What's that shambling over the curb toward the local theater? No, behind the vampires. Could it be a stampede of the undead about to take over Hollywood?
AMC's new drama series "The Walking Dead" debuts on Halloween, and more than a half-dozen zombie-related feature projects are on their way to theaters -- including Friday's "Resident Evil: Afterlife" -- or in development at the studios.
With this many flesh-rotting grave-jumpers on tap, could zombies be making a run -- or, perhaps, a very slow, clumsy walk -- at the pop culture crown?
"Zombie movies, much like zombies, could become this horde that just marches across the world," said Rhett Reese, who co-wrote last year's breakout hit "Zombieland" with Paul Wernick.
The movie, TV and publishing industries have been feasting on vampires for material the past few years. But like every profitable trend, the obsession with bloodsuckers must eventually head back into the coffin for a nap (the last "Twilight" adaptation opens November 2012). Staring down that inevitability, the networks and studios may be turning to zombies to step up from understudies to stars.
But can zombies compete at that level? With "Twilight" and "True Blood" as pop culture's current twin hundred-million-dollar genre powerhouses, does Team Undead have that strong or deep a bench?
Zombies have always been part of the B-cinema mix, and George A. Romero showed how the rising hordes could stand in for any number of political or social scares when he unleashed his 1968 shocker "Night of the Living Dead." Now 70, Romero has explored variations on the themes (racism, consumerism, conformity) with "The Crazies" (1973), "Dawn of the Dead" (1978), "Day of the Dead" (1985), "Land of the Dead" (2005) and "Diary of the Dead" (2008). But these films have never been hits, and his most recent, "Survival of the Dead," was relegated to a VOD offering in 2009.
But a couple of recent developments have hinted at new potential for zombies on the big and small screens. Sony's "Zombieland," a comedic take on the material, scrambled into theaters in October and grossed $76 million domestically on a budget less than a third of that, making it the highest-grossing zombie movie ever. Naturally, Reese and Wernick -- who intended to make a TV series with "Zombieland" -- are deep into writing a sequel for Ruben Fleischer to direct, perhaps next year.
The higher-budget "Resident Evil" movies, based on a video game about a virus turning people into zombies, have done well for Screen Gems since the franchise launched in 2002. The three films (the fourth will be in 3D) have grossed $378 million worldwide.
The other big recent development was the critical success of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's 2003 twist on the genre, "28 Days Later." Notably, Garland and Boyle proposed the first real evolution in the mythology of the undead in some time: What if instead of being brainless, slow-moving hordes they were rabidly quick and showed some intelligence?
The film grossed $83 million globally on a budget of about$10 million, and its 2007 sequel, "28 Weeks Later," grossed about three-fourths of that. Around the same time, Zack Snyder remade Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" in 2004 with some name cast (Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley) and pulled in more than $100 million in worldwide grosses.
So there is money to be made, but, so far, not vampire money. And that's because zombies are at a disadvantage in a number of ways.
Number one? Lack of sex appeal. Werewolves and vampires have an animal recognition that allows for treatment of hybrid sexuality and even -- as "Twilight" has shown -- teen romance. Brad Pitt or Robert Pattinson wanting to suck your blood is kind of a turn-on. But zombies by invention are dead, or undead, and thus far no one has found a way to make necrophilia hot (surely the CW is hard at work on this).
And this may speak to its second disadvantage: lack of appeal with women. While horror tends to draw strong numbers from the female ranks, zombie films are some of the least attractive to women and girls. Slashers, serial killers, demonic forces, sure, but the undead, and the rampant gore that tends to be endemic to cinematic forays into the zombie world, have been a serious turn-off.
"There's a gross-out factor," Reese said. "It could be that zombies never entirely get over that bar with women. They're afraid of the gore, they're afraid of the splatter. But there's a long tradition of women loving horror movies once they get in there and see it -- if they can just get convinced to go. We used comedy and romance as our hook to get women into theaters."
As well as strong female characters, which may be part of the reason the "Resident Evil" films, with Milla Jovovich kicking so much zombie ass, appeal so widely. Wernick jokes that the way to widen the female demo is as simple as casting: "You just find the next Taylor Lautner and Rob Pattinson and put them in zombie makeup."
Adds Sean McKittrick, producer of the upcoming adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies": "Vampires wouldn't be as successful if they weren't attractive. Vampires are objects of desire. Zombies, so far, are not."
Summit Entertainment, which has produced and distributed the billions-grossing "Twilight" franchise, is developing a project with "The Wackness" filmmaker Jonathan Levine based on Issac Marion's novel "Warm Bodies." It's a story that takes the rare romantic tack in telling the story of a zombie who falls in love with a human woman whose boyfriend he's killed.
"Zombies have fallen into a very narrow sub-genre, the post-apocalyptic zombie genre, and it limits the kinds of stories can you tell," said Chris Roberson, author of the DC/Vertigo comic "I, Zombie." In the comic, Roberson tries a "romantic dramedy" approach that follows a female zombie with a conscience that needs to eat brains once a month but seeks out the freshly dead instead of the living. In a twist that adds depth to the story, she absorbs that cadaver's life memories and finds herself on a journey to explore the hows and whys of the person's death.
"It's about getting into the head of your protagonist and imagining what it would be like to be a zombie that's a hero and not a sociopath," Roberson explained.
This may be what the zombie trope needs: a new take along the lines of what Boyle and Garland created for "28 Days Later." Zombies have always been pretty one-dimensional, constantly reinforcing the image of gray-faced goons stumbling forward awkwardly with their arms out while groaning, "Brains ..."
"It's going to take somebody to break that mold," McKittrick said.
Just like shows such as "True Blood" and "The Vampire Diaries" have tweaked the rules for vampires, the zombie playbook needs a rewrite, something that pushes zombie evolution forward to open up new possibilities. The obvious target is their intelligence. Aside from their typically lethargic pace, zombies have traditionally been mindless killing machines that could fairly easily be dispatched.
This also happens to be part of their appeal, even as it sets them apart from vampires.
"The appeal of zombie movies is quite the opposite," Reese said. "You wouldn't want to be a zombie, you wouldn't want to fall in love with a zombie, you just want to kill a zombie. Zombies stand in for all of the fears that we face in our everyday lives. And there's a vicarious thrill in the idea of taking a baseball bat to the head of your fears, metaphorically."
What zombies most often offer in a universal sense taps into humans' baser desires: to rule the world and to kill without remorse or repercussion. "There's a wish-fulfillment to the world of zombies and the postapocalypse," Wernick said. "This idea that you can do anything you want, you can kill without consequence, you can drive the fanciest cars without paying for them. I do think there's a wish fulfillment in this world that isn't necessarily in the world of vampires that really taps into people's wants and desires. In that respect, I do think it could be as big as vampires."
Independent and mainstream filmmakers alike look to be taking a swing at deepening the zombie context and tweaking the approach. In addition to AMC's adaptation of Robert Kirkman's graphic novel "The Walking Dead," about a police officer trying to help humans survive in a world taken over by zombies, Paramount is developing "World War Z," an adaptation of the epic post-zombie apocalypse Max Brooks novel, with Marc Forster directing and Pitt starring.
"Sphere" director Barry Levinson is developing a zombie eco-thriller called "The Bay" (previously "Isopod") that entails a viral outbreak in a small town in the southeast. Meanwhile, "Black Swan" star Natalie Portman is developing an adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's best-selling comic novel "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" at Lionsgate.
Warner Bros. has "Army of the Dead" developing with Snyder's Cruel & Unusual Films; "Dude, Where's My Car?" director Danny Leiner is working on "The Corporate Zombie Killers"; and Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" co-writer John A. Russo has "Escape of the Living Dead" planned.
The Toronto International Film Festival will screen "L.A. Zombie," a German-French "pornographic art film" in which "corpse-eating meets poverty politics" in the story of an alien zombie wreaking havoc in L.A. with, reportedly, no dialogue. And the Deagol Brothers' independent horror film "Make-out With Violence," a kind of sick love story that has been screening at festivals for more than two years, just got a limited release.
The third thing zombies need, then, is a wider palette, since most of zombie cinema is used to symbolize the breakdown of society or the scary conformity of the McCarthy era. Comedy and romance are genres that zombie filmmakers haven't often tried.
There are examples, from the 1985 Romero rip-off "Return of the Living Dead" to Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's "Shaun of the Dead" in 2004. Early '80s comedy-schlock kings Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson delivered classics such as "Evil Dead II" (1987) and "Dead Alive" (1993). The 1984 joker "Night of the Comet" pitted Valley Girls against some comet-infused zombies, and last year's "Dead Snow" featured Nazi zombies terrorizing some Norwegian medical students on a ski holiday.
Writer-director Takao Nakano ("Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy") has apparently put together a 3D horror comedy called "Big Tits Zombie" that should break the mold a bit when it premieres in London in two weeks.
Given where the zombie film came from -- the ghoulish depravity of such classics as Del Tenney's 1964 flick "Zombies" (aka "I Eat Your Skin"), Edmond Kelso and Jean Yarbrough's 1941 feature "King of the Zombies" or Frank Martin's 1980 filth-fest "Zombie Holocaust"/"Doctor Butcher M.D." -- zombies finally could be on their way to embracing their full potential, creatively and financially.
Roberson points out that the modernizing arc of monsters throughout literary history shows that creators looking for a fresh take eventually begin to humanize creatures originally designed purely to provoke fear.
"With Anne Rice and everything after, vampires have come out of the shadows and become more like us," Roberson said. "Zombies are still scary monsters in the shadows. But I'm doing my part to get them out."