By now we’re all well aware that a “zombie” is a reanimated corpse that feeds on human flesh, but that wasn’t always the case. Prior to 1968, a “zombie” was a re-animated corpse that was summoned (usually through voodoo) to commit evil deeds on behalf of its (usually Haitian) master. But that all changed after Night of the Living Dead hit the scene. Despite the fact that the word “zombie” is never uttered in George A. Romero’s horror classic, the name simply stuck.
There are several interesting pre-Romero zombie films, most notably White Zombie (1932), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and the infamous turkey Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), but let’s save that lesson plan for a later date. Today’s topic is the “traditional” zombie flick: the ones in which a small band of survivors must fend off a massive army of shambling (or running) reanimated corpses that devour human flesh. Or brains. Depending on which movie you’re watching.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Not only one of the most provocative horror films ever made; one could capably argue that this is one of the most influential and socially relevant films of all time. It boasts a black hero, which was highly uncommon for 1968, but then it punches us in the gut with the character’s shockingly ironic fate. The movie, which focuses on a group of survivors who hole up in an isolated cabin after ravenous corpses start shuffling across the Pennsylvania countryside, was unlike anything late-‘60s mainstream audiences had ever seen before – the $100,000 production gradually pulled in upwards of 30 million bucks – and that’s just in theatrical revenue. Unfortunately, due to a copyright error, the film is considered “public domain.” That error would go on to cost George A. Romero untold millions in residuals.
Although all sorts of colorful subtext can be attributed to the film (a statement on the death of the nuclear family; a metaphor about the horrors of war; a staunch indictment of racial prejudice, etc.), Night of the Living Dead is, quite simply, a very effective horror film. From its scratchy black and white cinematography to its then-shocking displays of graphic violence to its thoroughly unpredictable plot developments, the film was a very welcome subversion of the widely-accepted horror tropes. In other words, this was something that nobody had seen before, and even the horror fans were impressed.
Bonus note: Tom Savini’s 1990 remake takes a little while to warm up, but it’s actually not bad.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
Having spent the previous ten years delivering odd horror flicks like* Season of the Witch* (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1977), zombie lord George A. Romero decided to re-set his sights on the zombie lore he ushered into the world – and good lord, was it glorious. Whereas Night of the Living Dead worked in large part due to its claustrophobic setting, the sequel would thrive thanks to its epic scope. And the world would never look at shopping malls the same way again.
A “sequel” inasmuch as it takes place in the same rapidly decaying social landscape as Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead doesn’t so much follow up on what happened earlier as it expands on the early stages of the zombie apocalypse in a whole bunch of fascinating ways. And while the flick wears its social commentary on its sleeve – yes, human beings are slaves to consumerism – it never gets in the way of the darkly escapist fun. I mean, who wouldn’t love living in a mall with a few close friends? Strategically speaking, a huge mall seems like the perfect place to hole up and wait out the undead plague, but the fun is destined to be short-lived. Because even if you find a way to (finally) zombie-proof your massive fortress of goodies, you’ll still have to deal with the lower forms of humanity. In this case: a really stupid biker gang.
Bonus note: The Italian version of the film, which was edited by Dario Argento(!), is seven minutes shorter than the U.S. cut, and features additional music by the amazing band Goblin.
Produced and released as Zombi 2 in Italy – their version of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was the first Zombi, of course – Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (the American title) is probably the finest non-Romero zombie horror flick you’re likely to come across. Noteworthy for its tenuous but interesting connection to the old-school “voodoo zombies,” its fantastically eerie Fabio Frizzi score, and a collection of unapologetically hardcore gore sequences, it has gone on to become a highly-regarded entry in the zombie cinema hall of fame, as well as a standard “rite of passage” experience for every aspiring horror freak.
Zombi 2 would not only prove itself a delight among the more adventurous horror aficionados; it also opened the floodgates for Italian zombie cinema in general – not to mention for good old gore-slingin’ Fulci himself. Just as Romero inspired filmmakers like Bob Clark (Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things) and Jorge Grau (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie), Mr. Fulci helped to kick start a deluge of super-gory Italian exports, such as Nightmare City, Night of the Zombies, City of the Living Dead, and (of course) Zombi 3.
Bonus note: You simply haven’t lived until you’ve seen Zombie’s wildly cool “zombie vs. shark” sequence.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)
After tackling racism in one film and mankind’s undying affection for shopping in another, where else was there for George A. Romero to go with a third film, thematically speaking? Well, since this chapter showed up smack-dab in the middle of the 1980s, it only makes sense that Romero would take aim at America’s obsession with combat, war, and all sorts of military-related unpleasantness. And if you thought the subtext in Night or Dawn was a little on the unsubtle side, just wait until you get a load of the “soldiers vs. scientists” thematic jackhammer that runs rampant throughout this second sequel.
What’s most interesting about Romero’s third zombie flick is how the world outside our central location – an underground military bunker – is pretty much a total wasteland. The irony is that while two distinctly incompatible political ideologies wage verbal war, there’s nobody left on the surface worth fighting for. The scientists want to do research on an oddly intelligent zombie called Bub; the gung-ho soldiers want nothing more than something to shoot at; and the zombies are seemingly more than content to wait for each side to go nuts on the other, because all of the in-fighting clearly makes for easier victims. While not as subtle as Night, and not as funny as Dawn, Day still holds up as a rough and unpredictable close to the finest of all zombie-related trilogies.
Bonus note: You may have come across a 2008 remake of this film. Never watch it.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)
One of the more annoying things about the Night of the Living Dead copyright snafu is that it allowed other filmmakers to echo, emulate, and downright piggyback the title to promote their (completely unrelated) films. In most cases those movies sort of sucked – but here’s a wild little winner that brought some much-needed color, chaos, and weirdness to the zombie sub-genre. Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo earns a “story by” credit here, so there’s an interesting piece of connective tissue.
While Day of the Dead was busy pitting soldiers against scientists in a zombie-infested bunker, Dan O'Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead was more interested in a group of kooky young punks who decide to par-tay in a cemetery just as a canister of poison brings hundreds of corpses back to life. To its credit, the film frequently avoids Romero’s “rules,” and it does an admirable job of introducing its own set of zombie rules. (These creatures only eat the brains, you see, whereas traditional zombies will just devour anything they can grab hold of.) Backed by a game cast, a good deal of energy, and some frankly fantastic special effects, Return might not be as deep as Romero’s classics, but it’s certainly one of the most consistently amusing zombie flicks of the 1980s.
Bonus note: There are several sequels to this film. The first few aren’t half bad. The other ones absolutely are.
DEAD ALIVE (1992)
Long before he’d grace the world with The Frighteners, King Kong, and six different movies about Hobbits, Peter Jackson was just another independent genre geek turning out weird low-budget B-movies like Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and this outrageous 1992 gore explosion. Also known as Braindead in certain parts of the world, including its homeland of New Zealand, Dead Alive breaks a few of the established zombie rules but makes up for those indiscretions by delivering some of the most insane, colorful, and over-the-top gore explosions that you’re ever likely to see in a comedic horror film.
And it’s the humor that elevates Dead Alive beyond the trappings of “yet another zombie movie.” From the film’s opening scenes it becomes clear that Dead Alive is a whole lot broader than the sly satire found within George Romero’s zombie films – and that’s part of the reason that Dead Alive is still admired, emulated, and revisited by hardcore horror geeks. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the flick has a remarkably energetic editorial approach and a metric ton of endearingly gruesome sequences. It’s the sort of movie that just keeps getting crazier as it rolls on, and it all but forces the viewer to keep up with the mayhem. Best of all, it’s evidence of a young horror geek who was smart enough to bring his own unique sensibilities to the party instead of simply copying what was already successful.
28 DAYS LATER… (2002)
Already I can hear the complaints: “The creatures in 28 Days Later… aren’t zombies at all! They’re normal people infected with the Rage Virus!” – and those complaints are accurate. Technically speaking, there are no zombies in 28 Days Later… — but it certainly comes close enough to warrant inclusion here, especially because it’s such a smart, dark, and consistently clever piece of scary storytelling. Alex Garland’s endlessly fascinating screenplay captures the best of both worlds: on one hand 28 Days Later… feels like the final word in early-apocalypse horror, but on the other it also reinvigorates some of the zombie tropes through the simplest of methods.
The whole “fast zombies vs. slow zombies” argument got its start with this film, and the idea of fast-moving zombies was so novel (not to mention controversial) that it sparked a geek-centric debate that continues to this day. (Personally I prefer slow zombies, but I’d be lying if I said that the super-speedy semi-zombies in this movie didn’t scare the living crap out of me.) Wrap all of these ideas up with a brilliant cast, a memorable score, a harrowing origin story for the global pandemic, and a whole lot of nasty action scenes, and you’re looking at arguably the best zombie movie ever made that doesn’t actually have any zombies in it.
Bonus note: The sequel (28 Weeks Later) is also quite good. Still not technically zombies, but whatever.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)
If 28 Days Later… was the first film to pique our interest on the subject of “fast zombies,” then it was Zack Snyder’s remake of the classic Dawn of the Dead that proved it could work. The first key to producing a decent remake is to bring something new and novel to a well-known premise, and Snyder’s overtly aggressive army of zombies allowed the remake to build its own style, tone, and sense of unpredictable danger. Yes, the basic story is the same – a handful of survivors hole up in an abandoned shopping mall – but there’s also a good deal of creativity on display here.
Much of Dawn of the Dead '04 is played more like an action flick than a traditional horror movie, which works as a welcome deviation from the source material, but when push comes to shove there’s plenty of mood, tension, shocks, and splatter to keep fans of both genres suitably entertained. A good deal of the credit goes to screenwriter James Gunn for finding a way to combine modern sensibilities and old-school horror tropes. Even the snobbiest of skeptics seemed to agree that Dawn of the Dead '04 was a success – an accomplishment that seems doubly impressive in hindsight, simply because most horror remakes are, well, terrible.
Bonus note: Love it or hate it, this movie, along with Robert Kirkman’s comic book The Walking Dead, pretty much resurrected the zombie in popular culture.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
Speaking of things that are frequently terrible, we now turn to the realm of full-bore zombie comedy. While most zom-coms, even the rare good ones, focus more on horror with a firm sense of humor, Edgar Wright’s endlessly clever Shaun of the Dead is, to its credit, a broad farce first and a horror flick second – it at all. It’s basically a compendium of everything we’ve ever learned about how to survive a zombie apocalypse, only it’s delivered by a pair of effortlessly appealing comedians.
It’s as if ravenous film geek Edgar Wright (and old pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) watched every Romero and Fulci flick they could get their hands on before unleashing the zombie apocalypse in the backyard of two affable but aimless young British blokes. One need not possess an encyclopedic knowledge of old-school zombie cinema to appreciate the energetic lunacy of Shaun of the Dead, but it’s safe to say that the film provides a few bonus chuckles for the more experienced horror fans.
And if you’ve seen all ten of the zombie movies we just covered, then you’re precisely the sort of person Shaun of the Dead was made for.
WORLD WAR Z (2013)
While it’s interesting to note that, yes, this troubled production ended up spending about $200,000,000 on a freaking zombie flick, and while it’s additionally fascinating to note that the film bears virtually no resemblance to its ostensible source material, it’s also quite cool to realize that, hey, World War Z is actually a pretty solid thriller. If taken more as a wide-scale disaster movie than an outright horror flick, there’s quite a lot to enjoy here – not the least of which is the concept of “zombie invasion as global pandemic.”
In other words, we’ve all seen more than our share of zombie attacks that are up close, personal, and very gruesome. But World War Z pulls the cameras way back and uses the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for, hell, pick any horrific disease you can think of. And the fact that the movie turned out so solid after contending with such a horrific conception is sort of a minor miracle. It might be the most mainstream zombie flick we’ve seen so far, but it also boasts some of the wildest zombie attacks we’ve ever seen. That’s gotta be worth something.
Bonus note: There’s a sequel in development. Truth.
Once you’re done with this lesson plan, please feel free to take in our Beginner’s Guide to Cannibal Movies as well.
Scott Weinberg is a film writer/critic of 15-plus years for FEARnet, Cinematical, Nerdist, The Horror Show, Geek Nation, and others. He tweets at @scotteweinberg.