She heard them before she saw them. Feet shuffling over dead leaves, scraping along with deliberate but slow movements. Their moans were death-rattles, hoarse and mournful as they cried for meat. Cried for her. She didn’t turn to run until she saw their shambling silhouettes in the mist, emerging from the darkness like tormented souls that had finally been released from hell.
What is a zombie? Haitian folklore dictates that a zombie is an animated corpse raised from the dead by magic. That’s fair enough, I think. For a great many decades, certainly since William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (a book I still need to track down), zombies have been linked with Haiti, and the religion of Vodou (otherwise known as voodoo). Seabrook’s apparently real account of the undead described them as slaves, raised up from their slumber to work the farms and dangerous or heavy machinery. It’s certainly a creepy idea, and there has been much speculation about whether or not they actually exist, or existed, at all.
In 1968, however, a young filmmaker known as George A. Romero took the notion of the ‘zombie’, and turned it into something much more disturbing, linked closer to science and disease rather than black magic. Night of the Living Dead reinvented the concept of the undead, creating a set of ‘rules’ that most areas of zombie fiction still stick with to this day. In Night… it is suggested that the walking dead are the children of some sort of disease, or perhaps a satellite from outer space contaminated with suspicious fungus. If you get bitten by one, unless you’re willing to lose a limb, you’re doomed. And if you want to kill a zombie, the undead hordes can only be dispatched by a shot to the head. You know these rules. They’re in everything from Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, to The Walking Dead, and even Shaun of the Dead. Romero did it first. He gave us ‘the modern zombie’.
For me, zombies (or the undead, or walkers, whichever you prefer) are the scariest of fictional creatures. They’re the only monsters that give me nightmares, and the only ones really that still have the power to chill my bones. I don’t know what it is about them. It might be the ‘one bite and you’re out’ rule, or the fact that they are so like us, and yet completely not us. Or it could be the fact that, while we are hardly ever given a reason for the initial outbreak in any of the films or TV shows, it’s heavily implied that science is the cause. Not magic, not the wrath of Satan. Something real, something that resonates with us. We see it on the news all the time, various diseases wiping out huge amounts of people after springing out of nowhere. Unlikely as it may be, it could happen.
Now, I’m not even going to pretend that I’m some sort of Zombie Oracle. I haven’t seen every zombie-related film or television series, or read every single zombie novel. I probably haven’t even scratched the surface! But I know what I like, and I thought I’d compile a guide to the very best pieces of zombie fiction I have encountered so far, in case there is something you might have missed. I was inspired partly by a conversation I had with somebody a few weeks back. She was telling me that Dawn of the Dead was her favourite zombie film. I asked her if she meant the original or the remake. Her reply was, “Oh, the original one. The one where they all run!”. There are evidently people out there who need this.
I was going to do one great, big huge post. But to save my sanity, and yours, I’ve decided to break the idea up into separate posts. This one looks at original movies, but in later posts I’ll be tackling remakes, comedies, TV shows, books, comics, games, and music!
The original Dead trilogy by George A. Romero remains the most iconic. Not only did they reinvent a supernatural entity and give it fresh and disturbing edge, they were also used as very witty satire, particularly Dawn of the Dead, which had a lot to say about consumerism. Of the three, Dawn is my favourite, a proper epic that combines horror and comedy to great effect, with a superb cast and top-notch effects. I suggest you watch the three of them back-to-back for the full experience, from the grisly ‘nobody gets out alive’ all-out horror of Night, through to the ‘base-under-siege’ claustrophobia of Day, which features Bub, the evolving zombie.
For those of you after something with a more traditional flavour, then White Zombie is essential. Made close to the silent-movie era, with creeping shadows and some glorious make-up work, this film casts Bela Lugosi as an evil voodoo master, slowly transforming a young lady into one of the undead. The zombies in this are not the flesh-eating kind, but essentially sleepwalking slaves. With their dead, staring eyes and emotionless, expressionless faces, these are the first cinematic zombies, and they work so well. The film is less scary, more chilling, and revels in the atmosphere it creates.
Somewhere between these two lies The Last Man on Earth, based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Starring Vincent Price, this 1964 film has a lot in common with Night of the Living Dead, and many have suggested that it may have been a huge influence on Romero. The monsters in this are intriguing. Shambling about like zombies, but repelled by light and garlic like vampires, the creatures also have a basic memory of who they once were, and can even talk. The movie is very low budget, and it drags in places, but there are some supremely chilling moments that still have an impact today. It’s not anywhere near as polished or as successful as Night, but it is an excellent watch in its own right, and Price is as sublime as ever!
Pontypool is a very interesting idea. Claustrophobic, and massively unpredictable, it takes the core idea of the zombie and pushes it into a completely fresh new area. I won’t spoil it for you, but this one is set in a radio studio, and word-play has a very large part in the proceedings. It’s an edgy watch, and while it might put off a few traditionalists, I think it is brilliant!
Another pair of films worthy of mention are Hammer’s Plague of Zombies, and The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Plague harks back to the voodoo styling’s of White Zombie, but adds lashings of gore and some genuinely disturbing effects to make the undead look suitably nasty. …Manchester Morgue is great fun, and has some wonderfully creepy moments. It’s let down a bit by it’s portrayal of the zombies, who seem to appear and disappear at will, but the scenery is beautiful (and fairly local) and the cast is very impressive!
I will also recommend Zombie, the unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead, as well as Romero’s Diary and Land of the Dead. Neither film captures the brilliance of his earlier years, but they are both worthy of a watch, with some great set-pieces in each. One film I will not be watching any time soon is World War Z. Zombies doing backflips? Oh please!
And there you have it! What other zombie films can you recommend? In my next post, I’ll be tackling remakes, as well as giving you the ultimate zombie-slaying playlist!