With the UK release of World War Z imminent, and the US Encyclopedia of the Zombie forthcoming (that I’ve written some essays for, namely on Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies and the Phantasm series of films), I’ve been on a bit of a zombie movie re-watch recently. The zombie has always been a part of horror movie history, first as a staple of Hollywood ‘B’ pictures, then touched on briefly by Hammer, before George Romero popularised the concept of the flesh-eating ghoul where you didn’t need voodoo to get you up and about again – all you had to do was be dead in the first place.
For those interested in tracing the history of the zombie in horror I’d suggest you start with Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi. It’s a film that’s been in the public domain for years, and as a result many of the VHS and DVD releases have been scratchy, sub-par, and in many cases unwatchable. If you are able, I’d very much recommend watching Kino’s region A blu-ray release which has tidied up a lot of the print damage, and while the image has been softened a bit it’s really the best way to see this film. It’s just over an hour long, set in the Caribbean (as these movies tended to be) and despite being very much a low-budget picture, some of the shots and sets are still quite breathtaking.
After that, your next stop should be Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943). There aren’t many actual zombies in this one, and again we’re in the Caribbean, but if you want a dose of mature, atmospheric, black and white horror aimed at adults you should do yourself a favour and get hold of this one.
Hammer tackled the subject of zombies once, and very memorably so, transplanting the traditional setting to Cornwall and having John Carson as the evil upper class squire subjecting the working classes to the ultimate in exploitation in John Gilling’s 1966 Plague of the Zombies. It’s just been re-released by Studio Canal and their double disc DVD and blu-ray set is a joy to behold, with a beautiful print and some nice extras, including their regular and welcome habit of having David Huckvale at the piano examining the music.
Movie zombies as they are thought of today first surfaced in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1969). Shot in black and white when most movies were being made in colour, but having a more contemporary feel than any zombie movie that had preceded it, Romero’s movie has quite rightly been lauded as a timeless classic. Another victim of numerous public domain editions and seriously messed around with by people who have wanted to colourise it, add new footage, change the music and, of course, remake it (several times) you’re best off with the original.
From Pittsburgh to Portugal, which was the location of the next zombie picture you should have on your list. Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) is a personal favourite of mine. Maybe it’s the concept of blind Templar knights who can only detect your movements by sound, maybe it’s that weird music and those gorgeous rotting locations, but probably it’s all that and so much more. The films were so successful De Ossorio made another three of them. They’re all worth a look but the real highlight is the last, Night of the Seagulls (1975), which manages to successfully combine the Templars with a delicious sense of Lovecraftian seaside strangeness.
While de Ossorio was busy polishing off his Blind Dead series, Spanish filmmaker Jorge Grau had been sent to England with instructions to make a film like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but in colour. He and his cast and crew ended up in the Lake District, and the result was The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974), another personal favourite and one which exhibits that very strange and disorientated feel European horror filmmakers were able to lend to the English landscape, Jose Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) being another example.
Having shuffled along consistently for over forty years, the zombie movie was shortly to become more popular than ever, and achieve what many mistakenly believed would be saturation point, with the release of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and it’s subsequent imitations. I’ll be honest here and say that out of all the films I’ve mentioned so far, Dawn of the Dead was the only one I found disappointing on initial viewing, mainly because of the slow pacing. It’s probably a very heathen thing to say but I felt like this for many years, even with repeated viewings. In fact I only truly enjoyed Romero’s zombie sequel when I happened across the European edit on Arrow’s four-disc DVD set. Titled Zombi. this was the version collaborator and co-producer Dario Argento was allowed final edit on. If you haven’t seen it I suggest you give it a go, even if you’re a seasoned Dawn of the Dead fan. Zombi is edited more tightly, some of the scenes have been moved around and finally, and most important of all, there’s a lot more use made of the score Italian rock band Goblin composed for the film. So now I like Dawn of the Dead too. But as Zombi, if you see what I mean.
The success of Zombi meant the totally unrelated production of Zombi 2 (1979), or Zombie Flesh Eaters as it’s better known in the UK. Directed by Lucio Fulci, and such a massive success that it was apparently the saviour of the Italian film industry at the time, it’s probably the only film that effectively melds the old-style Hollywood zombie with the new. The zombie plague starts off on the Caribbean island of Matoul and despite everyone’s best effort the zombies have soon entered the building, are at the door, are coming in, etc etc in downtown New York. Fulci’s quartet of zombie movies made between 1979 and 1981 are all worth watching, for their nightmarish style but also because of the creative ways in which the concept of the zombie is used and developed. Rather than just ‘do another apocalypse’ in City of the Living Dead (1980) the zombies are a symptom of the Gates of Hell (the movie’s US title) having been opened. In The Beyond (1981) zombies are part of the general nightmare distortion of reality that ends the film, and in House by the Cemetery (1981) the zombie is mad surgeon Dr Freudstein who, while still a shambling ghoul, at least has the wherewithal to continue his research, even if it does result in cutting Ania Pieroni’s head off.
Romero was back in 1985 with Day of the Dead, arguably the best of his zombie pictures and certainly my personal favourite. Pushing the zombie menace into the background Romero instead concentrates on the living, with some nice touches about zombie brain stem research from mad scientist Richard Liberty. At the same time came Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, another alternate timeline sequel to the Romero original which came about because both he and screenwriter John Russo held rights to the property. The first successful zombie comedy, O’Bannon’s film manages to do the sequel thing, take the story in a different direction, and manage to be funny and scary all at once. O’Bannon passed away fairly recently and it’s a great shame he wasn’t given more opportunities like this one.
Right – that should give you more than enough to be getting on with, and we still have nearly thirty years to look at yet, so maybe another time. For now I’ll say that I would heartily recommend all the above. Needless to say that while those are the absolute pinnacle of their subgenre, there are plenty of examples that aren’t. I’ve spared you movies like King of the Zombies (1941) with Henry Victor, Sidney J Furie’s Dr Blood’s Coffin (1961) Jess Franco’s Mansion of the Living Dead (1982), Paul Naschy in Vengeance of the Zombies(1972), Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City/City of the Walking Dead (1980) and, of course Bruno Mattei’s excruciating Zombie Creeping Flesh/Night of the Zombies/Inferno of the Living Dead/Virus (1980). There are a lot more where that came from and if I’m feeling especially cruel they may get a column to themselves at some time as well, with a government health warning, of course. In the meantime, I’m off to watch World War Z, and then perhaps have a spot of lunch.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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