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).
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.
Cult zombie films
In 1985, director Stuart Gordon made Re-Animator, a film of Herbert West: Reanimator, H.P. Lovecraft's virulent and misanthropic take on Frankenstein. It's a brilliant and funny classic and one of the best of all zombie flicks. After killing his Swiss mentor, medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) comes to Massachusetts to continue his work on creating a slime-green "reagent" that will bring the dead back to life. He never quite gets the reagent right, thus most of the re-animated are drooling, insane zombies. Re-Animator has plenty of blood and gallows humor (great lines include "Who will believe a talking head? Get a job in a freakshow"), an unforgettable visual pun on, ahem, giving head, Talking Heads posters in a med student's dorm room, and a truly brutal scene wherein Herbert puts a bone saw through the sternum of a misbehaving zombie.
Return of the Living Dead is a cult horror comedy distilled from what was initially to be a serious sequel to Night of The Living Dead. Originally to be directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and produced by George Romero, Return fell into the capable hands of director and writer Dan O'Bannon (a writer on Alien, Lifeforce, and Total Recall). While UNEEDA Medical Supply employee Frank is explaining to his nephew that Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story, he ruptures a canister and releases reanimation gas into the atmosphere. The vapors spread to a nearby cemetery, where New Waver Tina (Beverly Hartley) and her punk friends (including scream queen Linnea Quigley, throwing herself with zeal into the role of Trash) are having a party. The cemetery comes alive and the punk rockers fight their way to a nearby funeral home. The remainder of the film feels like a zombiefied Assault on Precinct 13, with punks versus some very clever and colorful zombies - particularly the 'Tar Zombie', whose favorite utterance is "Braiiiiinnnns!" (Return probably started the inexplicable brain-eating theme in zombie movies.)
A decade before Peter Jackson wrapped up his Lord of the Rings trilogy, he directed Dead Alive (1992) - nothing short of one of the funniest and best zombie movies ever made. Protagonist Lionel finds salvation from an overbearing mother in the form of a new girlfriend, but is interrupted by a houseful of zombies. Coming to terms with his inner demons requires tearing out zombie innards. It's Jackson's comic timing that holds the film together. The film is teeming with grotesque zombie childbirth, heat-seeking intestines, and quality slapstick and gore scenes, one of which required the use of five gallons of fake blood per second.
Cemetery Man, aka Dellamorte Dellamore, (1994) is one of the more intelligent zombie movies out there, which, fortunately, doesn't prevent it from being sexy and funny. Directed by Michele Soavi (Stagefright, The Church, The Devil's Daughter), and based on the Italian horror comic strip "Dylan Dog," Cemetery Man stars Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte, a man consigned to standing watch over a cemetery whose inhabitants just won't stay dead. Dellamorte is happily distracted from the drudgery of head-splitting by the arrival of a young widow (Italian model Anna Falchi) who croaks fairly early in the story - but don't worry, she'll be back. If you fancy gore, you can't ask for much more than the film's school bus/motorcycle gang collision.
In 1971, Amando de Ossorio wrote and directed Tombs of the Blind Dead, a beautifully costumed film about the Knights Templar (based on a real order), who bring back the secret of immortality from Egypt and become the most original and creepiest zombies to grace the silver screen. In Attack of the Blind Dead (a.k.a. Return of the Evil Dead), the knights emerge from their graves 500 years after being burned by an angry mob, mount undead horses, and crash their hometown's anniversary party. Be warned that the English subtitles are quite bad, so if you understand Spanish it's worth forgoing the dubs and ignoring the subs. Ossorio's third and fourth installments - Horror of the Zombies (aka: El Buque Maldito, translation: 'The Damned Ship', 1974) and The Night of the Seagulls (aka: La Noche de las Gaviotas, 1975) - have the Knights Templar taking to the sea.
If you like atmospheric horror flicks, and George Romero's The Crazies, crucifixions, violent decapitations, oozing, pus-filled sores, severed heads being carried about, a demented farmer plunging a pitchfork into the exposed chest of his adult daughter, and show-stopping full-frontal nude scenes featuring gorgeous French ex-porn stars (like Brigitte Lahaie) - then Jean Rollin's The Grapes of Death (1978) is for you. Meanwhile, Jorge Grau's Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (a.k.a. Zombi 3; 1974) has a pro-organic bent: A sonic machine designed to help crops by eradicating insects ends up raising the dead as well.
Director Don Coscarelli brought the zombie back to its traditional slave role with Phantasm (1979), in which an alien undertaker crushes down the bodies of the dead in his other dimension's extreme gravity, reanimates them and enslaves them. And horror master Wes Craven created an underground gem with The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1988, in which a Harvard anthropologist's (Bill Pullman) interests lie in consciousness-altering substances. He travels to Haiti at the behest of a pharmaceutical company to secure a powder that can place people into a state of simulated death, only to find himself eventually uttering the memorable line, "Don't let them bury me! I'm not dead!"
Click on to Part Two...