What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? Zombie films at the US box office.

No matter what you thought of them, Warm Bodies and World War Z have helped keep zombies alive and kicking in the mainstream cinema-goers conscious although no doubt their opportunity has more to do with the  indisputable success of ABC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ series and the critical acclaim and popularity of Max Brooks novel. However, one group is overlooked here, hardcore zombie fans such as myself, no matter how much I enjoyed these two cinematic experiences neither felt or acted like a true zombie movie. The same could also be argued about the Resident Evil franchise, and this lead me to think that there hasn’t been a proper zombie major cinema release since Romero’s  ‘Survival of the Dead’ and there hasn’t been a good one since his ‘Diary of the Dead’. I am excluding the fantastic Zombieland simply because it, like Shaun of the Dead is essentially a comedy with zombies and not a straight up zombie film if you see my distinction.

Land of the dead

Romero and Argento – A recipe for marketing success.

However, why are studios reluctant to give us zombie gorehounds what we want? Have they ever actually given us what we want? Certainly, in the UK where I live is different to the US, both in population and audience habits, and logically the higher proportion of zombies films being produced in the US means that the probability of them getting a theatrical release over there is much higher, no matter how small (for example see Midget Zombie Takeover – read our interview with the director here)  but I remember within one year seeing zombie releases ranging from the hilarious (Shaun of the Dead),  the frantic (Dawn of the Dead remake) and the disappointing (a cut Land of the Dead) showing that there is room in the schedule for the more adult orientated and gory zombie film in the mainstream and that studios are aware of this niche audience.

But first, going back to my reference of Land of the Dead being cut for theatrical audiences, when looked at in a wider context along with the teen targeted Resident Evil franchise and equally teen and mainstream targeted Warm Bodies and World War Z, we start to see a pattern. No 18 (or R rated for you yanks) zombie movies are getting major releases any more, is this to minimise financial risk and enlarge the potential audience or simply have adult-orientated zombie films previously flopped on the big screen (28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead remake excluded)?

Has the straight-up Romero-esque zombie film now died theatrically?

Taking a look at the box-office takings in the US for theatrically released zombie films since 1980 on box-office mojo, we see that the biggest grossing straight-up zombie film is Romero’s ‘Land of the Dead’ from 2005, taking $20m in at the box office but with production costs of approximately $15m and mixed reviews this was far from a success and if rumours are to be believed Romero was severely restricted in what he could and couldn’t do.

Furthermore, to find another straight-up zombie movie released since 2000 we have to go down the list even further to another Romero entry (Diary of the Dead) which took under $1m domestically US and around $5m across the world on its theatrical release, closely followed by the stinker Night of the Living Dead 3D. Are you seeing a pattern here?

The three most-successful (well relatively speaking) straight-up zombie films of the last 13 years have all been either by Romero or based on his seminal masterpiece ‘Night of the Living Dead’? It appears that to get backed  and supported you need the ‘…Living Dead’ else you are on your own. How else could Night of the Living Dead 3D outperform and get more support than Dead Snow? Well aside from the fact subtitled films are a hard sell. Although, its obviously not that simple else every film would do it, so there must be something more, something in addition to this marketing shortcut.

Dead Snow

This subtitled beauty never stood a chance.

Can any of you remember major hype around the release of the fantastic ‘Dead Snow’ or the anomaly to my theory, ‘Juan of the Dead’? Which is more of a comedy I know in line with Shaun rather than Dawn.  Any major marketing campaigns? No of course not, these films opened up in under 10 cinemas and as such were dead on arrival in box office terms as they failed to (not that they had a chance) provide a decent return or lets be honest generate any significant awareness or klout regarding the film and I can guarantee the same will happen for ‘Cockneys’ Vs Zombies’ over in the states.

Now, going back to one of my earlier questions – has the box office ever actually loved the straight up zombie movie? One look at the US domestic box office table give us a resounding no, no matter how you spin it or analyse it, once marketing costs are taking into account I would be surprised if any really broke even, and there in lies the problem. Without a USP (which it seems Romero’s name or movies are the only sure-fire one even if they trade on recognition rather than success) the zombie film just isn’t financially viable, it’s simpler to go straight to DVD/Blu and focus all your resources on that market.

Sadly this means that as zombie fans our days of 18 rated extreme gore in the cinema are numbered, sure there may be the sporadic Romero or Romero-related major film but Hollywood and the cinema chains just don’t like us and with the decline of the independents if we are to get any decent action we will have to pray a local independent art cinema picks it up.

So what’s in a name? When it comes to getting your zombie film a decent amount of opening screens and some marketing it seems an awful lot. Leading us to our final thought, what happens when George Romero hangs up the lens, do we have anyone to take his place?

So why has this durable and popular sub-genre not had much success with it’s harder and more gritty movies? Why don’t studio execs love it as much as us?

Let us know your thoughts!

Diary of the dead

One in the heart for zombie fans at the cinema.


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