A Brief History of Zombies in Film [Part One]
Much like the living dead themselves, you can’t keep a good zombie down. With “Warm Bodies” cleaning up at the box office, and this month’s much-anticipated return of “The Walking Dead,” those shambling creatures we love to loathe are back in a big way. It’s likely getting worse before it gets any better, with the success of those projects and the sure-to-be-huge Brad Pitt zombpocalypse epic “World War Z” coming up this summer, not to mention a reboot of “Evil Dead,” Sam Raimi‘s classic 80s gore-fest. I thought it was time to take a loving look back to the good old zombie days of yore, with a brief history of zombies in film. Be sure & check out some of the links if you’re interested.in some cases, they lead to links to the entire films!
Though some cite 1920’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” as being the first cinematic depiction of zombies, that is debatable. For one thing, the antagonist is hypnotized and sleepwalking- not a mindless, flesh-eating monster back from the grave. So, I’m going with 1932’s “White Zombie,” instead. It’s right there in the title, after all, a title which also gave the famed metal band their name. It seems fitting as well that the film features none other than Bela Lugosi, who is also the titular star of 1931’s “Dracula,” which first popularized vampires in the States. It also was the first zombie flick to be franchised, spawning a sequel, 1936’s “Revolt of the Zombies.”
Zombies also became used to comedic effect earlier than you think, as well. 1941’s “King of the Zombies” and the follow-up, 1943’s “Revenge of the Zombies” which features John Carradine as a mad scientist looking to create zombies for the Nazis! (See also 1977’s “Shock Waves” & 2009’s “Dead Snow” for more Nazi zombie mayhem.)
Zombies even hit Broadway early on, in 1945’s aptly-titled “Zombies on Broadway.” The legendary Ed Wood threw his hat into the ring in 1959, with the unintentionally hilarious “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” in which aliens raise the dead. Teens got into the act that same year, with “Teenage Zombies.”
My personal fave of this early period was undeniably 1943’s “I Walked with a Zombie,” from director Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”) and legendary producer Val Lewton, who is noted for his atmospheric, spooky horror films. This one is no exception, with wonderful cinematography from J. Roy Hunt. Amusingly enough, the story was based on Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” which makes it a good pick if you’re trying to impress a date.
The Groovy Ghoulies
The 60’s are where the zombies were happening, man. It’s where the ball really got rolling in earnest, particularly with a certain filmmaker who is so zombie-centric he warranted his own category. Before that, though, there were some of the wackier zombie-themed flicks out there, including my all-time favorite movie title, 1964’s “The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?” which, if you were thinking can’t possibly live up to that title, you’re thinking right. Ray Dennis Steckler, who may even be worse than Ed Wood, is the perpetrator of this crime against film and many others that are spectacularly bad- and, of course, well-worth seeing for precisely that reason. (1966’s superhero send-up and similarly wacky-titled “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo” is also worth a look.)
“TISCWSLABMUZ” (whew! even typing the acronym for that is exhausting!) was also billed as the first zombie-themed musical, which is mercifully, a bit of a stretch, but one met by that same year’s “The Horror of Party Beach,” in which, yes, zombies crash a beach. Look out, Frankie and Annette! The same director, Del Tenney, also did 1964’s “The Curse of the Living Corpse” and the superlatively-titled “I Eat Your Skin” the same year! (“Skin” is actually a big fave of Stephen King‘s and plays a bit like a cool “Twilight Zone” episode, while the former is kind of a proto-slasher movie.) The films often played as double or triple features, so zombies cleaned up for Tenney that year.
The worst of the bunch- and that’s saying something for most of these, is undeniably “Astro-Zombies,” from Ted V. Mikels, who also helmed the cult classics “The Doll Squad” (which inspired “Charlie’s Angels”), as well as another horror flick with the dead featured prominently, “The Corpse Grinders” – albeit as cat food (!), which, in turn, brings about.wait for it.zombie cats! (Fair warning: the budget is miniscule, even by low-budget movie standards- we’re talking cardboard grinders, the whole nine.) I also can’t not mention another of my all-time favorite B-Movie titles he directed, 1972’s “Blood Orgy of the She-Devils,” which doesn’t live up to its title, either- but what a title! (Speaking of which, be sure and also check out “Porky’s”-director Bob Clark‘s genuinely spooky hippie-zombie flick, “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.”)
Sh*t Gets Real
It wasn’t all love beads and weed back in the 60s. A direct inspiration for the impending zombie classic that defined the genre as we now know it today (see my next category), 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth” is an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” which would later be remade as 1971’s “The Omega Man,” with Charlton Heston and 2007’s film of the same name with Will Smith. This version, featuring horror legend Vincent Price, is arguably still the best of the bunch, thanks to its claustrophobic set-up and atmospheric visuals, and it features many of the tropes of the genre that are still standard to this day.
I have a soft spot for Witchy Woman Barbara Steele, so I have to give a shout-out to 1965’s “Terror-Creatures from the Grave,” which is kind of like a Gothic zombie slasher movie, with folks being knocked off one by one. This Poe-inspired tale isn’t one of Steele’s best, but I’d watch her in anything.
I’m also a huge Hammer Horror fan, and their take on the subgenre, 1966’s “The Plague of the Zombies” is well-worth a look for the moody cinematography and impressive set design the studio was known for at the time. The imagery seen here was another big influence on later zombie films.
Also worth noting is 1968’s “Mad Doctor of Blood Island,” which is more in line with the exploitation films of the impending 70s, and features another favorite trope of zombie flicks: the tropical island setting. As you might have guessed from the title, this one also features a mad scientist creating the zombies in question.
The Real King of the Zombies
You can’t do a zombie-themed article without mentioning the master of the genre: George A. Romero. In 1968, Romero helmed what pretty much everyone would agree is the ne plus ultra of the subgenre, “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s all starts in earnest here. The creeping sense of dread- and the creeping, slowly-shambling zombie walk fans know and love. The secluded, isolated setting; juxtaposed with the effects of the zombie apocalypse on the rest of the area, including the efforts of the locals and the military. The loner hero that gets what’s going on and takes charge in short order. The arguments over control that ensue; the bickering, the panicked-freak-outs. And, yes, the epic reveal of the most-celebrated zombie kid this side of Penny, the Governor’s daughter in “The Walking Dead,” Karen, who famously kills her mother with a garden trowel and eats her- top that, Jim Morrison!
Romero followed that classic with an arguably even-better sequel, 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” which added theme of consumerism, with its prominent mall setting; plus, the effects of a military losing control over its own, making this sort of a post-Vietnam commentary as well. More sequels, of varying quality followed, including the poky-but-interesting “Day of the Dead” (gotta love Bub!) in 1985, “Land of the Dead,” featuring Dennis Hopper and horror royalty Asia Argento; 2008’s underrated found-footage style “Diary of the Dead,” and most recently, 2009’s “Survival of the Dead,” one of the lesser entries in the series, but which has its moments. Regardless of wildly varying quality, no one quite does the dead like Romero. If you don’t know your zombie history, take note: this is where you start.
Well, that about does it for the first part of my look at the undead history of zombies in cinema. Be sure to check out further installments in the future on this website, in which we’ll discuss Euro-zombies, the big zombie boom of the 80’s and the zombies of the new millennium!