Having just re-watched the underrated Land of the Dead (2005) I thought it would be a good time to take another look at the genre in particular what makes a zombie movie.
Early zombie movies concentrated on zombie masters and voodoo rituals: In White Zombie (1932): Béla (Dracula) Lugosi plays a Voodoo master who is employed by plantation owner Charles Beaumont in order to lure the woman he loves Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) away from her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron). Lugosi’s character known only as ‘Murder’ turns Madeleine into a zombie using magic and the power of his mind. Things never go to plan when you employ an evil Voodoo master and it soon transpires he has his own plans for Madeleine. I walked with a Zombie (1943): Director Jacques Tourneur is probably best know for the brilliant original version of Cat People from 1942, he followed it up a year later with I walked with a Zombie an eerie and atmospheric mystery thriller that is dreamlike and often poetic in its approach to the genre. It is the story of a Canadian nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) who is sent to a small West Indian island to tend for a young comatose woman. She soon uncovers the voodoo that is practiced on the island.
Those who have a narrow idea of what constitutes a zombie tend to forget that the now accepted idea of flesh eating walking dead was actually invented by George A Romero in Night Of The Living Dead (1968): Zombie movies had died off (terrible pun intended!) until George A Romero reinvented, revolutionized and reanimated (the bad puns just keep coming, sorry) the genre. Romero’s ultra low budget movie is about a widespread outbreak of flesh eating zombies. The reason the film works so well is that it is more claustrophobic and personal; it does this by concentrating on a small group of survivors. Using TV and radio broadcasts to show what is going on away from their personal struggle it is as if we are one on them, only seeing what they see of the outside world. But the film is far more important than that because it set the rules for the modern zombie. They are literally the walking dead, they have little brain activity and “live” on instinct, their only aim to feed in turn creating more of their number as the victims die and are reanimated as zombies. The un-dead are slow moving and shuffle along making it seemingly easy to escape an aspect of their character that has caused much derision more recently. The film was in its day considered to contain graphic violence; this manifests itself more as gore than actual violence, something that found its way into other horror sub genres in the subsequent twenty years. Moving on from the Vietnam references of the first film the second and best of Romero’s ‘Dead’ series Dawn Of The Dead (1978) is at times a satire about consumerism making full use of its shopping mall setting. The movie follows all the same rules as the first film including one that seems to exist to this day, the best was to destroy a zombie is severe trauma to the head. Whether it be a cricket bat (Shaun of the Dead) or a bullet (most modern zombie movies). The idea of shutting oneself away from the problems of the outside world has relevance outside the plot as do so many of the other themes explored like race, greed and selfishness. Some of the themes explored in each of the five films in the series so far have direct correlations to the time they were made. This second film made in the late 70’s has more of a sense of hope and optimism than the first and most recent of the series.
The new bread of zombie are created by a man made virus the zombies are fast angry and violent, the best example of this is probably 28 Days Later (2002): The new zombies are compelled as much by rage as any need to feed. Directed my Danny Boyle and written by author Alex Garland in Their second collaboration. It was garlands first story written directly for the screen and is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that has that combines action, horror, drama and thriller but retains the personal story of the Romero films. It spawned the inferior but not bad sequel 28 Weeks Later and a third film, the imaginatively titled 28 Months later is rumoured to be in the early stages of development. Will there be a 28 Years later? The photography is notably different to a Hollywood film giving it a real feel of something that little bit different. Scenes of a deserted London are haunting and brilliantly executed. Resident Evil (2002) was made and released around the same time as 28 Days later. Resident Evil is based on the popular video game series of the same name. The film has been dismissed as similar to other video game spin-offs like Tomb Rader, although not as good as the other films I have mentioned it still as some merit within the genre. Playing out as more of an action film it follows one main character throughout, Alice (Milla Jovovich) in the way that a computer game does. Using Amnesia as a plot device an element of mystery is included. The cleverest thing about the film is that the narrative is a collection of set pieces that end abruptly and move on to the next when a goal is achieved, much like in a video game. The zombies are similar in to those in 28 Days later, they where created by a man made virus and exhibit more strength and speed than seen in traditional zombie films, an element essential for the action. The film has had three sequels Apocalypse and Extinction and Afterlife, Resident Evil: Retribution is set for release next year.
The Spanish horror film [•REC] (2007) uses the increasingly popular found footage idea. REC follows a television reporter, Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman, Pablo (Pablo Rosso) who are shadowing a Barcelona fire crew, they get trapped inside a building of infected people following what appeared to be a routine callout. Making full use of the filming technique the movie is full of both the gore and the scares a horror movie needs. The cause of the outbreak seems to have a foot in two camps, the zombies are clearly the result of an infection but the latter stages of the film introduces a religious element as we discover the owner of one of the apartments was an agent of the Vatican who was researching the virus responsible for demonic possession. Putting all this aside, for me it is the best zombie movie since Dawn Of The Dead.
These movies represent three or possibly four different types of zombie movie, for a completely different spin on the genre take a look at director Ryuhei Kitamura’s seminal Japanese action/horror film Versus (2000). For zombies that can run but are otherwise follow the Romero rules see the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. There has been much debate around The Evil Dead trilogy (1981, 1987, 1992) and if the demonic possession in these movies constitutes zombies, whether they are zombie movies or not is irrelevant they are just great movies. Comedy horror is a notoriously difficult combination to pull of, there are two zombie comedies that do it perfectly: Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009). The main reason they work is simple, they stick to the basic ideas (rules for want of a better word) of the genre, this and they are perfectly cast and painfully funny. One final film to look out for Night of the Comet (1984). This is an 80’s teen/horror/comedy that works well as a parody of the cheesier side of low budget horror. It doesn’t have anything new or original to say and won’t change the world but it is good fun.
So where do you stand on the zombie debate; what are you favourite zombie movies, do you like your zombies fast or slow and are the infected zombies?
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