by Barbara Roden
Zombies have been shambling their way in ever-increasing numbers through books, graphic novels, movies, and TV series for the past few years, and the popularity of the walking dead shows no sign of abating anytime soon.
Zombies aren’t a new phenomenon; the first recorded mention of them in English came in 1819. They are a part of Haitian folklore, where they were said to be corpses that had been reanimated through magic or voodoo, often so they could be used as a cheap source of untiring labour.
The 1966 Hammer Films movie Plague of the Zombies, which I discussed in a previous column, was one of the last films to depict zombies in their traditional sense (and it’s worth seeking out). After that zombies took a radical turn into new territory, as we’ll see.
So here are my 12 top zombie films – and one TV series – that are well worth watching, if you’re so inclined; a few of them are well-known, and some others less so. A warning: many modern zombie movies are, by their nature, fairly graphic, so probably aren’t for the faint of heart.
White Zombie (1932)
Based on the book The Magic Island, which was published in 1929 and purported to be an exposure of zombie cults in Haiti, White Zombie is the first movie to feature the resurrected dead. Bela Lugosi, who had caused a sensation in Dracula the year before, stars as a voodoo master who is persuaded to turn a young woman into a zombie so that she will abandon her fiancé and marry another. The rather wooden acting and stilted script may put some people off, but the film manages an atmosphere of brooding atmosphere and horror which is still compelling.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
Producer Val Lewton had already shown RKO Studios he could turn out a brilliant horror film (1941’s Cat People) on a very low budget. For his second effort he teamed with director Jacques Tourneur, creating a haunting, visually arresting zombie film that’s loosely based on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. A Canadian nurse visiting the West Indies to look after her employer’s invalid wife comes to believe that the woman is under a voodoo spell and has become a zombie. Horror films can’t often be described as “poetic”, but this one can.
Night of the Living Dead (1968); Dawn of the Dead (1978); and Day of the Dead (1985)
Night of the Living Dead – directed and co-written by George A. Romero, who was only 28 at the time – changed the face of zombies forever. The reanimated dead are no longer mindless, passive creatures; they crave human flesh, as a group of survivors holed up in a remote farmhouse soon find. From the opening scene, where a brother and sister visiting their father’s grave encounter a terrifying, white-faced ghoul, the movie ratchets up the tension, aided by some convincingly gruesome makeup and special effects that were controversial at the time. It also lays the groundwork for a recurring theme in Romero’s subsequent zombie films: the way in which the threat presented by the creatures reveals personal and cultural defects.
Dawn of the Dead sees a number of survivors taking refuge in an abandoned shopping mall, trying to pretend that everything is normal even as the walking dead pile up outside the doors (and eventually make their way in, of course). There’s no shortage of gruesome ghouls and gory set-pieces, but Romero also makes the film a commentary on conspicuous consumption, wilful blindness to a mounting crisis, and mindless consumerism, this last perfectly expressed when one character wonders why the undead are attracted to a shopping mall. The reply? “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
Day of the Dead serves up even more gore, but also shows a world where there seems to be some hope that zombies – which have overrun the globe, leaving only scattered pockets of survivors – can be “trained” to be docile, as seen in the gentle zombie named Bub. In contrast stands Capt. Rhodes, a tough, no-nonsense military man who takes increasingly brutal steps to maintain control amid the chaos. Romero seems to be suggesting that as the zombies become more human, some of those still living are fast becoming monsters themselves.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)
The third film of director Bob Clark – who 11 years later would direct the much-loved A Christmas Story – tells about a troupe of third-rate actors who, led by their cruel director Alan (Alan Ormsby), spend the night on a burial island. Alan claims to be able to raise the dead, and thoroughly enjoys terrifying his companions before revealing it was all a hoax. However, it soon becomes apparent that Alan’s séance was more effective than he expected, and the group find themselves spectacularly unprepared for what happens next. The first half of the movie is rather slow going, but once the dead start popping out of their graves like toast from a toaster things brighten up immensely, helped by the excellent, and appropriately gruesome, special effects and makeup (which were created by Ormsby).
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
A loose adaptation of a novel by Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo, this film takes zombies into what could be truly frightening territory: comedy. Fortunately, Dan O’Bannon’s deft script manages to blend horror and humour into a movie that will satisfy those looking for laughs as well as anyone in search of something bleaker and gorier. An accident in a medical supply warehouse releases a mysterious chemical that reanimates a cadaver. When the body is burned in an attempt to destroy it once and for all, the toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere, causing an acid rain that seeps into the ground and allows the dead to rise from a nearby cemetery. This is the first zombie film to suggest that the creatures can move at a pace faster than a slow walk, and is also the movie that gave rise to the idea that zombies are specifically looking to feast on human brains.
28 Days Later (2002)
Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in a hospital bed from a month-long coma, to find that London seems to be deserted. What we know – but he doesn’t, yet – is that the populace has been gripped by the “rage virus”, which turns people into fast-moving monsters. He meets up with a disparate group of survivors, who seek refuge at a military-controlled facility, only to find that the bigger threat might come from those offering protection. Director Danny Boyle reinvigorated the zombie film with this fast-paced, intelligent horror movie, to which the TV series The Walking Dead owes a huge debt, even though both projects borrowed the central concept – protagonist awakes in a world overrun by horror – from John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The last decade or so has seen several classic horror films remade for the 21st century, and almost all have been little more than pale shadows of the originals. An exception is director Zack Snyder’s remake of Romero’s 1978 movie, which manages to work on its own terms and benefits from a stellar lead performance from Canadian actress Sarah Polley as Ana, a nurse who is the film’s main character. After a terrifying opening scene that quickly sets the stage for what’s happening, Ana joins up with a small group of survivors who seek refuge in a shopping mall, where they encounter three security guards who aren’t happy about sharing the space. More survivors arrive, bringing a horde of zombies in their wake, and soon those inside the mall realize they’re not as safe as they think.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The British have a long and storied history of making both great comedies (think Ealing Studios) and great horror films (think Hammer), and Shaun of the Dead is a glorious combination of the two. Slacker Shaun is content to work in a dreary job by day, go to the pub with his mate Ed at night, and pursue an on-again/off-again romance with his girlfriend Liz. When zombies enter the picture, Shaun finally manages to shake off his everyday routine and rise to the occasion, cricket bat at the ready, even if his master plan is simply to retreat to the Winchester Pub and wait for the whole thing to blow over. By turns laugh out loud funny and satisfyingly gory, it’s a bloody delight from start to finish.
Filmed in Kelowna, this Canadian movie takes place in an alternate-reality 1950s in which a zombie outbreak has been quelled, although zombies still exist outside the protected communities overseen by a corporation called Zomcon. The company has also created an electronic collar that can be used to keep zombies docile, allowing them to be used as servants. A young boy named Timmy grows attached to the zombie (Scottish actor-comedian Billy Connolly) employed by his family, who he calls Fido. When Fido inadvertently kills a neighbour, it kicks off a chain of events that leads Timmy to the edge of the “wild zone” in an attempt to find Fido and free him from the clutches of Zomcon.
A reporter and her cameraman accompany a team of Barcelona firefighters on the night shift, as part of a series of TV documentaries. A call comes in about an old woman who is reported to be trapped in her apartment, and off they go. When the old woman attacks and bites a police officer, the building is sealed off, and none of the residents are allowed to leave. It soon becomes apparent that a virus has infected many of the occupants, and those not affected have to find a way to get out of the building before they too fall victim. In Spanish with English subtitles, this almost unbearably tense film makes excellent use of the “found footage” trope, with the reporters’ camera capturing the action as it happens.
This smart Canadian film is a novel take on zombies, suggesting that people can be infected as a result of a virus that has found its way into language and set loose by certain words and phrases. The story plays out against the backdrop of a small radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, where the newly-hired announcer, a technical assistant, and the station manager try to make sense of the garbled messages coming in from the outside world while at the same time trying to protect themselves against a horde of infected people who have broken into the station. With little violence to speak of, this film relies more on atmosphere and suggestion.
Dead Set (2008)
All that Patrick, producer of the British TV show Big Brother, cares about is getting his show on the air. It’s eviction night, which means a live show and big ratings, and nothing can interfere with that. Even when the living dead start pounding at the gates, Patrick tries to keep the show running, while the shallow contestants carry on their petty battles with each other. When they finally realize what’s going on, they convince themselves that the Big Brother house can withstand the zombie hoards, and that their intelligence will keep them alive; two assumptions that quickly start to unravel. Writer Charlie Brooker uses black comedy to skewer the venality of reality TV shows, while at the same time creating a truly terrifying show where no one is safe and there is no place to hide.