – which seems similar to the rage infection of 28 days later … – has run through Europe, with large numbers of the infected turning into feral homicidal maniacs, but a scientist (Paula Malcomson of Deadwood) has synthesised a cure which works in 75% of cases and is eager to perfect it so she can bring her lover/mentor (Hilda Fay) back to her senses. A grim after-effect of the virus is that former infectees remember everything they did while crazed – and so, of course, do the uninfected survivors who’ve had loved ones torn apart.
Senan (Sam Keeley), recovering but tormented by nightmares of his drooling murderous former self, is let out of the grim government containment facility to return to the family home, vouched for by his sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page) – an American journalist whose Irish-born son would be refused entry to the US thanks to quarantine restrictions. Senan can’t tell Abbie that he knows how his brother died, which is a ticking plot bombshell primed to go off well before the inevitable last-reel chaotic uprising. The parallels between this science fiction near future and Northern Ireland’s recent past are inescapable: angry protesters in the streets (again), anti-Cured graffiti and vigilante groups, a militant Cured faction eager to kick the violence off again, casual prejudice and uncaring authorities. Repeated assurances that the infected had no control over what they did never quite convince either the victims or the perpetrators of zombie violence. The slightly feckless Senan is still partially under the sway of Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a former barrister/politicain who was his alpha as an infected – and chose to infect rather than eat him – and resents the loss of his former position in human society (he has to work as a cleaner and is spurned by his father) but also the reduction of the stature he had as a monster. The three characters manoeuvre around each other as a purge of the ‘resistant’ seems more and more likely. Vaughan-Lawlor gets the meatiest role as ‘the cured who doesn’t have nightmares’, but Page and Keeley are good as the basically decent folks dragged along in his wake and trying to do the right thing.
Zombies premieres in the UK on 23rd March at 6pm on Disney Channel.