A Brief History of Zombies in Film [Part Three]
Welcome back, my undead brethren, to the third and final installment of my epic look at zombie cinema. We tackled the early days of the undead and zombie king George A. Romero in part one, which you can find here; and the heyday of zombie flicks, the 80’s, along with foreign imports, in part two, which you can find here. Now it’s time to bring us up to speed to the 90’s and beyond. Let’s get this dead man’s party started!
Smells like Zombie Spirit
The 90s were not kind to zombie kind, with only a few movies worth your time. Not unlike Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, of “Lord of the Rings”-fame, cut his teeth on low-budget horror flicks, arguably the best of which is “Braindead” (aka “Dead/Alive”), though “Meet the Feebles” is something to see, as it revolves around trashy moppets. This zombie film is one for the ages. Shot in his stomping grounds of New Zealand, this one also combines humor and horror and was a primary influence on the later “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s incredibly gory and would be almost unbearable in its uncut form if it weren’t so silly- it’s as if Monty Python made a zombie movie. Also, bonus points for what I’m pretty sure is the first zombie baby, as well as the most kick-ass priest you’ll ever see.
In a similar vein, but less slapstick than that film is the Italian “Cemetery Man,” which is a much better take on the same source material used for the more recent “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night.” (For you nitpickers, the film was actually co-produced with France and Germany, but this reads more Italian than anything else, trust me.) Starring Rupert Everett, better-known for his comedies in the States (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), the black comedy is about a caretaker of a- you guessed it- cemetery, who falls in love with a newly-minted widow. Things go downhill from there, with her undead ex coming back to avenge his “cheating” wife. Eventually, chaos erupts as other zombies join in on the fun and gore flies fast and furious in the way only Italians can do.
Also in the ballpark of “Braindead” is the Hong Kong effort “Biozombie,” which is a lot of fun in the way only Asian horror flicks of a certain bent can be. In fact, this one sort of paved the way for the over-the-top antics of stuff like “Tokyo Gore Police” and “The Machine Girl,” in which the horror elements are so over-the-top as to seem cartoonish. That’s meant as a compliment.
Most of the rest of 90s-era zombie flicks in America were of the same bent, which is to say, played for laughs, including: “Ed and his Dead Mother,” with cult fave Steve Buscemi; “My Boyfriend’s Back,” which features a number of well-known actors in their debut roles, including Matthew Fox and Matthew McConaughey; and the loopy Troma effort “Chopper Chicks in Zombietown,” which, as you might have guessed, is a motorcycle gang-meets-the-undead themed flick, a la Tom Savini’s gang in the original “Dawn of the Dead,” only sillier, with Billy Bob Thornton in a small role.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the unique “I, Zombie,” which was financed by the legendary horror magazine Fangoria and features the novel concept of the film being told from the point-of-view of someone as they are in the process of becoming a zombie. It’s a pretty neat take, and arguably the best straight-forward, non-comedic offering of the 90s.
Things did not improve at first in the 2000s, with only “The Dead Hate the Living!” and Asians keeping the dead light burning with “Stacy,” “Versus,” and “Wild Zero,” all of which are well-worth a look- especially “Versus.” In 2002, it was revealed where the zombies had migrated: videogames. That year marked the first adaption of the wildly-popular game, “Resident Evil,” a series which has spawned four theatrical sequels to date, plus direct-to-video animated projects to boot.
As with the second “Alien” film, this series took the subgenre in a more action-oriented direction, and featured the most prominent female action heroine of zombie-dom, Milla Jovovich, in the part that has easily defined her career. The films aren’t remotely scary, but they’re fun and added some unique spins on the subgenre, including zombie attack dogs, and the gamer-inspired concept of the main character (and eventually others in the series) having multiple “lives.”
However, what really got the ball rolling on zombie 2.0 was 2004’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” It’s no mean feat to take a film that beloved and remake it without ticking off the purists, but damned if director Zack Snyder didn’t do just that, with a little help from Troma-vet James Gunn, whose excellent script lined the film with clever touches for die-hard fans. (Gunn would go on to do his own spin on the subgenre with the “Night of the Creeps”/”Shivers” -tribute “Slither.”) The film also popularized- for some, anyway- the notion of quick-moving zombies and featured fun cameos from much of the original’s cast.
Many continued to play the subgenre for laughs, including “Undead” (Australia’s answer to “Braindead”); Troma’s insane musical/horror/comedy “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead”; the self-explanatory “Zombie Strippers” (which boasts porn star Jenna Jameson quoting Nietzsche!); the highly-enjoyable cult classic “Zombieland” (part two is in pre-production, with stars Emma Stone and Jesse Eisenberg returning); “Planet Terror,” which features a machine-gun-leg-sporting Rose McGowan and the likes of Bruce Willis & Quentin Tarantino, who also produced; plus “Dead & Breakfast,” “Dance of the Dead,” “Hide & Creep,” “Fido,” and the aforementioned British comedy “Shaun of the Dead.”
Still, there were a few who found there were still a few chills to be had yet, in terms of returning zombies back to being scary again. Some found some new wrinkles in the old genre, such as the “rage virus”-hook of “28 Days Later” and its sequel “28 Weeks Later,” which some argued weren’t technically zombie flicks, but are both well-worth seeing, with undeniable similarities to “The Walking Dead,” in particular. I also liked the found footage-approach of the Spanish “[Rec]” and its sequel, the former of which was remade in America as “Quarantine” (please note the “Quarantine” sequel is unrelated to the Spanish version, where the first is virtually a shot-for-shot remake- stick with the Spanish originals, which are available dubbed, & you’ll be much happier). Also in the same wheelhouse of both of these is the underappreciated “Mulberry Street.”
The intriguing “Pontypool” adopts a “War of the Worlds”-radio broadcast approach that is pretty enjoyable and functions more like a psychological thriller. “Deadgirl” brings a decidedly original, unsettling take to the table, involving…gulp…zombie sex! (Not for the faint of heart, that one.) The Brits took their own stab at the “I, Zombie” approach with “Colin,” another tale told from the zombie’s POV.
By this point, even a teenage girl threw her hat into the ring with “Pathogen,” which inspired the enjoyable documentary “Zombie Girl,” about the then-twelve going-on thirteen Emily Hagins and her efforts to get the film made at an age many girls are still playing with Barbies. (She remains one of the youngest people ever to make a feature-length film.) Speaking of creepy kids, “Wicked Little Things” features quite a few and “Boy Eats Girl” treads similar ground to the aforementioned “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
No doubt about it, zombies are clearly the new vampires, and it’s only a matter of time before the market is overtly flooded with zombie-themed product, though a gander at the selection on the likes of Netflix and Redbox shows that that point is rapidly approaching. I suspect zombie-mania will be on the wane before too much longer, so get in while it’s still fashionable, because it’s only a matter of time before things take a turn for the silly again- not that there’s anything wrong with that. (I wouldn’t say no to “Shaun of the Dead 2.”)