Zombies Live Again

"Trouble was . . . they didn't stay dead."

Like the zombies themselves, films about the undead have unearthed repeatedly since George Romero first exposed us to them in "Dawn of the Dead" in 1978. Not that F. W. Murnau's 1922 "Nosferatu" didn't titillate about vampires and the undead motif; it's just that Romero did it with style and wit, albeit heavy handed with gore and cheap thrills.

"28 Days Later" (2003), directed by British director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting"), is the best horror/zombie film since Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" and maybe better. The eerie set design is appropriate without being overdone (Rod Serling would have approved its restraint), the characters are real without being overwrought (especially the women, who are usually sacrificed to too much emoting), and the subtexts about contemporary crises are clear without distracting from the sci-fi genre itself

The spreading contagion, quickly transmitted by blood or saliva, is much like AIDS in Africa (The prominent zombie of the film is black), and the military response reminds of the worst conditions of the war in Iraq or anytime where anarchy is allowed to grow. When Jim asks, "What's the government doing about it?" the reply is "There is no government." Jim sums up the na?ve populace response when he says, "What do you mean? There's always a government!"

British understatement and the audience's perfect understanding of slackers mix to make zombie spoof "Shaun of the Dead" both funny and appropriate for a society that fosters couch potatoes and underachieving 29 year olds.

Obviously from the title, Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" and numerous other zombie flicks are cannibalized as they rise themselves from the dead heap of old "B" movies to amuse audiences, and in this case, scare them to hell, so to speak.

As in "Harold and Kumar," the humor is low, but the pace is leisurely enough not to force the satire. The characters are fully "fleshed" enough to make us sympathetic to them, a remarkable feat for movies about zombies where characters are usually as undead themselves.

More in the serious vein of "28 Days," "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" rouses the undead from a dead city. The culprit is The Umbrella Corporation, a Halliburton-like company indulging in biological weaponry that threatens the living and the undead of Raccoon City and stirs up the anger of warrior hero Alice, played with relish and physical charm by Milla Jovavich. Her introductory line says it all about the film's sense of humor and horror: "My name is Alice. I worked for the Umbrella Corporation. There was an accident; then everybody died. Trouble was . . . they didn't stay dead."

The zombies are by now central casting in these movies with their disoriented walk and ravenous appetites for living bodies. As advanced as Raccoon City is, the zombies can still be stopped with a quick blow to the head or a punishing round of machine gun fire. First-time director Alexander Witt keeps a stylish fast pace in a film less cerebral than "28 Days," not as funny as "Shaun," and yet like both layered over with a deep homage to George Romero.

To have three zombie films within a year means I must at least try to understand the "revival." Globally in 2004, menaces like militant Islamics and diseases like AIDS fit the heightened sense of horror and terror felt by everyone. In both cases, it seems not enough for them to die once; it's as if the menaces have several lives, each more terrible than its predecessor. Our ability to stop them seems weaker and weaker.

On any level, political or artistic, this is not the last of the zombie films although there may be no civilized world left to enjoy the satire or the horror.