A Brief History of Zombies in Film [Part Two]
Say it with me now, zombie fans: More brains! Yep, I’m back again, living dead fans, with more zombie goodness. Last time out, we took a look at some of the best (and worst) of the moldy oldies of zombie cinema, plus the man synonymous with the modern-day zombie as we know it, George A. Romero. If you missed it, you can find that article here.
This time out, we’re going to move into the heyday of zombie flicks, the 80’s, with equal time devoted to homegrown American zombies and foreign imports. (Don’t forget to click on the links, since, as before, they lead to some more info on the dead at hand- including, in some cases, links to the entire films!)
Without further ado, let’s get this shambling show on the road…
It was only natural that zombies would migrate back overseas- after all, the zombie myth originated in places like Haiti. However, few tackled zombies with the relish of the Italians. In addition to giallo-master Dario Argento, who worked with the big man himself, George A. Romero, on “Dawn of the Dead,” the most notorious by far is Lucio Fulci. Fulci helmed the excellent, epic “Zombie” in 1979, which was sold as a sequel to “Dawn” in Italy, where it was titled “Zombi 2,” and ultimately spawned at least three sequels and countless knock-offs.
The film is best known for the sequence in which zombies invade New York (shot on location) and the notorious zombie vs. shark face-off, and those aren’t even the best parts. The gore-fest was a massive worldwide hit that revived Fulci’s career as a horror guru, leading to more zombie-related mayhem in “House by the Cemetery,” “Gates of Hell” (aka “City of the Living Dead”) and “The Beyond,” a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s, who arranged for a re-release a few years back.
Other Italian flicks to get in on the zombified action include “Zombie Holocaust” (aka “Dr. Butcher M.D.”) also with “Zombie”-star Ian McCulloch; “Nightmare City” (aka “City of the Walking Dead”) with Hugo Stiglitz, another name that should ring bells with QT fans; “Hell of the Living Dead” (aka “Virus”), which even steals some of Goblin’s much-beloved “Dawn” score (!); and the colorfully-titled “Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror” and “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.”
Many of those films were co-produced along with Spain, who, not to be outdone, forged a zombie series of their own, the so-called “Blind Dead” franchise, which spawned four films, beginning with 1971’s “Tombs of the Blind Dead.” Other famed Spanish zombie flicks include 1972’s “Terror of the Living Dead” (aka “The Orgy of the Dead”) and 1973’s “Vengeance of the Zombies,” both with the legendary cult actor/director Paul Naschy; and “Horror Express,” co-produced with the British and featuring the likes of horror legends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and a unique “zombie on a train” hook.
The French also jumped on the bandwagon with a series of films from erotic horror auteur Jean Rollin, best-known for his vampire lesbian flicks. He took a stab at the genre on any number of occasions; beginning with a co-directing dream sequence bit tacked on to the aptly-titled “A Virgin among the Living Dead.” He followed that up with his first full-length film with a zombie theme, “The Demoniacs,” the oddly-titled “The Grapes of Death” (which some consider his best, period), “Zombie Lake” (which most consider his worst- so bad that Rollin put it out under a fake name); and the excellent “The Living Dead Girl,” a source of inspiration for musician/writer/director Rob Zombie, who did a song by the same name. That last one also features a romantic angle which can be seen as a direct antecedent of the recent “Warm Bodies,” albeit played much straighter, and, um, French.
Zombies in the 80s
The 80s brought about some of the most beloved zombie films of all time. Arguably the best of the bunch is the classic “Evil Dead,” from 1981. The film was the debut feature from the director who would go on to helm the first series of “Spiderman” films, cult favorite Sam Raimi. The first in the series is bloody, gory, intense fun that still packs a punch today and features some of the most visually interesting direction in horror that you will ever see…if you can see through the virtual waterfalls of blood he sends your way, that is- in this flick, the blood literally covers the screen. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Raimi went back to the well two more times: once for the direct sequel, “Evil Dead 2,” which plays more like a remake with a bigger budget, different characters- save one of the most adored cult icons of horror history, Bruce Campbell, of course- and a healthy dose of slapstick humor. It could have gone horribly awry, but it works here, making it one of the Gold Standards of horror comedies.
That feel carries over into the third installment, “Army of Darkness,” which also functions as a homage to classic fantasy films of the 60s, in particular the films legendary stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen worked on, such as “Jason and the Argonauts.” Here, the horror is all but abandoned, but at least he didn’t simply offer up more of the same, to say the least.
A remake, produced by Raimi himself, will be out this year, so check out the originals first, just in case they screw it up. On the plus side, it does look good, astonishingly enough, and scary- doesn’t look like we’ll be getting a lot of slapstick in this one. But will it be humorless and grim, a la Rob Zombie’s “Halloween,” or will it be perversely funny, like our next series…?
Another cult classic, 1985’s “Return of the Living Dead” was written and directed by “Alien” scribe Dan O’Bannon, who cleverly used “Night of the Living Dead” as a launching point, positing his film as the unvarnished “truth” of what really happened back in the 60’s. As with the latter “Evil Dead” flicks, this one has a great sense of humor and arguably the best non-score horror soundtrack you’ll ever hear, including tracks from the likes of the Cramps, Roky Erickson, and The Damned.
As you might have guessed from that line-up of bands, the plot is basically punk rockers vs. the living dead, which is every bit as awesome as it sounds. The script is imminently quotable and the visuals are pretty spectacular, with what may be the ultimate ending in zombie movie history. You can’t go wrong with this one.
However, you might want to skip the direct sequel, which attempts the same thing as “Evil Dead 2,” in that it’s basically a remake of the first one, but here the humor falls flat and nothing quite works. There have been five in the series to date, in fact, but the only one really worth seeing is the supremely underrated third installment, which features “Spawn” and “Nikita”-star Melinda Clarke in an early role.
It’s surprisingly touching, as we see a couple go through the zombie paces, with Clarke infected and slowly going zombie on her boyfriend, with only him left to help her stay in touch with her humanity and to stop with the brain munching. It’s pretty clearly a direct influence on the aforementioned “Warm Bodies.” Be sure and get the unrated version, if you can; as, despite the romantic angle, it doesn’t skimp on the gore and mercifully plays things straight.
Some of the other notable 80’s zombie flicks also include: 1985’s “Re-Animator,” a Lovecraftian tale of horror and dark humor that you might recall Kevin Spacey going on about in “American Beauty” and which inspired two more sequels to date; the underrated “One Dark Night,” which is really about telekinesis (a la “Scanners”) but features a memorable zombie finale; John Carpenter’s lesser-known “Prince of Darkness,” which features a zombie Alice Cooper (!); the adaption of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary,” which features yet another zombie cat, plus a creepy-cute zombie kid for good measure; and one of the best films on this list, Wes Craven’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which comes close to being the most grounded-in-reality of the bunch, as it is based on a non-fiction book about a botanist who went in search of the real truth about zombies and got a little more than he bargained for.
Thanks to the success of the more comedy-driven stuff, zombedies abounded, including the excellent cult fave, “Night of the Creeps,” which includes aliens and serial killers for good measure; “Night of the Comet,” in which Valley Girls battle the undead in between post-apocalyptic shopping sprees; the completely mental “Surf 2,” which almost defies description, stars Eric Stoltz and is well-worth a look if you can find it (note: there is no “Surf 1”- that would be a joke); the underrated “Dead Heat,” a zombie-action hybrid with the unlikely team of Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo and featuring lots of cult faves in supporting roles/cameos; the black comedy “Zombie High,” with Virginia Madsen and Sherilyn Fenn, which is sort of like “Heathers”-meets-zombies; and “The Video Dead,” which, along with the wretched “Redneck Zombies” (not as great as that sounds by a country mile, aside from the hilarious theme song, which you can find here), was the first shot-on-video, direct-to -video zombie opus, and set the stage for much more of the same to come.
Well, that about does it for this installment. Be sure to join me for the third and final installment of zombiepalooza, which will take us into the dark ages of the 90’s and beyond!