by Liz Cole
Reporter: Are they slow-moving, chief?
Sheriff: Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up.
- From Night of the Living Dead
Early zombies and their mutant progeny
Zombie flicks have enjoyed a popularity and longevity afforded to few other subgenres of horror, thanks largely to the versatility of zombies themselves. From White Zombie to Land of the Dead, the undead army are a handy device to criticize real-world social ills - such as government ineptitude, bio engineering, slavery, greed and exploitation - while indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies. Zombie infestations are always the product of pesticide spraying, nuclear experiments gone awry, slavery, greed, exploitation, Nazi-voodoo conspiracies to take over the world (yes, this is its own sub-sub genre), alien invasions, the military industrial complex, and Michael Jackson's career. And the rotting undead, when put in the hands of a capable director with a flair for social commentary (George Romero), have a pathos that is genuinely touching and unnerving.
The first "zombies" were arguably the emaciated and silent souls (some of whom were actually slaves) seen morosely working the night shift in Haitian bakeries, mills and factories. The sight of these individuals unsettled the imaginations of night owls peering in through the windows and likely formed a prototype for cinematic zombies. Today, zombies are spice in all sorts of media, from indie to big-budget movies to video games to viral-video remakes of classics like West Side Story, so giving attention to everything with a zombie tossed in would be impossible. This primer will cover in no particular order the best, the essential and the simply too-bizarre-to-pass up of the genre.
White Zombie (1932) (also available on-demand), arguably the first mainstream zombie film, took cues from real-life ancient religions, such as Macumba, Kimbundu, and voodoo, and from the silent German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. White Zombie showcased Bela Lugosi's hypnotic charisma at its peak (this was his second horror film). In the film, Lugosi used his eyes to mesmerize locals into zombies so that they could work round-the-clock in the local mills. Made with a modest budget and a two-week shooting schedule, it set the stage for all zombie films that followed. (An atrocious sequel by the same makers, Revolt of the Zombies, came out in 1936).
Jacques Tourneur's 1943 classic I Walked with a Zombie is a beautiful and atmosphere-heavy story centered around a Canadian nurse brought to the West Indian island of Saint Sebastian to care for the mentally paralyzed wife of a wealthy sugar farmer, but it is less a zombie film (he hated the title) than it is a haunting version of "Jane Eyre." Last Man on Earth (1964, Ubaldo Ragona) [not available on DVD] stars Vincent Price as the only survivor of a devastating worldwide plague that exterminated the entire human race, including his own wife and daughter. He desperately searches for other survivors while fighting the dead who return in the shape of vampire/zombie-like creatures. This is one of Price's most impressive performances, and the empty streets and cities he is doomed to roam remain the ultimate in eeriness.
After WWII, the specter of atomic warfare combined with rumors of alien visitations (and "Red" invasions) expanded the zombie genre into the realm of science fiction. In Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) [not available on dvd], a sterling artifact of this era, ex-Nazis use atomic zombies to murder the district attorneys cops and gangsters who get in their way.
Then there are the "Nazi Zombie" movies, which are just too bizarre not to mention: In Revenge of the Zombies (1943) the Nazis build a zombie army in a Louisiana swamp to gather intelligence and invade the USA. The prolific Mantan Moreland, an African-American actor who unfortunately was often placed in stereotypical roles, was cast in King of the Zombies (1941), a comedy about three Americans crash landing on an island populated by zombies (controlled by a Nazi spy, of course). Zombie Lake (1981, Jean Rollin) is a waterlogged horror tale of Nazis drowned in a French lake who rise from their watery grave and eat a bus full of schoolgirls. It includes a touching subplot with a Nazi who wants to spend quality time with his daughter. Also check out Jesus Franco's (a.k.a., A.M. Frank - he was the man of a hundred aliases) Oasis of the Zombies (1982), about a band of zombies guarding a fortune in Nazi gold.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966, John Gilling and Hammer Horror) plays class struggles explicitly. The squire of a Cornish village is murdering villagers and resurrecting them as zombies to work in his tin mine. The zombies dress like medieval peasants, and the Squire and his foxhunters show their utter contempt for the villagers by crashing through a funeral. Look for the very recognizable green-tinted dream sequence in which zombies dig their way out of the ground - it's been recycled in many horror films and reaches an unsubtle, gory extreme in Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, a.k.a. Zombie/Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979).
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