America's taste for brains is at an all-time high, judging from the zombie movies that have invaded multiplexes. Whereas the most graphic of flesh-munching films used to be found only at midnight shows or in scuzzy tenderloin grindhouses (hence the schlocky zombie tribute that is Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez's half of Grindhouse), they're now part of our national consciousness. (South Park addressed the nation's feelings about indigents with customary subtlety this season in an episode titled "Night of the Living Homeless.") But what have we learned from these films, aside from the fail-safe zombie-stopping tactic of the headshot?
Some of the finer films in the zombie renaissance, such as the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, are content to merely scare the hell out of you, and remind you that if you barricade yourself in a shopping mall once the undead apocalypse has begun, the zombie hordes will surely follow. But others are pushing zombies' allegorical potential to new, blood-spurting heights. Shaun of the Dead, the British zombie parody, hints that the living dead and average working stiffs are often indistinguishable from one another, and that an undead Nintendo buddy is every bit as good as, if not better than, a live one. Land of the Dead, George Romero's fourth installment in the zombie cycle he initiated in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, tells us that walled-in cities lorded over by the obscenely rich are still vulnerable to angry, unwashed mobs, especially when those mobs are already deceased. Slither, in which an unstoppable space virus ravages a small town by way of sperm-like slugs, restates what David Cronenberg made hideously clear in the '70s: that anxiety about sexual contagion has no better stand-in than flesh-eating maniacs.
Joe Dante's Homecoming didn't make it to theaters, being an hourlong part of Showtime's Masters of Horror series, but it did demonstrate that the only way to unseat the Bush administration would be an outspoken undead voting bloc of American soldiers killed in Iraq. 28 Days Later instructs us that imprisoning and torturing a zombie raises questions of morality and safety, as does martial law in the face of pandemonium. And now its follow-up, 28 Weeks Later, shows that when it comes to Americans protecting foreign cities that are under siege by insurgents who happen to be zombies, sometimes destroying those cities -- along with their innocent, oxygen-breathing inhabitants -- is the only way to save them.
Surely humanity has much to learn from these gorefests. But the allegories may have been stretched to their limit. Coming soon: Fido, in which the undead are employed as servants (it concerns "xenophobia and fear of the foreign," says its director and co-writer, Andrew Currie), and American Zombie, a mockumentary by an actual documentarian, Grace Lee, about a community of the living dead in Los Angeles. The tag line? "We're here. We're dead. Get used to it."