The early cinematic zombies were, like Frankenstein's monster, mere two-dimensional fantastical creatures used to probe at the darker places of their audiences' psyches. In 1968, writer and director George A. Romero unleashed the black-and-white, precedent-setting Night Of The Living Dead, which formally turned zombies into metaphors for societal decay and shifted them into the focal point of horror films. Night of the Living Dead can be credited with pushing zombies into every genre and subgenre, and shifting them away from two-dimensional plot devices. In the film, dust from Venus raises the dead, causing besieged humans to dig their own graves (metaphorically and literally) by mistrusting each other and constantly bickering over how to defend themselves. There is little blood in the film; Romero relies more on high-tension kills, as in the absolutely intense scene of the zombified little girl who dispatches her mom with a gardening trowel.
Dawn Of The Dead, the follow-up, was released in 1978, in collaboration with Dario Argento (who also cut his own version of Dawn Of The Dead for the European market). Romero turned up the blood and gore and turned up the volume on themes of societal decay, with a Gilligan's Island of characters left in a shopping mall to defend themselves against zombie forces. It has great scenes of zombie shoppers circling aimlessly while the mall fountains run and the canned music blares. Zack Snyder remade Dawn in 2004 with effects appropriate to modern tastes (cars careening into gas stations, and zombie-consuming fireballs) and great new scenes, like the rooftop sniping of zombie celebrity look-alikes. Day Of The Dead (1985) begins with a leading pioneer in zombie domestication and brewing anarchy at a military base. For gore, the ultra-graphic scene of a zombie getting his head split by a shovel (yet another garden tool) is just outrageous.
Romero's latest effort, Land of the Dead (2005) looks a bit like the zombie Metropolis. Set two years after Day, the undead are still slowly walking the earth and - uh oh! - they've had time to evolve and get organized. Anarchy and vice rule the streets of the blocked-off human city, and the wealthy are insulated in a high-rise (Dennis Hopper does a great turn as the corrupt owner). Land has plenty of Romero's trademark unsubtle social commentary. The climactic scene where the organized zombie mob enters the city and breaks down the crystal walls of the high-rise is blocked and shot much like the famous footage from 2001 of ripped-off middle-class Argentines chipping at the walls of their closed banks when the economy collapsed. Romero fans should also check out the comic book horror anthology Creepshow, co-created with Stephen King, in which zombies figure into the first tale, "Father's Day."
Before giving us Spider-Man, A Simple Plan and so on, Sam Raimi created The Evil Dead (1982) with producer Robert G. Tapert, star Bruce Campbell and a low budget. Raimi exhibits great skill with camera acrobatics, Foley sound, and over-the-top gore, and this classic splatter movie is all the better for it. The Evil Dead's anarchic disregard for logic and consistency has won the hearts of a devoted cult audience.
Bruce Campbell gets a hand (or two) in The Evil Dead
Seven years later, Raimi and company secured a bigger budget and spawned Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn. DBD is more comedic but stays true to the original, with oceans of blood, decapitations and demon possessions. That and Bruce Campbell, returning as Ash, a bumbling hero with a cartoonish face and knack for slapstick and zero tolerance for "deadites," undead demons who possess humans because they crave life. The third Evil Dead film, Army Of Darkness (or director's cut edition), isn't scary and it's not really a zombie film - although it does feature an incidental army of the undead - but it is undeniably funny.
Italian director Lucio Fulci is a horror master (look at the Italian horror primer for more on his work in horror and giallo) and he's known for truly extreme and graphic gruesomeness; in all of his films (especially The Beyond and Zombie) you'll find more than a handful of scenes that will test your constitution. Fulci also has a penchant for goofy dialogue ("This morning she was in a coffin - Now she's in my kitchen!")
Ready to delve into Fulci? Start with Zombie, (1979). As Dario Argento edited his own version of Dawn Of The Dead, this in turn may have inspired Fulci to create his own zombie film. Titled Zombi 2 in Italy (implying that the film was a sequel to Argento's version), Zombie concerns a nosy reporter, a boat to America with a very hungry zombie stowaway, and an island where voodoo has turned most of the locals into you-know-what. Fulci's zombies are well-costumed in dirt, as if they'd just clawed their way out of the grave, and Zombie is full of nudity and gore with that special Italian touch: hideous eye gouging, choreographed cannibalism, and the famous scene in which a brash underwater zombie takes on a shark.
And if nastiness is your cup of tea, here's what City of the Living Dead (a.k.a. Gates of Hell; 1980) has to offer: A priest hangs himself, a young woman vomits up her intestines (Fulci used sheep's intestines for this scene), a young pervert gets a power drill straight through his brain, heads get pulled open from behind, and the protagonists are forced to withstand a rain of maggots. Meanwhile, Fulci's House by the Cemetery (1981) concerns a few cute children, the eponymous old house and a zombie that lives reclusively in the basement.
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