Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us Z is for Zombies! The popularity of the walking dead has done nothing but grow since the initial 1968 release of George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, with zombies infiltrating nearly every level of our pop culture — from children’s cartoons to advertising; from indie film to blockbusters; from comics, video games, and literature to the number one TV show in America. They are so pervasive these days that we sometimes forget that it wasn’t always like this. In fact, it wasn’t until after Night that we even had what we think of as zombies today. Before 1968 the walking dead were very different. The folklore regarding the undead of all sorts springs from similar sources, with references to flesh-eating undead going back as far as The Epic of Gilgamesh and with the contemporary concepts of vampires only becoming recognizable in the early 18th century. Before that, every culture had their own variations on revenants — beings coming back from the grave — with my own personal favorite being the draugr from Norse mythology. WALKING WITH ZOMBIES It was the late 1920s when the traditional concept of — and the term — “zombi” was introduced to Western culture thanks to a sensationalist book called The Magic Island (1929) by W.B. Seabrook, about a researcher’s account of Haitian Vodou cults. It didn’t take Hollywood very long to jump onto the concept of mindless slaves returning from the dead and in 1932 Bela Lugosi starred in Victor Halperin’s now-classic film, White Zombie. While the initial reviews weren’t great, as with most of the films we’ll be discussing here, the public wasn’t convinced and it made a significant profit (to be honest, the film was an independent production, making its success all the more spectacular) and four years later Halperin directed a better-received (at the time) sequel, Revolt of the Zombies. By the early 1940s, Vodou zombies on film had already shifted from horror fare to comedy with the Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard vehicle, The Ghost Breakers (1940) along with King of the Zombies (1941) and its loose follow-up Revenge of the Zombies (1943), both starring comedian Mantan Moreland, becoming the public face of the walking dead. However, in 1943 the producing/directing team of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, fresh from the success of Cat People (1942) crafted the definitive Vodou zombie film, I Walked with a Zombie. As with Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie is atmospheric and suspenseful, elegantly walking the line of ambiguity between the supernatural and the natural, while also crafting a complex psychological portrayal of guilt and depression. Clocking in at only 69 minutes, this is a film that every horror fan should be familiar with. Frances Dee is enchanting as nurse Betsy Connell, who suffers a breakdown while caring for the ailing wife of sugar plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Zombies in the 50s moved away from the plantation slaves of the 30s and 40s, introducing science fiction elements, as repeatedly aliens reanimated the dead to do their bidding, most notably in Edward L. Cahn’s Invisible Invaders (1959) and Edward D. Wood Jr.’s camp classic, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Both are entertaining, in a so-bad-they’re-good kind of way, but can be skipped without missing anything about the genre. As we get closer to 1968 on our timeline, there are really just two films that need to be mentioned: Ubaldo Ragona’s The Last Man on Earth (1964) — which we already covered here — and John Gilling’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966) — covered here. Both feature elements that ended up being inspirational to Romero when he was making Night of the Living Dead. The plot of Last Man has many structural similarities and Romero has often sited it as an inspiration. Plague isn’t sited often, but the makeup effects for the risen dead are the very similar to what would soon become the standard look (with slight variations, of course). The fact that both films are actually quality works is an added bonus! One other 60s film should be mentioned: Ted V. Mikels’ Astro Zombies (1968). Not because it was inspirational or even very good, but because it starred Tura Satana and anything with Tura Satana in it needs to be watched. THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU, BARBRA Between the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and Romero’s first sequel, Dawn of the Dead in 1978 there was a flourishing of films involving the living dead, but only a few that actually incorporated the thematic and stylistic innovations that Romero introduced. This was sort of a golden era of experimentation similar to mainstream 70s cinema, with a number of very well-made films about the dead returning that didn’t involve cannibalism. In Spain, Amando de Ossorio began his “Blind Dead” series in 1971 with Tombs of the Blind Dead, where attractive young people are threatened by the skeletal remains of The Knights Templar, establishing the recurring theme in each of the films where youth and beauty ultimately decays and is destroyed. For a long time it was almost impossible to find a cut of this film that was of watchable quality and hadn’t been mangled by unnecessary edits, but in 2006 Blue Underground finally released the entire Blind Dead series uncut, collecting Tombs with Return of the Evil Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974), and Night of the Seagulls (1975). Tombs is easily the best of the series, however each film has its moments. Ossorio wrote, directed and designed the Templar make-up for all four films and bear his distinctive storytelling and special effects work. In 1972 and ‘73, Bob Clark (the future director of Porky’s and A Christmas Story!), released two films that are some of the most original and entertaining of the non-flesh-eating zombie variety. The first, Deathdream, was inspired by the W. W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw” and tells the tale of U.S. soldier Andy Brooks (Richard Backus), who is shot and killed in Vietnam, but soon ends up on his family’s doorstep in the middle of the night, apparently unharmed. Andy finds himself having to drain and inject people’s blood in order to stave off physical decay, as Clark and writer Alan Ormsby play with any number of metaphorical critiques of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The conflation of vampirism with zombification is a fairly common one, but this is the only one I’ll be including here, as they usually lean more towards variations on the vampire legends. As soon as Clark and Ormsby finished Deathdream, they moved on to the wonderfully titled, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. Children is a dark and playful story of amateur witchcraft, petty squabbles, and power struggles in a small theater troupe. It, along with Deathdream, are nearly forgotten gems of early Seventies horror. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (or as it’s also known, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) was released in 1974 and provides a pseudo-scientific explanation for the eventual undead plague that spreads through the English countryside near Windermere. Written and directed by Jorge Grau, the film was actually filmed in Italy, with only a few exterior shots actually being shot in England — specifically the hospital and church scenes, as well as the opening montage which was filmed in Manchester city centre. This is the first film to really pick up on the threads of social criticism and thematic elements that Romero first laid out in ’68 with actual flesh-eating ghouls. If that were the only thing it had going for it, I would recommend it to everyone interested in the genre, but Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is also really very good, with nice performances from everyone involved, complex character relationships, and a few truly disturbing gore effects. Two more films that should me mentioned before we get to Romero’s 1978 masterpiece, are 1974’s Sugar Hill (not to be confused with the 1994 Wesley Snipes film of the same name) — a Blaxploitation film that brings back Vodou-created zombies — and 1977’s Shock Waves — which introduces the concept of Nazi zombies that would become it’s very own sub-genre over the years. Sugar Hill was a continuation of American International Pictures Blaxploitation/horror combos, following up Blacula (1972), Scream, Blacula Scream (1973), and Abby (1974), but wasn’t actually released in the US until 1976. Shock Waves actually stars Peter Cushing (playing a Nazi commander the same year he was Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars!) and features John Carradine — the casting of whom gives the film a little added weight in cult circles. Both films are low-budget affairs, but both have enough shocks and scares to make them worth a look (the Nazi zombies rising from the water are particularly effective). THERE’S NO MORE ROOM IN ITALY When George Romero returned to the zombie genre that he had given birth to, it was an event. Dawn of the Dead signaled a seismic shift in the popularity of zombie movies. The story for Dawn had been in development by Romero since 1974, when a friend who managed the Monroeville Mall invited him to visit and jokingly suggested that somebody could survive an emergency by holing up there. Unable to find any American financing for a project of this scale, things looked bleak until Dario Argento contacted Romero and offered to help. Argento put Romero up in Rome while they collaborated on the script, and with additional funding by the Monroeville Mall’s owners casting was completed and principal photography began in November of 1977 (follow this link for a discussion of Dawn of the Dead). Upon release, Dawn received almost universal praise and grossed $55 million worldwide, making it the most profitable film in Romero’s Dead series. The US market, though, still wasn’t ready to dive into the zombie pool. Italy, or at least Lucio Fulci, enthusiastically dove into that pool and brought a shark along for company. Between 1979 and 1981, Fulci released four zombie films that served to broaden the audience for the genre with outrageous plots and disturbing advances in gore effects. The first film, Zombi 2 (Zombie in the US market), reinvigorated Fulci’s career and made him an international horror icon. Zombi 2 is the most straight-forward of Fulci’s zombie films, as he did not write the script and was brought in to direct after development had begun. Despite being a bit of a slog to watch, the film has a number of iconic moments, most notably the infamous Shark vs. Zombie fight and the first Fulci “Eyeball Gag.” The film is also notable for combining both the Vodou zombie and the Romero-esque flesh-eater. Thanks to the overwhelming European success of Zombi 2, Fulci then wrote and directed a trilogy of films that incorporate elements of H.P. Lovecraft, witchcraft, and dream logic to craft some of the most bizarre zombie films in history. The Gates of Hell trilogy is made up of City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), and The House by the Cemetery (1981), and are films that every zombie aficionado should be very familiar with. The Beyond, in particular, is a must-see that more deeply explores the metaphysical implications of a world where the realms of the living and the dead have bled into each other, and draws its inspiration from the work of surrealist French playwright Antonin Artaud. Plus there are flesh-eating tarantulas and more eyeball-gouging! Meanwhile, in the US, Romero’s influence still wasn’t making itself known with only two films of note dealing with the undead at all: Gary Sherman’s creepy Dead & Buried (1981) and Thom Eberhardt’s cult classic Valley Girl vs. the Apocalypse comedy Night Of The Comet (1984). For more on Dead & Buried, follow this link. While both are fun films, neither really fall under the heading of Romero-esque, with Dead & Buried feeling more like an especially well-put-together Twilight Zone or Tales from the Darkside episode, and Night being just gosh-darned fun. SEND… MORE… PARAMEDICS! 1985 brought us three classic zombie films. July saw George Romero return to his Dead world one more time with Day Of The Dead. As discussed here, Day is considered by many to be the weakest of the original Dead Trilogy, as it abandons some of the familiar tropes Romero played with during the first two films, instead concentrating on examining societal breakdown in a microcosm of scientists and soldiers holed up in what may be humanity’s last fractured community. Whereas the zombies in Night were representative of impending death (among other things), and in Dawn they were almost cartoonish in their satire of consumer culture, in Day we finally get a glimpse of the undead that hints at a possible new world; a world where the dead are not completely mindless and where human beings are truly horrific. It lacks some of the immediate satisfaction that the previous films brought to the game, but the gore is more gruesome and the ending bleaker. If Romero never made another zombie film, it would be a wonderful capstone to his work in the genre. Alas… Day stumbled at the box office. For some reason, fans weren’t really ready to spend their cash on what was an impressively nihilistic and depressing film. A month later, audiences got what they were looking for with Return of the Living Dead. As I discussed this past Easter, Return was a punk rock explosion of energy, gore, wicked puppetry, and brain eating. It introduced to pop culture the idea that zombies craved brains to eat more than anything, and it also established the first truly fast zombies. When the concept is re-introduced and mocked in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (more on that later), fans took up their pitchforks to proclaim “No Fast Zombies!” But in Return nobody has a problem with them. Or with the fact that they talk and retain a semblance of personality. If you’re looking for just a non-stop thrill-ride with jokes, gore, and a completely nude Linnea Quigley, then Return is for you. I was not the biggest fan when it was first released, being hooked on the existential angst of the Romero films, but upon revisiting it earlier this year, I had to admit that it was just a helluva lot of fun. October of 1985 brought what has become not only a seminal film in the zombie genre, but the film that brought H.P. Lovecraft to the big screen in a big, perverse way. Re-Animator was written by Dennis Paoli, William Norris, and Stuart Gordon — who also directed — and was produced by Brian Yuzna. It also introduced Jeffrey Combs to the horror film community, and in one stroke a number of legends were born. The zombies here weren’t symbols of anything, and they weren’t anarchist explosions of punk attitude. They were quite simply, the dead re-animated; and not very successfully. Re-Animator, as I’ve mentioned, in a way, previously this month, is all about perversion, power, and obsession. If you want to get freaked out by practical effects and disturbing sexual obsessions, this is the film you want to be watching. The rest of the Eighties was sparse for zombie films that are worth more than a look or two, and the Nineties aren’t much better. The popularity of Return of the Living Dead sparked two sequels (one in ’88 and the third in ’93), but neither bring the energy of the first to the screen. Part II rehashed a lot of the original plot and even recycled two of the actors in a very entertaining way, but didn’t leave much of a mark. The third film was probably the best made of the three (as discussed in the Brian Yuzna column), but again, didn’t really connect with the majority of fans. I’d recommend watching them, but they’re going to be acquired tastes, I’m afraid. THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU AGAIN, BARBARA! It wouldn’t be until 2000 and beyond that zombie films would truly explode, but the Nineties had its fair share of them; only many weren’t worth your time. 1990 kicked off the decade with what many assumed would be a horrendous disaster: Night of the Living Dead. Yes, that Night of the Living Dead; remade in color. However, the film (which is effectively a reboot of the series) had special effects master Tom Savini in the director’s chair and a script by Romero himself. While it was apparently a torturous experience to make, it actually turned out to be one of the best zombie films in the history of the genre, effectively hitting a lot of the thematic points of the original while updating and “correcting” some of its weakness — like substituting the catatonic mess Barbra for Patricia Tallman as a kick-ass Barbara. That extra ‘a’ makes all the difference, apparently. And while Duane Jones was fantastic in the original, everything is better with Tony Todd. The rest of the decade can be summed up in three films: 1992’s Braindead (Dead Alive), 1994’s Dellamorte, Dellamore (Cemetery Man), and 1998’s Bio Zombie. It’s probably worth noting than none of them are American. I talked a lot about Braindead earlier this year, so I’ll just touch on it briefly here to say, WATCH THIS FILM. If you can find a copy, that is. How can one of the top three zombie films ever made be out of print? When the director is superstar Lord of the Rings / Hobbit director Peter Jackson, the fact that you can’t find a copy of this movie is just appalling. Somebody needs to rectify this soon. Dellamorte, Dellamore is an Italian/French/German co-production directed by Michele Soavi and based on the work of Tiziano Sclavi. For some reason it stars Rupert Everett as the caretaker of a small Italian cemetery who finds himself regularly re-killing and re-burying the dead after they have risen. At the time of its release, the film was considered a failure by pretty much any type of standard, but as we repeatedly see with the best films of the genre, Dellamorte Dellamore just needed to find its audience. There’s a surreal, nightmarish quality to the film that hearkens back to Fulci’s The Beyond, alongside an earthy, transgressive sexuality, accented by a lead performance by Everett that recalls a bizarre mix of Buster Keaton and Bruce Campbell. The real scene-stealer, though, is François Hadji-Lazaro as the semi-mute Gnaghi. This is a film that must be watched. Any description of it will only diminish what actually appears on-screen. Hong Kong zombie-comedy Bio-Zombie is a real surprise, too. The director, Wilson Yip, is pretty well-known now thanks to the success of Ip Man and Ip man 2, but back in 1998, he put together a frenetic film that recalled the most entertaining parts of Dawn of the Dead and some of the gorier elements of Braindead. The short version is Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee) work crappy jobs in a crappy mall and then the zombie apocalypse kicks off and these two losers find what it takes to become heroes. It’s loaded with comedy, romance, tragedy, and is a joy to watch from the opening scene till the credits roll. YOU’VE GOT RED ON YOU… So Y2K came and went with no apocalyptic breakdowns of society. But in film, it was another matter. The zombies that had been simmering just below the pop culture surface for over 30 years suddenly burst forth in a massive flood, a horde, if you will, of low, middle, and big-budget films from all around the world. If you look up “zombie movies” on Wikipedia, there is a list of about 240 zombie films released since 2000. And after just a cursory look at the list, I know there are at least a handful missing. For some perspective, there are only 144 films listed between 1932 and 1999. That’s at least a hundred more films made in a 15 year period than was made in the prior 60 years. To be fair, advances in technology have made it a lot easier to make low-budget horror films, and a massive chunk of these films are borderline unwatchable. But that’s to be expected. On the plus side, though, you could put together a Top Ten or Fifteen list of zombie films from just 2000 on and they’d all be really good movies. [Editor’s Note: It’s just impossible to discuss all of the films worth watching in an article this short (which is clocking in at 4500+ words when all’s said and done!!). Please add your own favorites to the comments, below!] The Resident Evil movies, for example, are cheesy, video-game inspired schlock, but nearly every single one of them is entertaining in ways that nobody could have imagined in the decades before. Spain has given us a trilogy of films (with a fourth on the way) utilizing the first-person found-footage conceit with [Rec], [Rec] 2, and [Rec] 3: Genesis — see my review here — and every single one is extremely high quality — as are their American remakes, Quarantine and Quarantine 2: Terminal. There have been three Outpost films (Outpost, Outpost: Black Sun — see my review here — and Outpost 3: Rise of the Spetznaz) breathing new life into what was the desiccated corpse of Nazi zombie films. Another high point in this subgenre is Frankenstein’s Army, reviewed here. It’s a project that hearkens back to the practical effect stylings in Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna’s work. Then there’s the extremely funny and violent Dead Snow — which may be the best Nazi zombie film ever made. But that’s going to depend on how good its sequel, Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead is. Films like Fido — with Billy Connolly playing a “domesticated” zombie in a bizarre 50s-inspired post-zombie-apocalypse world — Zombieland — a buddy film with a heart — and Warm Bodies, — a zombie retelling of Romeo and Juliet reviewed here — have given us lighter zombie fare, while still maintaining a level of intensity and suspense that makes them each classic in their own ways. We’ve also had the big budget remake nobody thought would be any good but was: Dawn of the Dead; and the big budget book adaptation that nobody thought would be any good but was: World War Z. Dawn, as discussed here, was so surprisingly good that I’d put it in the top ten zombie films ever made, and World War Z abandoned the source material to craft one of the few truly global-scale zombie films ever made. The fact that it was so action-packed and suspenseful right off the bat and kept me on the edge of my seat through the entire runtime was just ridiculous. There was no way that film should have been as good as it was. While this may be controversial in some circles, I’d say the best zombie film ever made is the 2004 British comedy, Shaun of the Dead. I’ve made this argument before, so I won’t rehash it here, but if a hilarious comedy can make you feel for the characters without sacrificing the horror elements or the more serious themes that come hand-in-hand with the genre, and be presented with the directorial flair that Edgar Wright brings to the screen, then it’s arguably the best of the best. While Shaun excels in all of the traditional elements that make the genre what it is, when it comes to innovation in storytelling and bringing a unique vision to the concept of a zombie-like plague, there’s not a lot better than director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess’ Pontypool. The film is carried by the virtuoso performance of the ever-impressive Stephen McHattie as Shock Jock DJ Grant Mazzy, who’s easing into his new job at a small, local radio station in the tiny Ontario town of Pontypool. Pontypool was also produced as a radio play, broadcast on the BBC’s Art & Culture, and the film sticks closely to the same structure, staying almost entirely in the radio station, relaying the horrors outside verbally, before the “conversationalists” (i.e. the infected) finally break in and we get to see exactly what is going on. It’s a very unique approach to the virus concept and won’t be for everybody, but I think Pontypool is brilliant — which is why despite not really being about zombies, it’s included here but 28 Days Later isn’t. THE END IS NIGH… The onslaught of zombie films just keeps shambling (and sometimes loping) along, with no end in sight. And they’re not staying contained to the theaters or home video any more, either. In 2008 the BBC debuted an excellently visceral mini-series that didn’t skimp on the traditional zombie horror (of the fast zombie variety) while also parodying the TV series Big Brother, with Dead Set. In 2013 the Beeb continued to explore zombie drama with the very affecting In the Flesh, which recently completed its second season, and takes an innovative look at the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse once a cure has been found for those who returned to feed on the living. Needless to say, there’s a lot of guilt, resentment, and family drama involved, as discussed here and here. France has also leaped into the fray with two seasons so far of Les Revenants, which was based on the 2004 film of the same name (called They Came Back in the American market). As for American TV, AMC’s The Walking Dead is the highest-rated scripted program on television at the moment, even beating out perineal TV powerhouse, Sunday Night Football. It just kicked off its fifth, and most impressive, season, and there’s a spin-off getting ready to begin production that will follow an entirely new cast in another part of the US viewers haven’t yet seen. Over on Syfy, the lower-budgeted, more-schlocky Z Nation just launched and has already been locked in for a second season. There are even rumors that after the Resident Evil film series wraps up with its final installment in 2016, it will be reborn as a TV series on an as-yet unannounced network. So, if there’s anyone still reading at this point, I hope this helps to give you some ideas and entry-points if you want to explore the world of zombie cinema. And don’t forget to share your favorites in the comments below and let me know which films I missed that should have been included! Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.