Zombies are in. There’s no denying it.
I’ve compiled a guide of essential watching from the past forty years.
V Video Nasty: Films which were banned, cut, or prosecuted under a British Obscenity law.
G George A. Romero: A film which is in Romero’s series of Zombie films
H Not for the faint of heart!: Films which are shockingly violent or gruesome.
Original Title: Horror movies were most cost effective when you renamed them to bring more people in. As a result many have English and Italian titles as well as alternate titles.
Cause of Outbreak: The manner in which the Zombies came to be.
Cause of Outbreak: Radiation carrying satellite.
This is where it all begins. Directed by George A. Romero, the movie was spectacularly violent and shocking. It did not leave crowds cheering, it left them silent. This was the first movie to feature zombies as we recognize them today, and every work since owes a debt to this film. The protagonist, a black man, survives an onslaught of zombies throughout the night, only to be shot dead by a white militia the next morning. Is it about racism, the Vietnam war, or the 60s itself? Who knows. The movie is shockingly original and effective to this day. Ebert wrote that by the end of the film, the theatre was utterly silent.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)
La Noche del terror ciego
Cause of Outbreak: Ancient curse.
Violent. Sexual. European. The “zombies” in this film are actually cloak covered skeletons of knights Templar. The “zombies” move slowly and silently helping to create a sense of dread and gothic atmosphere. The film inspired three sequels. Tombs of the Blind Dead was very nearly not a zombie film. It was originally intended to be a way to cash in on the success of Planet of the Apes. The skeletons would have been the corpses of monkeys in a post-apocalyptic future. I think the correct choice was made.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) V
Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti/The Living Dead at The Manchester Morgue/Zombi 3/Don’t Open the Window
Cause of Outbreak: Experimental pesticide machine.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is the result of Italian and Spanish studios working with the UK. All countries have strong traditions in horror which bleed together to create this film. Creepy and atmospheric, but ultimately a lesser zombie film. Much like many European horror films of the 1970s, it was continually edited and re-released under different titles to satisfy international markets. Despite the fact that it was filmed five years previous to Zombi 2, which is a film unrelated to Zombi (Dawn of the Dead), it was re-released as “Zombi 3″ in Italy.
Cause of Outbreak: Unspecified, possibly the same satellite from Night of the Living Dead.
Romero’s stunning sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Dawn of the Dead pushed the boundaries of acceptable violence to a point past the MPAA rating system. Instead of an X rating, which they feared people would assume meant pornography, they opted to not have their film rated. Instead it carried this disclaimer: “There is no explicit sex in this picture. However, there are scenes of violence that may be considered shocking. No one under 17 will be admitted.” Yet, Dawn of the Dead is not the relentless terror that the previous film was. Thankfully, distributors carried the film anyway. It’s a good thing they did, because zombie films were forever changed after this masterpiece. It’s hard to look at anything zombie related without drawing a comparison (see: every episode of the walking dead). Yet, It is a slow, plodding film which is more about the psychological terror of living in a mall, than the zombies around. In one scene a character asks why the zombies would return to the mall. (Subtext: we are the zombies, consumerism is the plague) No one ever said Romero’s symbolism wasn’t heavy handed.
Cause of Outbreak: A strange tropical disease originating on the island of Matool.
Towards the end of the 1960s, the Italians started making a series of hyper-violent horror films that are extreme even by the standards of today. Director Lucio Fulci hoped to capitalize on the success of Dawn of the Dead, which was released as “Zombi” in Italy. But, Zombi 2, despite being totally unrelated to Zombi was not without its own merits. The movie is remembered for particularly excruciating scenes of gore (large wooden splinter in the eye, zombie shark fight). The film ends with zombies shambling over the Brooklyn bridge, an ominous and effective ending. It’s not for the faint of heart.
City of the Living Dead (1980) H
Paura nella città dei morti viventi
Cause of Outbreak: The suicide of a priest opens the gates of hell.
Another Fulci film, while not quite as good as Zombi 2, was another intensely violent spectacle. The director of a film mentioned later on this list, Michele Soavi, has a small acting role. Like many of the Italian horror films on this list, City of the Living Dead contains some gruesome effects that were achieved by regurgitating tripe.
Dead and Buried (1981) V H
Cause of Outbreak: Secret technique to reanimate the dead.
The screenwriter of Alien, Dan O’Bannon, co-wrote this film. (Although he claims he didn’t?) While not a perfect film, it features a memorable scene involving a hypodermic needle. The film’s effects were done by the famous Stan Winston whose resume includes Aliens, Iron Man, and the Terminator series to name a few. Dead and Buried plays more like a mystery than it does a horror film. All the elements that make a zombie movie (gore, shock, zombies) are infrequent. But when they arrive, you know it. Watch out for Robert Englund as Harry. Englund’s role in horror would be established three years later when he played Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Cause of Outbreak: Unspecified, possibly the same satellite from Night of the Living Dead.
The third Romero film in the series, and again a vehicle for loosely veiled criticisms of the times. The film continually plays authority figures in the military against the benevolent scientists. While sometimes it feels more like a dire warning against Reaganism than a zombie film, it’s still damn good. It also features Bub, a zombie who is almost domesticated and the audience almost feels sorry for.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Cause of Outbreak: A gas hidden by the government at a medical supply warehouse is accidentally released.
During the 1980s, Horror comedies were king. American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, From Beyond, many of the great horror films of this time had at least some humor. The list is exhaustive. My personal theory: everything about the 70s was gritty and dark. Times were good, The Gipper was in charge, people were sick of horror. Return of the Living Dead is no exception. Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter of Alien and Dead and Buried) wrote another vehicle which attempted to profit on the success of Romero’s series. Within the film they claim that the events of Night of the Living Dead were real and covered up by the government. While it’s cheesy, and decidedly 80s, and makes a mockery of punk culture…there’s something fun about it. Plus, the Tarman zombie is one of the absolute best.
Cause of Outbreak: Science.
Another horror comedy! Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator is based on H.P. Lovecraft’s novella (Herbert West-Reanimator) which was in itself a loving spoof of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Re-Animator is not your traditional Zombie film, but it is certainly in the vein of other 80′s horror comedies. Herbert West is a snivelling genius who finds ways to bring corpses back to life. Lots of humor and gore as well as a sizable cult following. This isn’t the only film on the list to feature zombie-human sex scenes, this one just happens to be the most unappealing.
Braindead (1992) H
Cause of Outbreak: Bite from a Sumatran Rat Monkey.
Does the name Peter Jackson mean anything to you? Before the visionary Kiwi was making movies about hobbits, he made some of the absolute weirdest movies ever. Seeing any of them (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, or Forgotten Silver) makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy that much more astounding. Braindead falls into a very specific subgenre of films called “Splatterstick.” Take slapstick comedy and mix it with an unconscionable amount of gore and you’ve got yourself splatterstick. The best example is Evil Dead 2, a fine film and an essential watch for any horror fan. Braindead takes the idea of gross to a whole new level. As one character’s mother slowly turns into a zombie as a result of a the bite from a Sumatran Rat Monkey, she squirts pus into the custard of another character. I think you can guess what happens next.
Cause of Outbreak: Unspecified, although main character is unsure whether it happens in every cemetery or just his own.
Take a director who has been around Italian horror films his whole life, who has worked with the visionary directors Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam, and give him free reign. The result: this film. Firmly rooted in the Giallo traditions of horror and eroticism of 1970s Italian films, Cemetery Man is undeniably strange. Perhaps the most existential zombie film ever made, it features Rupert Everett as a cemetery caretaker whom the town is convinced is a eunuch. He falls in love with a widow who continually dies and is resurrected in various incarnations. It has the look of a Tim Burton film and the feel of Taxi Driver. It’s tagline: Zombies, guns, and sex. OH MY! It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s, above all else, weird.